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Do Bullies Really Have Low Self-Esteem?

Why do bullies seem so sure of themselves?

Parents try to help their children make sense of other kids who act like a bully (and some parents are baffled by the bullying behavior of their own children). Commonly, people believe that kids who bully do so because they have low self-esteem—that they don't think so highly of themselves. But is this true? If you've ever had to deal with a bully in your own life, you may wonder why bullies seem so sure of themselves if their self-esteem is supposed to be so low. Maybe low self-esteem is not what causes a bully to hurt the feelings of others. In fact, researchers have found that a bully's hurtful behavior has more to do with the emotion of shame and less to do with their self-esteem.

Shame has to do with how you think about yourself, and it results from not living up to your own personal standards. Shame is different than guilt, which is an emotion you might have from not living up to your social standards. You may experience guilt if your actions have hurt others—and you can also disregard your guilt. But shame makes you feel as though your whole self is bad. A child might experience shame regarding certain things about himself—his appearance, friendships, performance, socioeconomic status, or the behavior of family members—if he believes that they don't match up with what he thinks are "good enough" or ideal qualities.

When you feel shame, you can feel disgraced, dishonored, inadequate, undesirable, or flawed. Shame makes you want to hide yourself or just disappear. Shame can be experienced as such a negative, intense emotion of self-loathing that it can lead you to disown it, and, in the case of one who acts like a bully, give it away by evoking that emotion in others. Kids who bully and tease can easily figure out what makes other kids ashamed. They are skilled at triggering the emotion of shame in others.

Research studies have proven that there is no link between kids who behave aggressively toward other kids and low self-esteem. In fact, psychologists have found that kids who behave like bullies have high self-esteem, but that they are very "shame-prone." That means they are afraid their failures or shortcomings will be exposed. A person can have problems with shame and still have high self-esteem, and this is what makes a person act like a bully. Their mean behavior toward others keeps their self-esteem high because it takes their own and others' attention away from the parts of themselves about which they are ashamed.

Since shame makes you feel undesirable or inferior or causes you to think that something about yourself is really flawed, what can you recommend to your child that might help?

  • Try to keep yourself from getting pushed into feeling shame that really does not belong to you.
  • Find your confidence. Something that triggers shame in you can make you feel inadequate about your whole self. Separate out what is making you ashamed from everything else about yourself.
  • Stand tall and look confident even if you don't feel so sure of yourself inside.
  • If you tend to take your shame out on others (like bullying), remind yourself that you want people to respect you rather than be afraid of you.
  • Experiment with showing kindness to people and see if that helps you to feel better about yourself.
  • Don't be afraid of your weaknesses. They're part of being human.

This post is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.

More from Mary C. Lamia Ph.D.
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