In our weekly spot where we talk about things to do with mental health and wellbeing, a bit of a chat about the damage bullies do.

Hello and welcome to Wellbeing Matters. This week we’re having a think about the things we might want to do, but haven’t. Because other people have stolen our spark. Through bullying, belittling us or by just being mean.

It sometimes seems like everyone is a critic. Everyone has an opinion. And that opinion can on occasion tip over into bullying. People can be cruel. If they don’t see worth in something, they’re happy to stamp down anyone who might enjoy it. Sneer and belittle people for their passions and interests.

Or worse. They belittle the actual person, denigrate and bully them into anxiety. Hold them back from participating in something they have loved, or from trying something new that they might hold a passion for.

Bullying can cut deep, and the scars remain for a very long time. It can shape a life, holding a person back from fulfilment of their potential. Even if all that person dreams of is to walk into a room full of strangers, pull up a chair and say, hi, I’m me and I’d love to learn to play Dungeons and Dragons. No-one has a right to take that experience away.

Sound familiar? That was me, the scruffy little ginger kid who hadn’t quite found herself when starting senior school. Where I walked into a constant chorus of disapproval from the cool kids at school. They sunk their barbs in deep. And not all of them were from fellow students. Teachers could be complicit.

I lost my voice when I was 12. I was being bullied for my appearance at the time, and I hated myself. Hated what I saw in the mirror. One day we had to read a composition piece about something we loved to the class. I’d picked foxes. That wasn’t cool, and the jibes were quick to start. I faltered. I couldn’t finish it. I choked. And the teacher ripped me apart for failure in front of them.

That incident became etched on my mind. Public speaking became a torment. I couldn’t envisage any situation where I’d ever want to put myself up for that level of ridicule ever again. And I nearly failed my English Language GCSE because of my absolute refusal to complete the oral element. Standing up in front of a class sent me into a tailspin of anxiety that I couldn’t get over.

I was lucky, this time. Different teacher, one who’d encouraged me to write from the moment I stepped into his class aged 14 clutching a battered notebook and a tatty fountain pen. I remember weeping to him when I hung back after class one day, to try to explain why I couldn’t do it. And he was brilliant. That was the first time I realised that talking about my fears with a sympathetic person could really help.

I didn’t have to read to the class. I was allowed to do my oral on tape without an audience. Which was great, but didn’t fix the underlying anxiety. An anxiety which has lasted throughout adulthood. Public speaking terrifies me. And that’s a problem as a writer.

Again, I got lucky. I met brilliant people, fellow writers who speak with grace and flow. They helped me to do the same. Gave me safe opportunities with a gentle audience to build my self-confidence with. Encouraged me to let my words soar.

Not just on paper, but into open space and open minds. At first, I stuttered and the words broke against my teeth. Then I found what I needed to say, and my voice grew stronger. I will always be a puddle of nerves when I read in public but now, I know I can do it, and my voice has resonance.

You can find your people and your voice, but you might have to take a deep breath and put your head above the parapet. And it is hard to do that when you’re recovering from old wounds. It’s hard to trust that the people you meet won’t hurt you.

I have had counselling on and off since I was 19 to help me reframe my bullying experiences in light of other peoples’ insecurities, or plain meanness, rather than any inherent flaw in myself. That’s not to say I’m not flawed – I’m human. But I try to temper them with kindness and understanding of another’s point of view, even if it’s alien to me.

Our lives are fireflies in the cosmos. The brittle words and actions of others shouldn’t stop us from finding our glow. If cruel words or disapproval has held you back from doing something, that one thing, that you’ve always longed to do however daft or over ambitious it might seem to other people, maybe think about kindling that light again.

Do it for yourself, and if you get to the end and think, okay, not for me, you won’t regret a path not taken anymore. It’s liberating just to try.

And who knows? You may just fly.

Take care, and thanks as always for reading.

Editor’s note: huge thanks to SuperJane for this piece. Beyond proud to run her work.

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