Saying Goodbye to Bullying, Part 2

What YOU Can Do to Eliminate Bullying Behaviors in Yourself and Others

Posted May 04, 2013

As I said in part one of my bullying series, we’ve all experienced the pain of being on the receiving end of bullying, scapegoating and intimidation at one point in our lives.

When you repeatedly observe bullying or are the target of bullying during your formative years, you are at risk of becoming a bully yourself or becoming a lifelong victim.

Let’s first talk about how a bullied kid (or a witness to bullying) can become a bully.

To understand how this happens, you need to understand a mechanism that’s called Identification with the Aggressor.

In her classic book, The Ego and the Mechanism of Defense, Anna Freud introduced two original defense mechanisms, both of which have become classics of ego psychology; one being altruistic surrender, the other identification with the aggressor. Anna pointed out that identification with parental values was a normal part of the development of the superego (or conscience). But Anna also noted that some people get stuck in their superego development when they introject (or take into the psyche) both rebuke and punishment and then regularly project this same punishment on another.

It is precisely through the identification process that we learn to conquer the fear we have of someone by becoming more like (or more identified with) that person: this is how a bullied child can become a bully.

Here's a perfect example of this. I'm currently seeing a man whose wife was bullied during childhood by a brother who was bi-polar. He tortured the entire household and her parents never protected her and her siblings. As a consequence, she grew up drowning in rage and hating men. But here’s what’s remarkable: while she outwardly presents herself as a poor victim, she actually behaves like a bully, displacing her rage against her brother onto her unsuspecting husband. Her husband is a perfect target of her aggression because she is exactly like his very mean mother. Each time she mentally beats on him, he turns into a little boy who continues repeating the pattern he fell into with his mother in which he begged for her forgiveness and love. Tragically, his sticking point literally hands her the club to beat him more. Eventually, this S&M dance escalated to the point that she brought false charges against him for abuse, got an Order of Protection and had him thrown out of the house!

If that’s not bad enough, she also co-opted her daughters to help her club her husband. Here’s where the Identification with the Aggressor defense comes into play. When the mother tells the girls that their father is an abuser, they have no choice but to go along with her tyranny (to identify with the aggressor) or else be sliced by her sword.

When bullying goes on in families, kids quickly learn to align themselves with the bully to avoid becoming the target of aggression.

The same mechanism occurs in the schoolyard, when kids also learn to join forces with the bully by ganging up on his/her target in order to avoid becoming a target themselves.

The point is, no matter whether you were or are a direct victim of bullying or simply observed bullying in your youth, through the process of identification with the aggressor you are at risk of becoming a bully.

Now I want to give you a roadmap for ending bullying and scapegoating in your world. Obviously the steps you will need to take are very different depending upon whether you are a bully or a victim.

If You Are a Bully:

I want to remind you that bullying is a difficult behavior to resolve precisely because the motivations are unconscious. It is very easy to deny behaviors that are fueled by mechanisms that are beyond our conscious awareness.

Bullying is also hard to stop because it serves multiple psychological functions.

And on top of all these obstacles, bullies tend to lack empathy, shame and guilt.

Taking an honest look at one's family life is a wake-up call. If you have a child who’s bullying others, it’s time to look at yourself in the mirror. Children reflect our own behavior back at us.

Also watch how others respond to you. Does your partner shrink in response to you? Do your employees or co-workers avoid or fear you?

View the entire world as your wake-up call. Pay attention and notice how others experience you.

Then, have the courage to face your own dynamics and deal with your anger. Examine family patterns of favoritism and placing the blame on one child. Do a web search on The Drama Triangle. Take responsibility for your actions. Apologize to the mistreated child (even if he/she is an adult now) and stop playing favorites. Get into therapy, face your own feelings and heal yourself, then learn to live with family members in more productive ways.

In the end, when it comes to change the greatest motivator is pain. Humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. When it comes to giving up bullying, the greatest obstacle comes from the fact that bullying brings a pleasurable release of tension and unwanted feelings; each time the bully discharges feelings of hurt, sadness, anger, vulnerability and weakness onto others, he/she is getting a sense of release. It’s not easy to give up this kind of gratification. The only way to break bullying behavior is to remove the pleasure and actually make it painful to continue behaving in this way.

In short, the bullier generally needs a helping hand. The bully needs feedback that actually makes it hurt to keep dishing pain on others.

What Can You Do to Give a Bully a Much-Needed Wake-Up Call?

