Real Leaders

Why I Endured Bullying for Years

If you had asked me fifteen years ago whether I had ever been bullied or mobbed, I would have said no. Now, I’m not so sure.

The first time I went to see a therapist I was thirty. I talked for the entire hour of this first session about all the times I had found myself alone in front an angry crowd that was criticizing me, insulting me, teasing me or making me cry. When I finished, five minutes before the hour was over, my shrink asked, “Where were your parents in all of this?” to which I unthinkingly replied, “I don’t know.”

Fifteen years later it’s clear to me what he meant. Now I understand that it was strange that I described all these incidents of childhood bullying without ever thinking of reaching out for help. For a long time I associated this bullying with the seven years our family spent in Mexico, believing them to be no more than an anecdote of my distant past.

However, these early years weren’t so distant after all — later in life, several jobs, projects, collaborations and even my own startup ended badly for me. I endured collective abuse – unkind gossip, unfair deals, isolation and exclusion, even sophisticated power plays against me. Eventually, one of two things would happen: either I snapped and retaliated, which always led to a public trial and expulsion from the group, or I abandoned the whole thing voluntarily before my opponents had the chance to publicly humiliate me again.

Over the years, I came to see a pattern in how I consistently put myself in vulnerable positions by standing up for people who weren’t brave enough to stand behind me. I made myself vulnerable to opposing (often ruthless) parties who invariably played the group until I was out. I was a sucker for the truth, I must confess. The Irish joker in me described it this way: “Before I was forty I was very worried that there was something seriously wrong with me. But then I realized that it’s all been part of some type of witch’s initiation!”

Indeed, I did learn to protect myself after much practice, although the key issue turned out to be the way I felt about myself before anybody even targeted me. Eight years ago I fell madly in love with the type of man I’d never wanted to be in love with. Terribly handsome, he had four nobility titles and women competed for this attention all the time. What I had interpreted to be (platonic) love at first sight, suddenly became a nightmare when he informed me in an email that he was “happily married.”

I believed him and blamed myself for having “got it all wrong” during our several months of intimate, deeply bonding conversations over his rapidly failing fashion business. I walked away in a shambles. The following year we reconnected over the publishing of a book that I had interviewed him for. We repeated the same game all over, but this time I fought back when he tried to shake the whole thing off again. I demanded a face-to-face conversation to understand what he felt for me, and would be done with him if he expressed no romantic feelings. He insisted he had no time, and that I was “Una tarada traumada” — which translates in Spanish to “a traumatized person with a defect.”

A year later he again asked me for professional advice. To my horrified disbelief, I watched as we repeated the whole game for a third time. I told him, “Maybe I am crazy, but anybody who hears that you’ve walked into the same cave, with the same woman three times in a row, would assume that either you’re crazy, or you like the woman and cave more than you admit.”

It took me several years of this awful, gut-wrenching to realize that while Javier was telling everybody how crazy I was, I was too terrified that he was right and told nobody. He once texted to tell me that he and all his employees were in China on business and had all agreed I was Glenn Close (in the movie “Fatal Attraction”).

It was humiliating and embarrassing to a point I can’t describe. I was terrified of what he might do and what he was telling people. At the same time, I had a gut instinct that what I was asking for – a face-to-face conversation to understand what was going on between us – was not an unreasonable demand. If he didn’t love me, then why didn’t he just tell me to my face?

Only now can I take a step back and ask myself: Exactly who was harassing who? Instead of showing up to discuss the issue in private, and end this disagreement, he kept recruiting supporters and turning them into Pino-haters at every party or gathering he attended. It was a long, awful night the first time I realized that I had never been in love with the seemingly perfect, trophy lion I had written about once in an article. To my deepest despair, I had to admit that I was in love with a bully.

I was the perfect victim. I believed him more than I believed myself. What’s more, I kept going back to that same cave, and the same man, over and over again. I agonized over his every insult, thinking it was true. I questioned my own behavior way more than I ever questioned his.

Once, he threatened to sue me. I sniggered, pointing out how there was absolutely nothing to base it on, yet I shivered inside. Despite putting up a fight with words and smart retorts to his cruel texts, I dared not disclose who he was to anybody. Yes, I talked an angry game, but in a primal, deep part of me, I agreed with what Javier and his mob said about me.

I had been bullied in romance, in business, and also at home with my family. It was what I grew up with. It was a type of discomfort that I became comfortable with. It has taken me all these years to stop believing in what others told me, and begin believing in myself. Thanks to this, I have become an expert at managing verbal violence and bringing conflict back to a constructive conversation in certain situations.

What about Javier, you may ask? Well, I’m still in love with him, believe it or not. We’ve shown the worst parts of ourselves to each other, which has allowed us to identify it and resolve it. We turned something ugly into a kind of beauty. But whether he will ever find the time, or (between you and me) the courage to face up to what he feels toward me, is a question I ask myself every day.

Falling in love is not about conquest, as Javier’s mob of female suitors and fans would argue, but about surrender. It took me eight years to give in to this strange definition of love, accept it for what it is, and become the certifiable “witch” that I’m now proud to be. At last!

And what does Javier really feel? Well, you’ll have to call him up and ask. I stopped asking a long time ago, I honestly don’t want to get sued!


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