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Saying Goodbye to Bullying, Part 1

Understanding what causes bullying

Bullying, intimidating, scapegoating...We all know what it is because we’ve all been on the receiving end of it at one point in our lives.

I decided to write this article because, for the first time in 30 years, in one year alone I’ve had two 12 year-old girls come to me for therapy because they were the victims of bullying. One of the girls actually ended up in the ER from a potentially fatal overdose of Tylenol after having been cyberbullied on Facebook.

In preparing this article, I meditated on the question of why bullying and scapegoating happens. Right afterwards, I went to see my acupuncturist, so she could needle me (sounds dangerously akin to bullying, but I promise you, it’s not). Lying there, imitating a human pin cushion, I heard the ruckus of squawking birds. I looked outside the window and saw a clutch of fighting roosters. A large rooster was bullying a skinny little one, blockading him from the food. Right before my eyes I was witnessing bullying in action as a strong animal preyed upon a weak one. This scene echoed what occurs throughout the entire animal kingdom where weak and wounded animals becomes sitting ducks to predators.

The human kingdom is no different. Human bullies prey upon weaker targets.

What many people might not realize is that beneath their tough exteriors, bullies are actually weaklings themselves. Sheep in wolf’s clothing. Think about Hitler, who was famously bullied by his own abusive father. Privately he saw himself as a weakling who allowed his partner to urinate on him, yet he grew up to be the quintessential bully who brutally scapegoated and attempted to murder an entire race.

Let’s start by defining bullying and scapegoating, which are essentially one and the same.

Scapegoating is a hostile socio-psychological discrediting operation in which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves and towards a target person or group. It is also a practice were angry feelings and inappropriate accusation are placed on others. The target feels wrongly persecuted and receives misplaced vilification, blame and criticism; and the victim is likely to suffer rejection from those who the perpetrator seeks to influence. Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from "approved" enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. The scapegoater's target always experiences exclusion, ostracism or even expulsion.  

As a general rule, people who bully were either bullied or observed bullying during their formative years. Through the process of identification, children learn to behave like the bully of their youth.

Because a bullied child is too frightened to share his/her scared, weak, helpless and angry feelings with his abuser, the painful feelings get shoved under the emotional rug. But since feelings can't remain buried forever, the bullied child may end up passing his/her pain on  to a weak target such as younger siblings or vulnerable schoolmates.

As adults, these same victims may dump the pain they suffered onto their helpless children, employees or spouses.

The technical name for this dumping process is projection, and it is the projection defense that is behind all bullying and scapegoating.

With the projection defense, feelings of guilt, aggression, blame and suffering are transferred away from a person or group so as to fulfill an unconscious drive to resolve or avoid these bad feelings. This is done by the displacement of responsibility and blame to the other who serves as a target for blame both for the scapegoater and his/her supporters.

The problem with this and all defense mechanisms is they operate out of our conscious awareness. In a seamless fashion they enable us to release feelings without our ever having to feel or face them. In this way, the person who is doing the projection turns the other person into an emotional toilet bowl and flushes the unwanted emotional poison onto the other person, without the poison ever touching him or herself.

Because the mechanism is unconscious, the perpetrator's drive to displace and transfer responsibility away from him or herself may not be experienced with full consciousness. This means that denial and self-deception is often a feature. The point is, projection is a sign of great emotional weakness and an inability to face or “sit with” our own pain and work it through.

Obviously, bullying is often a behavioral way of venting incredible anger that’s festering as a result of having been mistreated. And, aggression, the use of force against another human being, is always present in scapegoating as the aggressor tries to dominate others. Aggressiveness can take several forms. The aggressive person is frequently rude and humiliating, (e.g., "What are you an idiot. Even a retard would understand what I’m saying."), or the aggressive person can become self-righteous (e.g., "I am only insisting on this for your own good."), or she/he can resort to being manipulative (e.g., "If you refuse, what will everyone think of you?")

If you’ve read my columns or book Kiss Your Fights Goodbye: Dr. Love’s 10 Simple Steps to Cooling Conflict and Rekindling Your Connection, or listened to my radio show, you’ve heard me talk about Fight Traps, which are the dysfunctional ways that people dump their anger on others. Open Warfare tactics, such as Name Calling, Character Assassination and Sarcasm are some of the overt tactics that people use to outwardly vent aggression. Any or all of these Open Warfare tactics are part of the bully’s arsenal.

