Often these days the subject of bullying comes up in the context of prejudice. For example, during the last Presidential election former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was accused of bullying a fellow student during his youth, a student who was perceived to be different and possibly homosexual. When bullying is seen in this context, it becomes a simplistic victim syndrome.
In general, we view bullying as something children do to other children (or sometimes adults do to other adults). The bully is seen as a villain, oftentimes with hateful or prejudiced motives, and the person who is bullied is tabbed as an innocent victim. However, bullying is much more pervasive than that, much more complicated, with psychological consequences for both the bully and the person who is bullied.
The bullying that occurs among children is but one of many kinds of bullying. Bullying starts in families. Parents or older siblings are the original bullies. Children are taught to be bullies or to be bullied by the family system in which they grow up.
A number of my patients suffered from lifelong abuse. Indeed, they originally came to therapy because of this problem. Their lives were a series of relationships, jobs and situations in which they would be treated with condescension and even contempt. They complained of continually getting teased, mistreated, and rejected by lovers, of being unfairly treated by bosses, of being betrayed by friends. “I don’t know why,” they would complain, “but everybody always seems to look down on me. Without even knowing me, people suspect the worse of me.”
They were unconscious of how they had been conditioned by their childhoods to act in such a way as to provoke bullying. Most were either the youngest in the family or the shortest or stood out in some other way (not as smart or too smart). Their parents were often bullies; the father bullied his wife and children. The wife, in turn, emotionally bullied the children. Sometimes one particular child became the family scapegoat and was treated by everyone as they were stupid and deserved the bullying. The more they were treated as if he they were stupid or weird, the more they began to act that way. They more they were bullied, the more they learned to provoke bullying.
Sometimes a younger child may stand out because he is more talented or cuter than the older siblings and a Cinderella syndrome develops, where the older children are jealous and mean to the cuter younger sibling. This can go on for years and is a common way that bullying starts. Sometimes children’s stories tell truths that children need to know.
The consequence of this type of childhood is that a child can became a self-defeating personality. There is a cliche used about some people that they are wearing a sign that says, “Kick me!” Through their body language and their expressions and because of their inability to respond appropriately to bullying, they tend to provoke even more bullying. If someone teases them, they may become irate and fight back by warning the bullies not to tease them. This only makes people laugh and gets them even bolder so that they tease all the more.
Victims of bullying suffer from bad health. Because they are in a constant state of high stress, they develop such things as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. A recent National Geographic documentary called, “Stress: Portrait of a Killer,” details research on the connection between bullying, stress, and later diseases. Bullies tend to have less stress because they take out their anger on others.
And what about bullies? How do they fare in life? Bullies become bullies because they are imitating their parents or others who are bullies. Their parents look the other way or somehow reinforce their children’s bullying. When bullies grow up they became adults who have almost no awareness of their disorder. They rationalize it. They believe that some people deserve to be bullied because they are selfish, uppidy, or have a different, unpopular point of view. Although bullies have less stress, they often have their own personality disorders that can eventually bring havoc to their lives. Their power-mad attitude may result in some kind of emotional crash.
Both childhood bullies and childhood victims of bullying may become bullies to their own children; they become parents who have the attitude “It’s my way or the highway.” They have never learned to express their anger in an appropriate way, and so when they are in a position of power (as parents are) they abuse their power.
Bullying is complicated and, as I said before, pervasive. It starts in families but it takes place in all aspects of life. It occurs in schools, in companies, in athletics, in religions, and in politics. Individuals can be bullies and groups can be bullies. The Nazis in Germany before and during World War II are a notorious example of group bullying, as are the Muslim terrorists in our own time. Any group that uses intimidation, manipulation, guilt-tripping or other methods might be described as a bully. Any group that disparages another group, that accuses another group of being hateful, inferior, bigoted or in some way dangerous and uses that as an excuse to discriminate against that group, is a bully.
To end bullying, we must see it in all its varieties and in all its complications: which means, we must understand that both the bully and the victim of bullying contribute to the syndrome. The phrase, “Don’t blame the victim,” is a simplistic phrase the discourages us from looking at the complexity of bullying.
To end bullying, we must see the bully in ourselves. That’s the hard part.
** If you or someone you know is struggling with bullying, contact Aspen Counseling Services to schedule an Initial Assessment.