how bullying happens

How Bullying Happens

If we understand how bullying happens then we might be able to deal with it better. As it’s about power and freedoms it’s something we can all help tackle.

Bullying comes in many forms but ultimately it is about reducing someone’s freedoms and choices. It’s about power, toxic environments, and it’s about society. It’s something we should all be tackling, not just the person being bullied. 

What is bullying?

Bullying is having your agency taken away without your consent. Agency is your ability to live your life. Your ability to ‘be you’ on an everyday basis. Agency is power, or clout, or oomph. If it’s being taken away it might be because of bullying. 

It comes in many forms: 

  • Harassment  
  • Threats and intimidation to keep you afraid and stressed
  • Violence, assaults, any unwanted touching 
  • Being made to give someone money or things (theft)
  • Being called names without your consent
  • The subject of rumours and gossip
  • Images of you shared without your consent
  • Slurs (eg racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, homo/biphobic, classist)

It’s just worth noting here that most or all these things are criminal offences (depending on the circumstances). So whether or not the police are involved, bullying should be treated extremely seriously. 

Are bullies bullied themselves?

It’s often said that people who bully were bullied themselves. I’m not sure that’s always the case. Even if it were true, it’s no excuse.

It’s important to remember that most people are not bullies. However I don’t think you can divide the world into bullies and not bullies. How bullying happens is because of power and how people try to get it. 

We live in a world where agency (power, clout, oomph) is not fairly distributed. This is because of the very unequal society we live in but also because we have very different experiences growing up. Think about what makes some people confident and others less so. Some people feel like they can ‘do them’ more than others can. 

Read about power in relationships

Now most people in the world are just happy to share whatever agency they have with other people. Mostly people don’t care about winning or losing. So long as they are cooperating with other people, and everyone is having a nice time, they are having a nice time.

“If you’re happy that means I can’t be…”

But people who bully don’t have this view of the world. They think that they can only have agency if someone else doesn’t. This is known as a ‘zero sum game’ or ‘a scarcity model’ of the world. The idea that there is only so much pie to go around, so I’m going to have other people’s bit of pie before they eat my bit of pie. Sad isn’t it?

is love a zero sum game where if one person experiences love it means that another person can't
Is love a zero sum game?

So by taking away someone else’s agency through bullying, they can get more agency (power, clout, oomph). They can be popular at school, or given status, or love, or attention by making sure others have less. Bullies feel like the only way they can be on top, or in the ‘in crowd’, or safe from bullying, is to keep others at the bottom, to keep people out, and make others feel afraid all the time. Does that make sense? 

Think of your own experiences of bullies: were they always the most popular person? Instead of considering whether they were bullied, think about where they get their agency (power, clout, oomph) from. 

How bullying happens in toxic environments

Mostly people don’t bully. But a lot of us live in toxic environments where bullying behaviour is encouraged. A good example of this is reality TV shows, which feature a lot of bullying. When reality shows first came out they were mostly pretty boring. It was just ‘hey watch and see if this group of people will get on.’ The show producers had to step in and try to cause arguments, and ruptures in people’s relationships. Oh and a lot more alcohol. This is when we get to see more bullying. 

Competitive environments, where only very few people can win, are hotbeds of bullying. Not all competitive people are bullies, most competitive people enjoy competing whether they win or lose, so long as everyone performs well. However those that resort to bullying tactics are people who focus on making sure that other people lose, so that they win.

If Love Island were just a beach holiday (for people who meet the beauty standard) to see whether anyone fancies each other, there would be less bullying. If Come Dine With Me was a TV show of people cooking each other dinner and trying to have a nice time, there would be less bullying. TV executives seem to think we might prefer shows with backstabbing, gossip, rumour, and nasty comments rather than shows with people just having a nice time. 

Make the pie bigger
Scarce Pie sucks

Perhaps some parts of our lives involve elements of competition, like exams or job interviews (sadly). But if our schools or workplaces only have a very small number of ways that you can succeed then they are going to be places where bullying thrives. In this way, schools can be really toxic environments where bullying thrives. Bullying happens when there is only so much power, clout, and oomph, to go around. 

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Social Media and cyberbullying

Bullying and cyberbullying are both the same, and often people who experience cyberbullying are also experiencing IRL bullying from the same person at school. However, social media sites can be ‘toxic environments’ where bullying flourishes. Instead of a place online where people can go and chat and make friends (honestly, the internet used to be like that), social media websites are places where people go to compete with each other. 

If there were no numbers or ‘engagement metrics’ and no likes, social media would be a lot better. Social media industries are deliberately creating environments where there is only so much clout to go around, which means they encourage bullying. Which is why there is so much harassment, threats, and name calling. As you can tell, I hate it there. 

Bullying, should stories, and power 

Someone who bullies looks to gain power over people by using some of the tactics I mentioned above. They also play close attention to the informal rules about what is either popular or acceptable or normal. Those rules about how we ‘should be’ are never to do with what is moral or right, just about what is acceptable. I call them ‘should stories’. 

