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What Harry Potter teaches us about overcoming bullying
"This pain is part of being human ... the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength."
- Albus Dumbledore (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)
Have you ever heard the expression “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me”?
This expression is nearly 200 years old, and it's completely inaccurate. Many of the survivors of bullying and emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and gaslighting wear just as many emotional scars as survivors of physical injuries. In fact, both physical assault and emotional abuse are processed in the same regions of the brain, both at the time of the incident as well as when triggered by a reminder of the injury.
Harry Potter, the boy who lived, not only survived the death of his parents and the multiple attacks on his life, but he and his friends also dealt with severe bullying and emotional abuse throughout their school days. The ten years he spent living with his relatives before finding out he was a wizard were filled with being shamed, neglected, ignored, and criticized by his relatives, and bullied. To make matters worse, because his aunt and uncle hated him and because all the other kids Harry’s age were afraid of his cousin, Dudley, Harry went through these years of emotional abuse completely on his own. In addition, both Ron and Hermione are also bullied at Hogwarts for their heritage (Ron for his family being poor and Hermione for being born to non-magical parents).
Undergoing bullying and emotional abuse can lead the survivor to potentially experience lifelong psychological and biological symptoms related to these experiences. For example, like Harry, people who have been bullied might be more distrusting, irritable, and more prone to Dementor-like depression attacks. Research studies show that people who experience bullying and emotional abuse in childhood might be more likely to experience depression, or anxiety, in adulthood, and might be more prone to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In addition, people with a history of emotional abuse or bullying are more likely to experience chronic physical pain when they are stressed out or reminded of their traumatic event, not unlike Harry’s scar pain. Being bullied or emotionally neglected as a child can also lead to changes in the survivor’s brain activity, similar to people who undergo a seizure disorder. Harry, for example, would sometimes actually pass out if his scar hurt badly enough or if he was exposed to a Dementor, whereas others were not necessarily as affected as he was. What this means is that our painful experiences can affect our biology and can also affect how other difficult situations affect us in the future.
How do we heal?
Clearly, bullying and emotional abuse can lead to painful long-term effects. Many well-intentioned but misinformed individuals may advise us to try to “forget about it,” “just don’t think about it” and “focus on the positive.” Unfortunately, suppressing our emotions doesn’t work and will often backfire, making us feel worse. In the Fantastic Beasts series, we learn that when a witch or a wizard suppresses their magical ability, they are likely to be harmed by such emotion suppression, potentially creating dark, explosive energy of repressed emotion (an Obscurus). In reality, the more we suppress our emotions, the more intensely we are likely to feel them over time.
What does seem to help people heal from living with bullying and the aftermath of traumatic experiences are social support and meaning-making. Receiving social support from a friend, a family member, or a romantic partner can help us feel less distressed, more secure, and can give us the courage to take bigger steps in our own lives. Furthermore, research studies show that receiving support, such as a friendly gesture, hug or hand-holding, can significantly reduce someone’s physical and emotional pain. For example, after Cedric’s death, Harry spends most of the summer dealing with his traumatic experiences alone. However, when he is reunited with his friends and his godfather, Harry is able to feel better over time. He is, of course, still struggling with his traumatic experience. Similarly, when Draco Malfoy and his cronies go after Ron and Hermione, the two are better able to manage the painful effects of being bullied when they have their friends’ support.
Meaning-making refers to finding meaning in someone’s painful experience. For example, as excruciating as it was for Harry to undergo years of being bullied by his cousin, Dudley, he is able to use his experience to stand up for his friends as well as confront the truly nasty teacher, Professor Umbridge, and eventually Lord Voldemort himself. Making meaning from our painful experiences can lead us to find ways to help others in the same situation. Sometimes the most painful experiences we go through highlight our own internal strength, and sometimes the biggest source of magic is to be able to use our own experiences to help those who need it most.
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the suicide hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line: 741-741.
To find a mental health professional in your area, type in your zip code on Psychology Today.