Shifting Gears / Evolution of the bully
Published 4:30 pm, Thursday, April 14, 2011
We seem to have evolved past sticks and stones. Now we have words -- face to face, behind backs, scribbled on notes and launched into cyberspace.
Alye Pollack's YouTube video bravely and sadly reminded us that words are worse. This dance of meanness has gone on for much of "civilized" history. We've all been players in this drama at some point in our lives, either as the bully or the target or the silent onlooker, agreeing by our silence to the rules of this cruel and uniquely human behavior.
So why do people bully?
In some ways, bullying is a byproduct of a normal and necessary developmental process. Separation/individuation is the second stage of eight milestones in human psychological development. If you took Psych. 101, you may remember this. Our first task as wee infants is to trust. Without the trust that the world -- in the form of our parents -- would take care of us, we would have died of despair.
Around the age of 2 our minds begin to form the ability to grasp that we and others are separate. Along with this recognition must come the realization that we are, therefore, individual selves. This is both a wonderful and terrifying awareness. If we are to go forward, we have to wrap our minds around and accept the concept.
Though other developmental tasks surface over the next decade of our lives, Separation/individuation is always bubbling beneath the surface. We are continually grappling with who we are and how we stack up against others.
This is not a challenge we necessarily leave behind when we reach adulthood. That's the point of all these developmental tasks -- if we don't successfully maneuver through each, we will, like Sisyphus, keep reworking the same unfinished task in all our life situations until we finally, hopefully, complete it.
The insecurity of the bully and the uncertainty and vulnerability of the target of a bully will remain and pop up in all sorts of life experiences.
Being separate and individual has Biblical proportions. It was there at the beginning of the human saga, played out in the Garden of Eden. Separation and individuation (having a mind of one's own -- even if Eve told Adam to do it) brought shame. Then and there, we saw ourselves and others as objects -- no longer one happy, experiencing subject.
Shame is still with us, stronger than ever, today. It is what bullying triggers. And it is what triggers bullying.
Shame and humiliation are terrible and anguishing experiences. In fact, they rank near the top of emotions people want to avoid at all costs. If avoiding them means being on the attack, then that's what the bully chooses.
Simply put, bullies deal with their own fear of being shamed by attacking others they perceive as vulnerable.
The person being attacked hasn't the same stomach for cruelty and, ironically, often is, the stronger of the two psychologically. But the victim suffers, nonetheless, far too deeply and consciously.
The web of bullying and interpersonal cruelty begins to unravel when we look at shame and humiliation. As parents and teachers and employers -- adults in any category -- we can all evaluate if and how we have used shame as a method of influencing a child's behavior. Probably, many of us were reared with some degree of it.
Duplicating the experience with children in our lives now is a too-easy thing to do.
But shame lies at the heart of the power of bullying, both for the bully and the receiver. It's a terrible legacy, stunting or delaying the robust health and growth of our next generation. It is something we can no longer afford in our society.
We cannot do it or allow it or disregard it.
Carol Swenson holds a Ph. D. in psychology and is a counseling psychologist with a private practice in Westport. Her Shifting Gears column will appear monthly in the Westport News. She may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.