Think about your school (or your old school). What were the ‘should stories’ about how to be popular there? Who enforces the ‘should stories’ and who benefits from them? Do you notice the same stories or rules outside of school, in society more generally? Even in your own circles, groups, or communities, there are should stories, what are they?

Now remember, people who bully think that the only way they can have power is by making sure others have less. They believe that there is only so much to go around. So they will often look to ‘should stories’ as a way of excluding people from power. Bullies often enforce ‘should stories’ to make sure they are on the right side of them. So they bully people based on what clothes they shouldn’t be wearing. Or someone’s hair cut or colour. Maybe it’s to do with what is ‘cool’. Whether you should be having sex or not. Or who you should or shouldn’t be attracted to (like in the show Normal People). 

Because ‘should stories’ are inconsistent and vague they can be changed at any moment, in order that the bullies remain more powerful. It’s often just not possible to win because the game is rigged. So another part of bullying is that even when you play the game you can’t win because the rules are always changing. Which is an example of Gaslighting.


Some people always benefit from the rules, so much so they don’t have to be the ones to enforce it all the time. They have ‘the bullies’ for that, who only get status from enforcing the should stories. So belittling, name calling, shaming, harassment, rumours, and gossip are all to keep people from having access to popularity, status, and power.

This is all done to keep a hierarchy in place of who gets bullied and who doesn’t. If the environment you are in is toxic then this hierarchy is encouraged. So it means that you might benefit from bullying without even knowing. In a hierarchy there is always someone below you and always someone above you. If the only way to stay on top is to make sure someone is below you, then bullying happens. This is why I think hierarchies are bad.

Hierarchies are bad, apart from these cacti, which are cute

Hierarchies mean that if you are rich, white, and a man you are less likely to get bullied. If you are poor, a woman, a person of colour, or trans, or disabled, or queer, or some or all of these – it might be more likely. This should not be inevitable, and it is because of toxic environments (like I’ve been saying). However, another cruel aspect of bullying, is that if you are in a hierarchy the temptation is to keep other people below you, even if other people are doing the same to you. Bullying can happen all the way down the chain. Remember it’s about power.

How you can deal with bullying

A lot of the advice about how to deal with bullying is quite sensible, but also makes me sad. It’s usually along the lines of:

  • Avoid the bully, keep yourself safe
  • Mute, block, avoid 
  • Write down what is happening
  • Tell a trusted adult about it
  • Get help by reporting it to someone
  • It’s not your fault.

It admits and reinforces the idea that bullying is inevitable, which it shouldn’t be. Bullying really isn’t your fault – it’s to do with power, scarcity, and toxic environments. Our advice to people should be more than go inward and keep yourself safe, because that’s what bullying intends us to do. 

There’s some really great advice and support services for bullying at The Mix

So as well as the advice that everyone gives, I would also say try to find an easy way of increasing your agency (power, clout, oomph). As you’ve seen in this article, bullies are more interested in power and control than having a nice time with people. So try to bring in some joy into your life where you can.

Keep being brave but find other people. Remember that most people are decent, kind and trustworthy. Don’t allow those who bully you to turn you to their way of thinking. That to have agency, other people have to have less. 

Think about joining something: a book club, a team, a group, or a campaign. Somewhere where you will feel valued for your contributions. Where you will have a role and feel needed and wanted. I can’t guarantee that there will never be any bullying behaviour in any of those, but you might be able to spot it early and do something about changing the environment in them. 

Also, can you see how this really isn’t about you? It might be affecting you, and it might feel very personal, but it’s really about the other person. It’s how they are relating to the world around them. They are just desperate for power, clout, ooomph, are hurting you to get it.

How you can help others deal with bullying

Remember that if you haven’t been bullied, or if you don’t fear being bullied, then you might be benefiting from bullying without realising. So have a think about this stuff. Are you benefiting from ‘should stories’ about who is cool and who isn’t? Is this the kind of world you want to live in? What can you do to change these stories?

If bullying doesn’t or hasn’t affected you then you can say ‘okay I’m up’ and get more involved. Get to know the bullying policy at school or work and make sure everyone knows about it. Challenge those who are responsible to make sure they are doing a good enough job. Chat with your friends about the culture of the school and be honest about where you see bullying happening. 

This is called solidarity, and it’s a way to use your agency for good.

Are there ways for you to safely intervene? If you’re a friend of a friend who bullies, can you have a word? If you’re a friend of a friend who is being bullied, can they have a word with you? How do you make that clear? Can you use your social media to help? Share resources, speak your mind. 

Read about how to support someone

Remember that all the best things in life: joy, connection, love are about cooperation and consent. The really great things in life are a win / win for everyone, not a win / lose. If we can live in a world where everyone has equal access to this stuff, we can live in a world without bullying. 

Please leave a (nice) comment below if you like or ask me a question here.

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I’ve been a sex and relationships educator since 1999 (with a background in youth and community work). In that time I’ve taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. I’ve worked with many charities, local governments, schools and youth organisations facilitating training and workshops. My two books, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and If You Want To) and Can We Talk About Consent? are widely available around the world. I’ve been on the telly and the radio and have written articles for newspapers and magazines. I’m also a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Read more about me and BISH here. Find out about my other work here Justin Hancock

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