As I said in part one of this article, sweetness and light is not the path to ending a bully’s reign of terror. For those on the receiving end of a bully’s bull, the natural reaction is to shrink back in fear. But this reaction only strengthens the bully. As I said previously, beneath their tough exterior bullies are weak and hurting. Therefore, the only way to reach the weak and vulnerable side is to break the bully's defensive shell and crack it open. This can’t be done with a tender touch.

This means you have to use sufficient emotional force to break the armor. To break through to the wounded child within, you must use hard confrontation, meaning you may have to come across as an even bigger bully than the bully. But when you do crack the shell, you are helping the bully remember what it felt like to be bullied as a kid. Feeling his/her own unbearably painful feelings is vital to ending the bullying.

Now comes the next step: to help the bullier feel for his/her victim.

As I said in part one of this article, when the old pain is palpable, when the bullier feels the pain he/she felt as a kid, it now possible to evoke partial identification, which is the ability to put oneself in another’s emotional shoes. Now is the time to ask the question, why would you want to make someone you love feel the terrible pain you felt as a kid? By encouraging identification with those who are being harmed, you can actually open the bully’s heart and access his/her humanity. It is at this point, when their own hearts are bleeding, that bullies can finally consider the effect their behavior has on others AND feel empathy for the people that they are harming.

What Should You Do if You Notice Someone Being Scapegoated? 

Remember there is strength in numbers. If you see a bully ganging up on one person, you have a choice: you can either join forces with the bully and gang up on the victim, or you can form your own coalition, and use the power of the group to stamp out the bully by speaking out against injustice and saying, "Hey that's not fair. Leave him/her alone." Make sure to get other family members to join you in insisting on fairness. Remember, there is strength in numbers. Break the destructive silence, and, when necessary, report abuse to the authorities.

In addition, if you know a child who suffers from scapegoating, show him or her some extra attention and be reassuring that the rest of the world does not see him/her as "bad." Become a mentor and act as a positive role model so that the victim can learn to see him or herself as a valuable person. Encourage kids from dysfunctional families to seek out more positive role models. Do not let them accept the poison that is being dumped on them as a result of one family member's bullying.

I’ll never forget the day I was visiting my family in New Jersey. I was waiting in the street while they shopped in a store. While I waited, I noticed a mother bullying her child. She pulled and yanked on his arm while verbally berating him. Noticing that I was staring, she said to the child, “Look at how that woman is staring at you. You’re making a spectacle of yourself.” Without missing a beat, I said to the mother, “I’m not staring at him. I’m staring at you and how badly you’re treating the boy.” Her mouth dropped open and she stopped dead in her tracks. I hope that from that moment on that boy never forgot my outrage on his behalf. I hope that he never forgets that someone spoke on his behalf and confronted the parent who was bullying him.

On another occasion, I was riding the train into New York City. A mother was verbally bashing her child, berating and belittling him. I stood up and told her to stop it. She shouted at me, “Mind your own business.” To which I replied, “This is my business. How you treat your child is everyone’s business.” Her mouth dropped open and she stopped. Remember bullies aren’t used to being confronted. When they are put in their place, they usually melt like cotton candy in the sun.

In the last year, I personally experienced bullying in my own life. A colleague from my professional group introduced me to her adopted son. The son and I became really good friends. I took a vacation with the son and the mother. On the vacation, I was horrified to hear her verbally shout, bash and belittle him, telling him that he was an “a hole,” and so on. I instantly spoke up right in front of the boy and said that she was abusing him. The child told me privately that he had no idea that he was being abused because nobody, not his father, or any other family members ever said a word to protect him. Of course nobody in his right mind wanted a dose of his mother's wrathful viper tongue! And I did bear a terrible price as she turned her wrath on me. But I didn’t back down. I fought for this kid without rest. With my support, he found his own voice and fought back against her. Deep down she knew that I was right. The proof: she stopped bullying and tyrannizing that boy. 

So speak up, and be the voice for those who can’t speak. 

What Should You Do if You Were Mistreated or If You Are Currently Being Bullied  

If you were or are on the receiving end of bullying, it’s your job to hold up a mirror to the bullier. Confront the bullier. Describe the bullier’s behavior. Negatively sanction the bullying, and spark Partial Identification by asking the bullier how how he/she would feel to be on the receiving end of the mistreatment that he/she is dishing?

