Why Do We Keep Bullies in Our Lives?

Bullies read us well, which gives us the illusion of empathy.

Posted Oct 11, 2019

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Source: Image by John Hain from Pixabay

For years I had a colleague who made fun of me for working hard or for stepping up to offer to take on a task. She called me a “goody two shoes,” dripping with sarcasm. I laughed and had lunch with her. At staff meetings she told new hires that they better get her coffee because she decided on their continued employment, smiling but her tone threatening. We senior employees laughed and shrugged it off. The new hires brought her coffee.

Then I studied empathy, and I realized that she did not share emotional feelings with those of us she teased: She was a bully.

The Bullies Among Us

As adults, we work for bullies, we live with bullies, we even elect them to political office.

Why do we laugh with, stay friends with, even cheer on bullies?

There are several reasons we don’t call bullies out and even claim them as good friends or people we admire. First, it feels good to be part of the bully’s group. The bully taps into our desires to be part of an in-group. Second, laughing with the bully protects us from becoming a target ourselves. We support the bully and in exchange, the bully does not pick on us. A third reason we support bullies is that the bully acts out for us. We can secretly enjoy the things the bully says that we would never say. And perhaps most perplexing, and compelling, is that in spite of the meanness of a bully, the bully seems to understand us. That ability touches us as human beings—and can lure us into feeling the illusion of empathy.

The Bully's Ability to Give the Illusion of Empathy

We often get empathy wrong; it's more than reading others. Emergence of sophisticated brain-imaging used to track neural activity has given us the data to corroborate what field research has told us for years: Empathy is complicated and involves a number of physical and cognitive processes that come together in our brains to produce the full array of empathy. Bullies exhibit only some of those skills, which can seem to mimic empathy.

Neuroscience evidence shows that brain activity for empathy is a combination of two abilities—sharing what others are feeling, and understanding what those feelings mean. When a person starts crying and it causes to you to feel like crying, you are sharing a reaction or an experience. That is the first step of empathy. If you try to understand why the person is crying, that is the second step of empathy. We often confuse each step as empathy, but both sharing and understanding are required to fully experience it.

Bullies are good at reading others, but not good at sharing those feelings.

What makes bullies so frightening is that because they do not feel what you are feeling but can understand you, they have power over you. They read you well enough to know how to push your buttons and what to say to hurt you or manipulate you to follow them and believe in them. Because bullies don’t share the emotions of their targets, they are free from the weight of those feelings. Your discomfort or pain does not touch the bully emotionally. Your feelings serve as proof that the bully is having an impact, which reinforces the power of bullying.

A bully’s insight into us can tap our human desire to be understood. However, it would be a mistake to think that understanding is the same as caring about us. Bullies have no regard for our feelings. That is what defines them as bullies: They lack empathy.

What Can We Do?

Bullying is all around us. Whether it is a co-worker belittling others, a family member picking on us at the holiday dinner table, or someone in the highest political office threatening smaller countries, it is all bullying. 

What should we do about bullies in our adult lives? The same things we tell our children to do:

  • Never ignore bullying.
  • Do not be a bystander; step in to stop the behavior.
  • Build a sense of community that “we all belong.”
  • Model true empathic behavior: Share and understand.

Bullies can only exist if we play along. Don’t go out to lunch with them, don’t laugh at their cruel remarks, and don’t put them in powerful positions. It really is on us to stop them.