We’ve all had a Von der Leyen moment, and it can leave you gasping

Getting cut from the herd never feels good and spells danger, it’s how bullying works

Did you ever have an Ursula Von der Leyen moment? I mean the moment you suddenly found you were not in the middle of things, but out on the edge, gobsmacked and unsure what to do?

Unless you have led a charmed life, you know what the president of the European Commission was going through last week because so many of us have gone through our own small versions of it.

As you probably know, Von der Leyen had her moment when she thought she was in a meeting with two boys (Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan and the president of the European Council Charles Michel) to discuss, among other things, the treatment of women. Then the lads plonked themselves on the two chairs set up for the meeting and left her standing, speechless, to find her way to a sofa that distanced her from the real action.

My own Von der Leyen moment came some years ago when, having been brought along to a big Christmas event by one of the participants, it was explained to me the moment I arrived that I was not welcome, had not been invited and should leave. Rather like Von der Leyen, I was relegated to a large stuffed chair outside the door. A few sympathisers brought me drinks but I escaped as quickly as I could.


The incident was unimportant in itself but it fed into my fear of exclusion which is why I remember it.

We are social animals. Getting cut out from the herd never feels good and spells danger. That’s how bullying works. The chosen victim is denigrated, whether politely, roughly, physically, verbally or both, is treated, most importantly of all, as not belonging, and it is that which leaves emotional scars that sometimes remain for decades.

As Prof Mark Leary of Duke University in the United States put it to the American Psychological Association, "Our concern with social acceptance spreads its fingers into almost everything we do."

The same parts of the brain that are involved in physical pain also become active when we suffer rejection. That underlines the huge importance to us of cultivating belonging and avoiding being cut out of the group.

Social rejection

Social rejection can make us anxious, angry and depressed and can also lead people to perform more poorly at complicated tasks (which gives their tormentors a further excuse for excluding them). It can also, I think, lead people to exclude themselves from future situations in which they fear rejection, thus increasing their exclusion.

Acts of exclusion can be sudden and leave the isolated person gasping and unsure. When you look at a video of the Erdogan incident you can see this happening with Von der Leyen. She could not even get out a coherent sentence.

It could happen to any of us. We would like to think we'd do a Tony Soprano and upturn the chairs with the two terrified oafs in them, adding a few choice words and even a few kicks for good measure.

But, probably, we wouldn’t. We’d be more Von der Leyen than Soprano because when you’re taken off guard, you’re not going to express yourself well in response.

People who are bullied or excluded need to remember that. The first time it happens, your reaction will be poor and maybe embarrassing. But that’s not because you’re a bad or weak person. It’s because you were caught off balance.

Next time, forewarned and with a little planning, you will have worked out a response (but leave out the Soprano part). If you get knocked over again, work on the response again. Then, if you leave, you can do so with your head held high, knowing you’ll do better next time.

Next time Von der Leyen is meeting a despot the seating arrangements will be high on the premeeting agenda . She will have worked out exactly what to say and do if someone pulls a fast one.

I also imagine that for the rest of her days she will remember that shock of the floor vanishing from under her last week.