Unfortunately, as a child I did not look like the other kids. I was overweight, had a huge gap between my front teeth and did not wear name-brand clothes.
I was different and the other kids constantly teased me. Looking back now, I realize that I was being bullied.
Sometimes it was subtle, like when my entire group of alleged friends suddenly kicked me out and started whispering behind my back. Often though, it was direct, like when a group of kids encircled me on the bus ride home and took turns deriding my appearance and character. I desperately wanted to escape, but was trapped.
Fast forward to today, and I have quite a different story. At age 35, I’m a successful senior leader with a nonprofit organization and a doctoral student studying leadership. I can’t help but wonder how those traumatic bullying experiences as a child may have influenced the way I now lead.
An extensive body of research tells me that I should not have been a successful student or achieved career success. Instead, I should have psychological issues such as anxiety and depression. One 2007 study reported that long-term effects of bullying might mirror those of abused children.
Yet some research also reveals that bullying spurs people to change. A small study in 2013 found that childhood bullying victims had the desire as adults to help co-workers who are bullied and to prevent it from happening at their children’s school. Similar studies on trauma report that some victims are more altruistic and empathetic.
Interestingly, some popular leadership books focus on helping others. As I reflect on this research, I sometimes struggle with issues of confidence and anxiety that were born on days like those awful bus rides home.
However, I also know that those experiences have helped instill in me a deep desire to help those who are marginalized, afflicted or in need. I feel rewarded when I build deep and trusting relationships with my staff or volunteers – the relationships that were so hard for me to develop as a child. My soul feels fulfilled when I help others overcome obstacles and achieve more than they ever could have imagined.
So perhaps I was able to make some lemonade out of my childhood lemons. Yes, experiencing bullying was awful and I would never wish it on any child or adult. I’m someone who now sees bullying as an important chapter in my leadership story.
Marcella Gonsalves is in the doctorate of educational leadership and management program at Drexel University Sacramento. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.