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Do Bullies Actually Lack Empathy?

Empathy can be used either to help or to hurt others.

One of my graduate students presented a vignette of a child client who was a victim of bullying: As the child sat passively, and listened silently, four of her peers had discussed whether or not she should be invited to go to an event with them. The discussion led to a decision not to invite her. Of course, the child was devastated.

How does one help children who are victimized in this way, and what can parents and educators learn that may assist them to bully-proof children? Typically, we misinform children that bullies behave in this way because they have low self-esteem, which doesn't make much sense to kids since bullies appear confident, arrogant, and self-assured--and they are. (See my previous blog, "Do Bullies Really Have Low Self-esteem?") In addition, children are often told that a bully is unable to empathize; to put himself in your shoes. But this is also untrue. Anyone who is a victim of someone who behaves like a bully knows that bullies have an amazing ability to recognize exactly what is going to hurt, manipulate, or control you.

The concept of empathy is generally defined as experiencing the emotional state of someone else, yet various theorists and researchers emphasize different aspects; such as thinking and feeling oneself into another person's inner life, perspective-taking, or empathy as a vicarious affective response based on the awareness of another's emotional state.

Empathizing with someone and understanding what the other person feels does not necessarily mean that you will respond sympathetically or compassionately. In fact, descriptions of empathy, have included the notion that empathy can be used for destructive purposes. The notion that a person can have the capacity for empathy, yet be hurtful in their response, is important for understanding the ways in which some people, including bullies, protect themselves. The bully's use of empathy is very much like those people who have a destructive narcissistic feature in their personality that enables them to use empathy to manipulate, control, exploit, or evoke fear in others.
Having narcissistic features as part of your personality is not that unusual among normal, everyday human beings, and certainly prominent for children and adolescents. Among other things, narcissistic features can include a grandiose sense of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, envy, arrogance, as well as a "lack of empathy" that has been used to describe people who seem oblivious to hurting the feelings of others.

However, in terms of empathy, this is not the whole picture. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association does include, "lacks empathy" as a feature of narcissistic personality disorder, but adds an important qualifier: "is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others." The unwillingness to empathize with another person is a feature of narcissism in human behavior which allows the observer to believe that empathy is "lacking."
There clearly are people who appear to "lack" empathy--especially those who are prone to bully, control, or manipulate others. Yet consider for a moment that perhaps these people don't really "lack" empathy, but instead that their vulnerability necessitates they withhold it--an unwillingness to empathize rather than a lack of empathy. In addition, their recognition of the vulnerabilities of another person is used to protect themselves: they manage to evoke in others the shame that they wish to disown.

Bullies are notorious for their ability to recognize weaknesses or shame in others. They do have a capacity to empathize. However, they destructively use their empathy to manipulate, control, exploit, or to cause pain. And they are able to withhold their compassion for the distress they cause others to feel.

It is necessary for a victim to understand that a person who behaves like a bully knows what can hurt you, and might use it as a weapon for power, control, or for self-preservation; hiding from themselves and others their own proneness to experience shame. In addition, the fear of being a bully's target often keeps others from protecting a victim. Those who witness a bully's actions, such as in the case of children in a group where one child is the target, might even appear to go along with the bully's behavior. Their own fear of being excluded or bullied themselves, or their own needs for acceptance by the confident bully allows their collusion. Thus, one of the most effective tools that children have in dealing with bullies is to join together with an attitude of intolerance for popularity that is earned with destructive, hurtful behavior. And adults must be the role models for this attitude.

This blog 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.

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