Chapter Four: Psychological Abuse and Bullying
“I really could use some advice. I’m getting so tired of getting so much abuse from other people when I speak up about veganism. I hate to say it, but some part of me wants to just be quiet about it—even though I know that doesn’t help animals—just so the harassment will stop. I want to make people aware of the suffering of the animals regardless of the fact that I will be persecuted continuously for doing so. I feel like I’m at a crossroads and I don’t really know what to do.”
“Some people at school have made bullying me into a game. They are watching every bite I eat and then start rumors that I’m eating animals just to mess with me. They are harassing me on Facebook by posting images of dead animals and animal abuse under all of my posts. Yesterday a guy came and sat next to me at lunch, put his arm around me, and forced me to watch a video of a cow being slaughtered. It’s giving me nightmares and I feel like I have to watch my back at all times. My friends say to stand up for myself, but I worry that will only make things worse.”
I regularly receive messages such as these from vegans who describe experiencing bullying behavior and psychological abuse from friends, family members, classmates, acquaintances, and strangers online. This is such an important issue for young vegans because this kind of behavior is almost unavoidable for many and it has a huge impact on their well-being.
A mountain of research has shown that psychologically abusive behaviors may have at least as large of a damaging effect on emotional and even physical well-being as physical abuse. This should not be surprising since the goal of psychological abuse and bullying is to affect the other person psychologically. Unfortunately, such abusive behavior often escalates over time and can lead to greater risk for physical violence as well. Psychological abuse is the most subtle and difficult to detect form of abuse, and therefore it is especially important to educate others about psychological abuse, because those who are experiencing it are often completely unaware.
Psychological abuse may come in different forms that can be distinguished based on the function that the behavior serves. For example, denigration behaviors include direct put-downs or other attempts used to lower the other person’s sense of self-worth. Another form of psychological abuse involves coercive and controlling behaviors. These are behaviors intended to dictate what the other person does, using manipulation and bullying, to limit the other person’s basic rights and freedoms, which lead to dependence and social isolation. An even more subtle form of psychological abuse—but at least equally damaging—involves hostile withdrawal behaviors, intended to punish the other person or leave them feeling insecure in the relationship. Then there are dominance and intimidation behaviors that are intended to invoke fear and force compliance.
Unfortunately, psychological abuse is all too common among people in general, with approximately half of those in the United States reporting the experience of this form of abuse. A young vegan may be more likely than others to experience abusive behavior. As I discussed previously, others who aren’t vegan don’t like to be reminded that their behavior contributes to the harm of animals, and shame reactions may be angry and abusive. This abuse could take the form of online or in-person bullying, or more subtle attempts by loved ones to make the vegan feel like they’re somehow harming the family or doing harm to themselves by being vegan.
Many animal advocates often have histories of experiencing trauma and abuse. For many of us, these traumatic experiences make us particularly sensitive to the injustices that nonhuman animals experience. It is damaging enough to be constantly exposed to the horrors of our collective animal use and the indifference to this injustice that so many hold. When we experience psychological abuse and have to deal with its repercussions, it can make it harder for us to take care of ourselves and to advocate for nonhuman animals.
So how do we cope with bullying and abusive behavior once we are able to recognize and label that abuse?
First, tell others about it. Talk to family members, school administrators, and your friends. Don’t suffer in silence, and get the help that you need to directly deal with the situation to end the abuse. It’s also very helpful to speak to others about it for your own mental health. Counseling can be very helpful, especially if you don’t have others whom you feel you can talk to. For some, family counseling can also be helpful if the problems involve other family members. If you’re feeling hopeless, helpless, or are thinking of suicide, don’t hesitate to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Second, set clear limits with others. Let them know that you won’t be bullied or abused by them. Block them on social media and otherwise remove them from your life so that you no longer need to be exposed to them. If it’s somebody you live with or have a close personal relationship with, you will need to find a way to communicate your feelings and explain how the abuse is impacting you.
Third, when you recognize what they are trying to do with their abuse, you are armed to better deal with it. Psychological abuse and bullying are attempts to affect you psychologically, so when you see it happen, tell yourself that you won’t let it get to you. What you tell yourself at these times is so critically important. Tell yourself that they can’t impact how you feel about yourself and that their behavior will not stop you from confidently and assertively advocating for animals. Your strength and your confidence in yourself and your beliefs has nothing to do with them, and their abusiveness is their problem, not yours.