Keep in mind that even though the bully may exhibit angry behavior, anger is never the primary emotion. Humans, like animals, have a habit of puffing themselves up, beating their breasts and engaging in fearsome and threatening acts to cover up intense feelings of vulnerability, hurt, sadness and fear.

In addition to ridding unwanted feelings, bullying can also be caused by self-hatred. So, for example, when bulliers see traits in their children or spouse that are reminiscent of an aspect of themselves that they don’t like, they project their own self-hate onto the other person.

In this case, the psyche says, "If I can put the blame on you, I don't have to recognize and take responsibility for the negative qualities in myself. What I can't stand about myself, I really hate in you, and have to attack you for it in order to deny that I have the same quality."

Bullying can also be the result of low self-esteem. In this case, the scapegoater uses others to raise his/her own status by lowering the target’s status.

Now let’s talk about bullying and scapegoating in families.

Scapegoating is a serious family dysfunction in which one member of the family is blamed for small things, picked on and constantly put down. In scapegoating, one of the authority figures has made a decision that somebody in the family has to be the bad guy. The mother or father makes one child bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, but most often imagined) that are wrong.

There are different reasons one child may be singled out or scapegoated. Perhaps the child is non-compliant or acting out, or small, sick, weak, vulnerable and/or incapable of defending himself.

Sometimes, the parent heaps on blame because he/she cannot stand the child who has traits and characteristics that are similar to his/her own.

And sometimes the child has personality traits that are similar to a disliked relative. For example, the bullier might say, “She reminds me of my sister who I never liked.” Other children in the family will then pick up the scapegoating pattern and join in taunting and hurting the scapegoated child. In extremely dysfunctional families, the parent may goad the other children to pick on the disfavored one.

Sometimes one child is favored and given special status by the parent. This child can do no wrong according to the parent, but being the favorite backfires on them. Children who are favored often develop their own form of pathology that causes them to grow up feeling special and entitled. One woman said, "For years I resented my brother who my mother adored. I wished I had been the one who was my mother’s favorite. Now I see how messed up my brother is and I'm glad I was not the chosen one of a very sick mother."

When scapegoating occurs, all members of the family are affected. Children who are scapegoated often feel insecure and develop a victim mentality. They learn that they are at the bottom of the pecking order in the family and often automatically gravitate to that role at school or at work. It’s important to note that aggression in families creates a diminishment in self-esteem in all the children.

Often an insecure parent will be aggressive with one of the children to vent his own sense of frustration at not doing well in life (My boss dumped on me, so I’ll go home and kick the dog, or the weakest family member).

It’s important for you to know that when one child is being scapegoated it’s because this pattern is being sanctioned by both parents. In other words, the scapegoating serves the parents’ needs in some way. You can’t believe how many times I’ve encountered families in which parents give an unconscious green light to one of their children to beat up on his/her sibling or other children as a way righting the wrong that the parent suffered as a child. Children who aren’t being bullied quickly learn to join forces with the bully to protect themselves from becoming the target of aggression.

I had a patient, who I’ll call John, who was brutalized and raped by his brother while their father looked the other way. When John came to see me, as a grown man, he was a total wreck. He was so riddled with anxiety and terror that he shook all the time. The shaking was so bad that he couldn’t even write out a check to me.

As I uncovered all the details of John’s story, I found out that his own father had been damaged in his own childhood. Specifically, his father felt that his younger sister was favored, while his parents punished him. The father harbored a mountain of resentment toward his baby sister. When he grew up and had kids of his own, his unconscious arranged to right the wrong he suffered. He unconsciously gave his older son license to bully and torture his younger child, my patient John. By doing this, the father was vicariously venting his own rage at his younger sister, using his older son as the weapon. Of course, he destroyed his innocent son in the process.

Bullying can also be a primitive form of communication designed to let other people feel what the bullier felt and suffered as a kid. But, sadly, this form of communication damages others in the process. You may wonder why people don’t just choose to describe their pain to others without laying in on them. That takes strength. To describe your feelings, you have to feel them and own them. Bullying gets rid of the feelings without your having to face and feel them.

