Unfortunately, as a child I did not look like the other kids. I was overweight, had a huge gap between my front teeth, and did not wear name-brand clothes.
I was different and the other kids honed in on this and constantly teased me. Looking back now, I realize that I was being bullied.
Sometimes it was subtle bullying, like when my entire group of alleged friends suddenly kicked me out of the group and started whispering behind my back.
Often though, it was direct bullying like on a bus ride home when a group of kids encircled me and took turns deriding my appearance and character. I desperately wanted to escape, but was trapped for obvious reasons.
Fast forward to today, and I have quite a different story. At age 35, I’m a successful senior leader with a non-profit organization, a doctoral student studying leadership, and I have spent the last year reflecting on how to be an effective leader. I can’t help but wonder how those traumatic bullying experiences as a child may have influenced the way I now lead.
An extensive body of existing bullying research tells me that I should not have been a successful student or achieved higher levels of education and career success. The research says that I should have psychological issues like anxiety and depression.
A study in 2007 by Nicolas Carlisle and Eric Rofes reported that long-term bullying victimization effects might mirror those of abused children. The painful suffering is not exactly the building blocks for future leadership or a student pursuing a doctorate.
Yet some research also reveals that bullying spurs people to enact change. A small study by Charlotte Mathiassen conducted in 2013 found that childhood bullying victims felt the desire as adults to help co-workers who are bullied and try to prevent it from happening at their children’s school.
The study’s author claimed that bullying fuels the desire and ability to transform the conditions around the bullying survivor. Similar studies on trauma report that people feel more altruistic, empathetic, and possess a desire to help others after they experience traumatic experiences, like victimization.
Interestingly, some popular leadership books focus on the concepts of empathy and helping others. Psychologist Daniel Goleman preaches the critical role of empathy to leadership, noting that successful leaders must be able to relate to their followers and can do this by sharpening their emotional intelligence.
As I reflect on this research, my career and the way I lead, I continue to sometimes struggle with issues of confidence and anxiety that were born on days like those awful bus rides home.
However, I also know that those experiences have helped instill in me a deep desire from a very young age to help those who are marginalized, afflicted or in need. I can relate and I want to help.
I feel rewarded through my empathetic approach when I build deep and trusted relationships with my staff or volunteers; the type of relationships that were so hard for me to develop as a child. My soul feels fulfilled when I help others overcome obstacles and achieve more than they ever could have imagined.
So perhaps I was able to make some lemonade out of my childhood lemons. Yes, experiencing bullying was awful and I would never wish it on any child or adult. For some people who experienced bullying, there will never be lemonade. I’m someone who now sees bullying as an important chapter in my leadership story.
Marcella Gonsalves is a Drexel University Sacramento student who is enrolled in the doctorate of Educational Leadership and Management program.