Rejection of an individual by a group is the worst kind of bullying
It’s important that young people at the receiving end of bullying and abuse realise the world is full of groups that will not reject them
We are naturally drawn to groups and to the members of our own group as insiders seeing the rest as outsiders. Photograph: iStock
We, the group, reject you. Because we are the only group that matters, consider yourself rejected by the world.
This, I think, is one of the big lies told by groups that bully individuals, especially in schools where the target is too young to know differently.
At this time of year, many who have gone through years of bullying and exclusion are approaching the point at which they will leave school behind. Then they will find the world is full of groups that do not, in fact, reject them. Meanwhile, the group of bullies will dissolve as they too depart the scene of their activities.
We are naturally drawn to groups and, indeed, to the members of our own group as insiders seeing the rest as outsiders. In one of the older experiments in social psychology, individuals recruited to help with research are told, on the way in, that they will be divided into groups to which different colours have been assigned – red group, blue group and so on.
The individual is asked if he or she can help out by dividing assets represented by tokens between the members of the various groups. They are also told which group they will be in, say the red group, though they have met none of the other members. The experimenters ensure that when the sorting is done, one token will be left over. If you were sorting, what would you do with the extra token? The unsurprising answer is that you would probably give the token to someone in your own red group.
Up to a few minutes ago, you did not know this group existed. You have not met the other group members. Yet you favour the group to which you believe you will be part. You don’t do this because you’re stupid. You do it because we have evolved to be in groups and it makes sense to favour the groups we are in.
What is remarkable is the speed with which we form groups – the group whose plane is delayed, the group cheering for Munster in the pub, the group doing an evening class, for instance.
All unremarkable, but the dark side of groups is the exclusion of persons from membership through personal attack – in others words, group bullying. Much bullying, maybe most, is done on a one-to-one personal level. It inflicts psychological and emotional wounds. But probably the worst kind of bullying is the bullying of the individual by a group through rejection. And it is so easy for the target to fall for the lie that the group’s rejection is a sort of global judgement that applies for all time.
I think this is why it is so important, especially for young people, to understand that in fact the world is made up of a myriad of groups and that each of us will be a member of many groups as we go through life. These could be made up of other friends, of family (probably the most important group), of future workmates, of people who share your enthusiasm for Star Wars and of many other groups of people.
So exclusion from one group isn’t the same thing as exclusion from all groups. In fact, the one group you are excluded from could nearly be lost from view if you placed it alongside all of the other groups you will be part of during your life.
As I said, it can be hard to realise this when you’re the one at the receiving end of bullying and abuse and it is especially hard for young people who are trying to form their identities to realise this.
But it’s worth realising and bringing home to them. The key message? The group that doesn’t like you is by no means as important as it wants you to believe it is.
Armed with that knowledge, you can more easily navigate the bullies and the excluders and allow time and circumstance to change everything – including consigning that group to history and, hopefully, the dustbin.
– Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.