Bullies don’t always know they are what they are – We need to speak up!

Part of the problem with bullies and people who feel victimized by bullies is that often the latter do not realize they are cruel, and often the people they insult do not know how to speak up. I believe I continued to be berated for personal choices in my life by certain people because it took me so long to clearly point out the fact that this was inappropriate and that I wouldn’t tolerate it anymore.

I am not blaming myself for other people’s cruelty and insensitivity, but had I been taught as a young girl that my private life choices are to be respected,  that my feelings are important,  that I am not too sensitive, and that it is necessary and healthy to speak my mind so long as I do it in a respectful way, I would have spoken out more often, set more boundaries for myself, and saved myself a lot of anxiety.

One area in my life I often had to ward off disrespectful comments concerned dietary decisions. I stopped drinking cow’s milk in the late 1980s. To my incredulity, this seemed to offend people around me. I heard various comments in voices filled with shock and emotion. It was as if I had personally decided to insult them with my private decision about what kind of milk I would drink and it showed the success of the dairy lobby, because they people were so aghast and dumbfounded at my decision, it seemed to be an idea that had never entered their minds. It felt as though I had told them I had joined a new religion from outer space and that as a ritual I would be cutting off one of my arms. 

I was private about my decision and didn’t advertise it. People found out because I declined when offered milk or because they saw me pour myself a glass of soy milk. I didn’t announce my decision or try to convince other people to  give up cow’s milk. And yet some reactions were this strong.

Later, becoming a vegetarian caused an uproar in various situations. Again, it was somehow as though I had insulted others, and the anger and distaste displayed toward me was impressive. At certain gatherings, how my family ate seemed to cause such discomfort even though I never expected people to go out of their way for us, and even though we always tried to be flexible.

Eventually my husband and later children all ate vegetarian, and at gatherings we took part in the dinner rotation schedule when at a vacation spot for a number of nights. Each night a different family would be in charge of dinner. We spent much time making sure what we made to eat would be something satisfying to meat eaters – on one of these weekends I remember making a wonderful chili with the fake hamburger, a recipe I had often served to meat eaters who would almost always proclaim they couldn’t tell the difference and that it was delicious.

Not everyone on these mini vacations was cruel, but one family not only never had anything good to say about what we offered, they would berate it, and on a few occasions when it was their turn to cook, they served meals where my husband, kids and I really could only eat bread and butter because everything else, even the salad, had meat in it. Of course, we didn’t expect a full-out vegetarian meal, but even a few slices of cheese could have been offered so that we could have made a sandwich.

After a few times of having to later feed my kids and us separately, we opted out of the dinner rotation and brought our own food. I was fed up with the blatant verbal insults as well as the passive aggressiveness our vegetarianism seemed to provoke. And yet, I only rarely said anything to my main bully. When I did say anything, it seemed to be too late and ineffective, and it was after we had opted out of trying to do any kind of collaberation with food.

Even after having been a vegetarian for a decade or more, at one gathering a person berated my choice of soy milk over cow’s milk in front of my young, impressionable daughter. This was at least fifteen years after I had quit drinking soy milk and had endured friends and strangers odd and sometimes cruel comments. I felt sick that I allowed my daughter to be with such people who would openly insult such personal health decisions and so I slowly started speaking out and pulling myself away from such gatherings.

When my daughter was just a baby, a person close to me incessantly cracked jokes about my decision to feed her vegetarian and would say things like, “I bet she would just love a sausage right now!” Or, “I bet when she gets teeth, she will love the way I cook steak.”

After listening to these jokes for months, I finally brought an end to it by telling the person the jokes were hurtful and disrespectful, and that how I chose to feed my child was a personal decision. This was over fifteen years ago, and with hormones flying through my body (I was still nursing) and not yet speaking out as much as I wanted to, it felt like a milestone, and the jokes stopped for about a decade.

People who find offense at such jokes about food or religion choices are not too sensitive. I think most of us would understand that we would never make some senseless joke to a Muslim woman about her wearing a headscarf, or tease someone on a paleo or low carb diet about their choices. We understand that making a joke about someone’s personal decisions is hurtful and disrespectful.

But as a young girl, I internalized that my opinions were unimportant. Growing into adulthood, I started to speak out about various issues, and I often heard from others that my feelings were too big, that I should just lighten up and that I was too sensitive. When the person who is somehow different speaks out, it sometimes is met with silence and acceptance, but also sometimes with defensiveness and the comment, “lighten up!” This only adds insult to insult. For me, the childhood internalization of the idea that my opinions were unimportant would rear up again, and I would have to go back to ground zero and figure out how to speak out again.

It feels I wasted much time and emotion being upset about other people’s dysfunction while in my twenties and thirties. I also spent time figuring out ways to express my anger and disappointment in a healthy and respectful way, because I was not going to lower myself to a bully’s standards of communications. And yet, this time spent was the only way I knew to grow strong in the realization that my feelings counted, and that these bullyish comments explained a lot about the people making the comments.

If you are reading this and think I cannot laugh at my vegetarianism, it isn’t true. I have laughed many times with others about misunderstandings with food or diet. One example was in the dentist office when I asked why I should want to fix my teeth, because my mother-in-law had dentures and she seemed to manage just fine. The technician said to me, “well, it can be quite difficult chewing with dentures, especially trying to chew a nice, juicy steak,” to which I had to reply with a laugh that I was a vegetarian and so that didn’t bother me. We all laughed and she said, “well, you won’t be able to chew that carrot very well either.”

No offense was taken. Nothing was said with passive-aggressive distaste or anger. There was no negative feelings. This and other conversations I have had are funny and enlightening.

I am not too sensitive. I can tell which jokes or comments about my diet, personal habits and choices, are disrespectful and hurtful. Even though there are no hard and fast rules about what is disrespectful and what isn’t, if it feels wrong and you wish the comments to stop, then you can request this and be assured that it is okay for you to do so.


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