The Bully Within

The bully within and how we bully ourselves

I am a bullier.

It took me almost 40 years of my life to come to this realization, and oh, I am also a global happiness coach.

But first, let’s go back to elementary school, when I experienced bullying for the first time.

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Meera was a bigger-boned, short-haired girl with darker skin—a likely target. We would often play “blind man’s” bluff’ with her. A game where she always ended up being “it” and had to get blindfolded then try to tag one of us. My friends and I would tease her and make fun of her. That was my first experience of bullying others, at least as far as I can remember.

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In middle school there was James. He was a blond, British kid who would sit next to me in math class. He always bullied me and my then best friend Tanya. He would call her “pizza face” because of her acne, and he would call me “jap” or “nip” because my surname was Japanese, even though I did not speak a word of Japanese at the time, nor had I ever set foot in Japan. That was my first experience of being bullied by someone else.

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When I say I am a bullier, I want to be clear. It is true I have been bullied, and I have bullied others. However, in this case, what I learned recently and more profoundly is that I have been a bullier of myself.

I know. Read that again, if you have to.

I spent the first 40 years of my life not ever feeling like I was good enough. I blamed others for that. It came to me that the culprit was my mom. She wasn’t the typical tiger mom, though that term hadn’t even existed back in the 1980s when I was growing up in Hong Kong, but she did have certain expectations of me and my sister.

There were behavioral expectations: on long-haul flights from Hong Kong to the US, she would pride herself on being that mom who kept her children in check. There would not be a peep from either one of us. We were to keep ourselves preoccupied with coloring books, word search puzzles, and napping. Or else we would get the dreaded stink eye from my mom. And when we got that, then it was over.

There were unspoken academic expectations: we generally did well in school, getting relatively good grades, but there was always an underlying expectation to excel. My sister and I both ended up going to Harvard for our master’s programs, and my mom certainly beams with pride whenever a girlfriend of hers says, “Wow, not just one daughter, but two daughters attended Harvard.”

You get the picture. There were other expectations, too. Whom we should marry, what kind of jobs we should take up, and the list goes on.

Perhaps my inner bully was created then.

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In my work as a global happiness coach, I didn’t even realize that I was fighting workplace bullying, nor did I even think there was a term for it. I didn’t even realize I was an overcomer of it until quite recently, which has made me particularly empathetic and aware of the red flags.

I worked for a non-profit organization in Boston after I graduated from Harvard and was severely bullied by the Development Director. Ironically, I had written my master’s thesis on domestic violence and human trafficking at Harvard, so if anyone should have known the signs of abuse, it was me.

The thing with bullying is that it creeps up on you slowly, unexpectedly, and then when it hits you, boy you wish it hadn’t, and that you had seen it coming.

It took me five years before I was able to go back to Boston. I am glad I did, because I met my now husband there. It took me almost 12 years and a TED Talk to realize that I had actually been subjected to workplace bullying, and that is the major challenge I help many of my clients with today.

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64% of employees have experienced workplace bullying

Workplace bullying is everywhere, it is a global problem. According to a global Monster poll from 2011:

  • Globally, 64% have been bullied.
  • 16% have seen bullying happen to others.
  • 83% of European employees have been bullied.
  • 65% of employees in the Americas.
  • 55% in Asia

Beyond the emotional, physical, mental trauma, each toxic worker costs an organization a whopping USD$12,500 or more! Clearly, there are huge financial costs to organizations as well.

So we know the problem exists. What can we do about it?

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That’s where you come in. Remember how I had realized I was a bullier of myself? Well, think about it this way: whether you have or haven’t experienced any kind of bullying in your life—which I think is quite rare—a bully is someone who is insecure. In order to feel good about ourselves, we put others down or bully others.

I have always felt insecure and not good enough. I have always bullied myself. I often catch myself putting myself down, “Kyla, you are not good enough. No one will come to your workshops.” Does that sound familiar? I think we have all been there.

So rather than placing blaming externally, let’s figure out a way to support and encourage our inner bullies. Words actually have power and it matters what we say to and with ourselves, which then has repercussions on our wider actions.

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Cultivate communication with yourself and with others

What are some solutions?

In my TED Talk, I talk about communication in a two-way with style rather than a one-way at style. Begin with yourself. Watch how you talk with yourself: do you encourage and support yourself? Or do you put yourself down? When you are in a seemingly tough or challenging spot, what is it that you tell yourself?

Be objective. Don’t judge yourself.

Then start having conversations and communicating with others around you. Start slow. Maybe start with friends who know you really well. Once you have mastered that, move on to others who maybe more tricky or tough to deal with.

But remember, before we move forward with those external bullies, we have to deal with our internal ones.


Written by Kyla Mitsunaga. Kyla is an overcomer of workplace bullying. Her experience led her to create her antidote to workplace negativity and bullying called The Happiness Workshop. She also trains young people to give them the tools/strategies they need so they can overcome any kind of workplace negativity.

Check out Kyla Mitsunaga’s TED Talk, as well as her TED prequel, where she talks about another incident where she experienced workplace bullying in Korea.

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