For example, I have a patient who was picked on and bullied by his older brothers. Now, each time his wife acts weak and helpless, he behaves like his older brothers and bullies her for her weakness. In therapy, I helped him to realize that her weakness triggers his own wound. Without consciously realizing it, when she’s weak he feels like he’s looking at his young self in the mirror. Rather than feel week, he unconsciously turns the tables. By taking on the role of the bully, he gets to rewrite history so that this time around he becomes the bullier instead of the victim. Doing so allows him to vent all his pent up anger at his brothers. In the process he’s inflicting the pain he suffered on his poor wife. I asked him, “Why would you want her to suffer the pain you felt as a boy?” He immediately said, “So she’ll know how it felt for me.” I was then able to help him to see that he could help her to understand how he felt by describing what he went through and how he suffered, without actually inflicting the pain on her. That was all he needed to break the cycle.

As a final note, it’s important to know that the dynamic of making one child "good" and another child "bad" in the family is a vicious generational theme learned and passed down from parents to children.

Bullying and Scapegoating as a Sign of Marital Distress:

Now let’s talk about how bullying and scapegoating can be a sign of marital or relationship distress. If you recall, I previously said the best way to unify a group is to unite against an enemy. By ganging up on a child, couples can actually glue together a marriage or relationship that is coming apart at the seams. Many parents gang up on their children and unite against the enemy in an unconscious attempt to solidify a marital bond that’s fraying.

As a therapist, I’ve seen many couples use this very tactic. A couple will come in asking me to fix their problematic, troubled, defective, misbehaved kid. The kid is what we call the “Identified Patient.” Meanwhile, the real problem is the parents. I had a couple this week who asked me for help for their son who tortures the dog, bullies his siblings, and generally acts out all over the place. In reality, the marriage is in shambles. The kid treats the animal and his siblings the way his parents treat each other. Remember, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Now I want to give you a roadmap for ending bullying and scapegoating. I want to preface by reminding you that scapegoating is difficult to resolve precisely because the motivations for the behavior are unconscious, which makes it easy for the bullier to deny. It’s also hard to stop because it serves multiple psychological functions. And on top of all these obstacles, scapegoaters tend to lack empathy, shame and guilt.

But there is a way out.

Believe me when I tell you, sweetness and light is not the path to resolving this pattern. While I understand the natural reaction to shrink back in fear in the face of a bully, but this reaction only strengthens the bully’s punch. Remember I said beneath their tough exterior bullies are weak and hurting. In order to create change, we need to break through to the hurting and weak part of the bully’s psyche. The only way to break through to the weak and vulnerable side is to break through the hard defensive shell and crack it open. This can’t be done with a light, loving and tender touch.

For my patients who are bullies, the turning point always comes when I use sufficient emotional force to break their defensive armor. The way to crack a bully’s armor is hard confrontation, meaning you may have to be an even bigger bully than the bully. This is often the only way to break through to the wounded child that lies within. When you break through, the bullier suddenly remembers what it felt like to be bullied. Feeling his/her own unbearably painful feelings is the key to healing this pattern.

Next Help the Bullier Feel for His/Her Victim

When the scapegoater finally accesses the pain he/she felt as a kid, when the old pain is palpable, you can now evoke partial identification, which is the ability to put oneself in another’s emotional shoes. Then you can ask the question, why would you want to make someone you love feel the terrible pain you felt as a kid? At this point, when his/her own heart is bleeding, the bully can finally consider the effect his/her behavior has on others AND feel empathy for the people that are being harmed. By encouraging identification with those who are being harmed, you can open the bully’s heart and access his/her humanity.

If you are a bullier: The best way to wake up and face the music is to look at your family life. If you are a parent and have a child who’s bullying others, it’s time to take a look at yourself. Children are mirrors that reflect our own behavior back at us.

The ultimate solution to end the epidemic of bullying is for all of us to have the strength to take ownership of our feelings of weakness, hurt, sadness and anger, and work them through, rather than dump our pain onto others.

In part two of this article, I share specific techniques for disarming bullying in yourself, your family and in your world. 

This article was the subject of two full length Ask Dr Love radio shows. To hear part one of the show, Saying Goodbye to Bullying - Part One, click here: 

To hear part two, Saying Goodbye to Bullying - Part Two: How to Disarm a Bully, click here.

Avaiable NOW on Amazon, Dr. Turndorf's new book, Kiss Your Fights Good-bye: Dr. Love's 10 Simple Steps to Cooling Conflict and Rekindling Your Relationship.


Dr. Jamie Turndorf Ph.D., is a relationship therapist, emotional communication expert, author and advice columnist.


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