A few weeks ago, I had a strange experience with a driver here in Nashville and it made me realize something about bullies.
He was driving a big white truck, and I was driving a much smaller Toyota Corolla. We were both circling the parking lot of the grocery store—looking for a place to park. It was a busy night, and I think most of us had been circling for awhile.
After several minutes, I came around a corner, saw that a spot had opened close to the front, so I started to pull into it.
This white truck (who had apparently been waiting for the spot as well) drove right toward me, laid on his horn, and slammed on his brakes only feet before he got to my passenger side door. I was shocked. I looked over at the man driving the truck, motioned my apologies, and backed out of the spot.
I continued to circle, until I found another spot, much further back.
I grabbed my things and began walking toward the entrance of the grocery store, when I passed by his truck—in that same spot—and was surprised to find he was still sitting inside. I looked toward him, with no ill intent honestly, just to figure out if what I was really seeing was true. He was just going to sit in that parking spot, idling.
When he saw I was looking, he looked back and me, glared, and then made a lewd gesture. My heart raced a little, and I hurried inside.
For some reason, I couldn’t get this guy off my mind.
In the grand scheme of things, the incident was small, but it didn’t feel small to me. In fact, for the next several days, I noticed myself feeling hesitant to 1) drive anywhere, 2) go to that grocery store, and 3) take any parking spot that would be considered close to the front door. I kept going over and over the situation in my mind.
Should I have been paying more attention? Should I have stood up to him and taken the spot anyway? Did I do something to deserve his animosity toward me?
And then suddenly, I realized: This guy wasn’t the bully. I was the bully.
I had been bullying myself for days over this, having trouble sleeping and trouble driving and trouble going through my normal routine and activities. I was letting his actions and gestures—from inside his car, for heaven sake—impact the way I felt about myself, and impact what I was willing to do or not do.
Once I discovered that, it was like the situation was back in my hands.
I could decide to let it go.
This process included going back in my mind and asking myself why this circumstance felt like such a big deal to me. What connections did I make with it? What shame was I feeling? Where was the guilt coming from? As I began to unpack the attached memories (most of which were of other people calling me a bad driver, or of my own insecurity around my ability to pay attention to things) I felt an incredible release.
Suddenly the dividing line between truth and fiction became so much clearer, which meant shame (which is really about lies) could dissipate.
The shame I felt was all in my head.
And then, just l like that, my bully disappeared. And what’s funny is the bully I thought was the bully hadn’t really been there all along. I was my own worst enemy, allowing someone else’s inappropriate actions to dictate how I felt about myself. Once I stopped shaming myself, the bully went away.
I know this story doesn’t universally match every bully story.
Some of our bullies are co-workers, friends, spouses—people we see on a daily basis. Some of them are online. Some of them are our bosses or parents. In those cases, changing the way we filter the information they’re giving us can be much more difficult. After all, it’s coming out of a fire hose, not a water fountain.
But still, I think if we can create a little bit of distance for ourselves from our bullies—if we pull back and ask ourselves what’s really going on—we’ll be able to see that we are actually our own worst enemies.
The shame we’re heaping is our own.
And the beautiful thing about that is that it means it is absolutely in our power to put it down, and move on.