If Ralph Waldo Emerson had been bullied...

We give such awesome advice to our students about bullies, don’t we? What to do, where to go, what to say. Yet, as is often the case, we don’t follow our own advice. Teacher, it's time to teach thyself.

What if good ol' Emerson had been bullied? What would he have said or done? In this review, we’ll deal with the more coercive bullying type found in the workplace--the critics. (No doubt Emerson had his fill of critics).  They are described as:

--constantly nit-picking, fault-finding and criticizing things of a trivial nature. The triviality, regularity and frequency betray their bullying. Often there is a grain of truth (but only a grain) in the criticism to fool you into believing the criticism has validity, which it does not; often, the criticism is based on distortion, misrepresentation or fabrication.

(Source: Bullyonline.)

You know these people. They are a non-stop flow of negativity. We strive to avoid them whenever possible, but they still find us. Here’s where Emerson might help us transcend a little or, at least, help us staunch that flow.

A great man is always willing to be little.*  
Most of us will probably chime in on bullying from the bottom of the totem pole as a target. However, where we land hierarchically has less to do with our actual jobs than our attitudes. 

Should you find that you feel victimized, evaluate your bully. Consider the source. Is this person’s constant criticism, nitpicking, and threatening indicators of a “great” person?  Does this person possess qualities that are admirable in any way? 

If no, then you’ve found your desirable attitude: this person isn’t worth my time, but I will seek to understand him or her. Just remember, you may have to kneel down to do that.

Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.*  
As a target, you know the effects:  fear, shame, guilt, the “why me?” stuff. What’s tricky is realizing the size and depth of the fact. That miniscule “grain” of reality that the bully has overblown may ring true, but how “big” is it, truly?

Once you’ve figured out the validity of the fact, you may want to ponder the cause, which isn’t the bully, usually.  That is:  the bully didn't cause you to feel bad. 

Like most teachers, you have a well--if not over--developed sense of responsibility. The cause of your shame and so on, is you. Thank yourself for having that sense of responsibility because it indicates a person of integrity who wants to do what’s right.  

Always do what you are afraid to do.*  
Confrontation of anyone, bully or no, can be terrifying. Ours is a culture of confrontation-avoidance and passive-aggressiveness and political-correctness and every other-hyphen-ness. 

Be better than you think are and take this step to discuss your thoughts with this person about the specifics of his/her criticism.  

Do whatever it takes to build up your nerve (talk to positive, supportive friends, take a Benadryl), but do it. You will feel more empowered by the time you’re through, if only because you did something you thought you couldn't. 

A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us.*  
Your goal is to blow your bully’s mind. You can do that by tripping them up with either acknowledging their position or their person. Armed with your “facts” that the bully was so keen to point out and criticize about you, start the discussion with: 

“I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I appreciate that you noticed that I was ___. I’m looking for some ideas to overcome that. What would you do in the same situation?” 

Turning the tables of criticism over to the bully startles him/her. They are so used to people just ignoring them or reacting defensively, that they will be momentarily disarmed and probably, just a bit nicer than usual. (Most workplace bullies are looking for validation of what they perceive to be effort, so this tactic may be all you need for every encounter with this person.)

Every man I meet is in some way my superior.*
Listening to your tormentor is going to be difficult, but not more difficult than assertively taking control of the situation. Even though his or her message may be sandwiched underneath layers of negativity, there will be a message in there somewhere. If you think you hear one, rephrase it positively, for example:

 When you say don't…, do you mean…? 

Rephrasing the message in a positive way will not only reinforce how you wish to be treated, it will also jab your bully just a bit in, hopefully, the right direction. 

Nothing external to you has any power over you.*
This is a tough nugget to chew on because fear seems to have power over us. Fear of losing our jobs, homes, cars. We accept our victimization because we want our children to have health insurance. While these fears may seem rational and justified and worth the hassle the bully brings, they’re not. 

Your children would receive a better life-lesson if you live happily than they will if you live out of fear.  I would have happily done without new clothes, toys, etc. to have my father home to play with me in the afternoons than a man so stressed working three jobs that he was an alcoholic. Make sure that you understand:  only you have power over you.    

Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.*   
Should you decide to remain at your current school, consider how you’re going to create  peace with the bully. More than likely, after building some rapport and acknowledging them as people you’ll have a better shot at peace. 

However, if your bully is a die-hard victimizer and you want to stay, weigh and balance the positives and negatives.  Create your own path to peace with this person, and should he/she reject it, move on, knowing that you have done all you can.

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Victims sometimes forget to look at their individual integrity levels because the noise of the bully’s criticism drowns those levels out. Know what and when you’ve done well, even when no one was around to see. Revel in that.

Embrace those moments as moments you know you’re a good teacher, and no matter what anyone else has to say, you will carry on. 

Here, if nowhere else, is where many victims lose the fight. Don’t lose the sacredness of what you know to be true, right, and just. Wear it as your armor against those who are unable to fathom the same. 

* All quotes attributed to Emerson.


  1. Beautiful weaving of Emerson with the current discourse on bullying. Have you used these quotes and ideas with students, too?

  2. Hello! Thank you for reading! No, I haven't used them with students, but it occurred to me afterwards that in an American Lit course or unit the idea might work. Perhaps small doses of Emerson would be better received than his entire "Self-Reliance"? I find his work difficult to traverse, so I know students do! : )