I’ll never forget the time I was working with a father who was bullying his kid. He was filled with total denial, lack of empathy, lack of shame and lack of guilt. One day, I slammed him hard by saying, “I have a bulletin for you. Parent Magazine isn’t banging down your door to give you any awards.” He looked like cold water had been splashed in his face. But that woke him up.

Now I want to talk a moment about the role that many victims play in their own abuse, and specifically what they unconsciously do to remain a victim. I have a good example of this in my housekeeper’s granddaughter. She was being bullied in school and her family was up in arms and ready to change schools. But changing schools wouldn't help since the girl is going to take herself wherever she goes. How do I know that she has a hand in the bullying she’s receiving? She actually gave me the clue. The first day I met her she said, “I’m a bastard, you know.” This declaration was made while we were dining at a restaurant. She wanted me to know the essential aspect of her life: that her biological father never claimed ownership of her. Broadcasting this message literally makes her a target of aggression. She’s giving off a Green Light that says to those who prey upon the weak, “Pick me. I’m different and defective.” Even if she were to keep the feeling to herself, bullies smell fresh blood. Her vulnerability would still be sniffed out. She needs to heal her wounded self-esteem. If you are like this girl, I urge you to read my book Make Up Don’t Break Up http://www.drlove.com/make-up-dont-break-up. In that book, I show you step-by-step how to heal a self that scarred and raise what I call your Personal Net Worth. When you feel better about yourself, you will become a less likely target for victimization.

If you’re a victim, do whatever it takes to change your part of the dance. If you were designated the black sheep of the family, be aware of whatever you do now to keep the pattern alive with your parent or parental substitutes like a boss or spouse. Many people who were mistreated fall into the pattern of licking the boot of their abuser, crying, pleading, trying to make the abuser feel sorry for them, to see the error of his/her ways, turning the other cheek, trying to be good in order to win love, hoping that the abuser will see what a good girl or boy you are and finally reward you with love. Another name for this pattern is the repetition compulsion. Know that playing dead and rolling over only fortifies the abuser and keeps the abuse coming. My book Kiss Your Fights Goodbye: Dr. Love’s 10 Simple Steps to Cooling Conflict and Rekindling Your Connection will show you how to heal yourself and break free of this pattern.

I also want you to become aware of the fact that there is an unconscious pay off that you may be getting from remaining a victim. Let me explain. Setting oneself up to be a victim can be an unconscious way of releasing anger. For example, I had a patient who, as a child, used to smash her head into the wall. As she ran full force into the wall, her last thought before going unconscious was, “Now they’ll suffer when they see how hurt I am.” Why would a kid voluntarily turn herself into a victim? Here’s how it happens. If you’re living with a bully or an abuser, you can’t come out with your anger for fear of taking a bigger beating. Angry feelings either go out or in. If you can’t outwardly communicate your anger, it goes inward and gets turned back on yourself. This is how a kid learns to play the victim. Turning rage back on oneself is an indirect way of pointing the finger at the attacker and saying, “Look at how you wronged me, hurt me, made me suffer.” In no time, this pattern becomes the built-in, natural, automatic way of venting anger. If this is the only way you know how to get your anger out, you will actually look for ways to be victimized so that you can release your anger. But, can you see the bind here? The more you get victimized, the angrier you become. Instead of getting to the bottom of your anger barrel, you just become an anger manufacturing plant.

So remember, there are no victims, only volunteers. Stop trying to win the favor of a parent (or a parental substitute like a spouse) who mistreated you when you were growing up. That parent had and has a severe personality disturbance and is not likely to change. The best you can do is understand the underlying dynamic of your parent or spouse, and come to accept this. Don't expect your parent or spouse to "own" up to having mistreated you. Most likely, he/she will only blame you more.

Some children who were scapegoated have as little to do with the abusive parent as they can when they grow up. Refusing to remain in an abusive situation is a healthy choice. And, paradoxically, it is only by putting your foot down and refusing to be in the beaten down role that your parent or spouse may see the light. But remember that you aren’t putting your foot down to change the other person. You’re doing the limit setting for yourself. Also, join a therapy group, take an assertiveness training class and learn to set boundaries to other's inappropriate behavior.

Remember, the ultimate solution to ending the epidemic of bullying is for bullies to have the strength to take ownership of their feelings of weakness, hurt, sadness and anger, and work them through, rather than dump their pain onto others; for those witnessing bullying to speak up against injustice; and for victims to heal their own wounds, beware of releasing old anger by playing the victim, and instead find your voice and end the cycle of abuse.

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