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Why do bullies bully?

Forget all that psychobabble you’ve heard about how bullies bully because they are hurting on the inside, because they have some deep unmet need, because they are insecure, because someone has bullied them, blah blah blah.

No. Garbage.

Bullies bully for one reason, and one reason only: Because they can.

A quick snapshot from my childhood will help me make my point clear.

Peaceful resistance

The day we moved into the tidy ranch house on Columbia Street, the little girl who lived across the street came running over to greet us.

With her mischievous smile and zany sense of humor, Julie* reminded me of a pixie. She was fun, she was funny, and my siblings and I — my brother Dave, the oldest; Carol, the middle child; and me — all liked her immediately. At five, she was almost exactly my age, which made her the ideal playmate for me.

It didn’t take long, though, for that ominous cue from Carol to enter the picture — the one that always came during play to indicate that it was time to start turning on me in a pleasant game of torture.

With the passage of time, and due to their sheer number, I have forgotten what the specific cue was in each case. Nor do I remember Julie’s specific response. But I do know that the cue was always there, the invitation to join the sadistic fun, because with Noelle that was one thing that never varied. The cue was always there.

What I do remember distinctly is that no matter how many times Carol gave the cue, Julie’s response was always the same.

Bafflement.

As in, Why would I want to do such a thing?

To say that Julie’s response floored me would be an understatement. It was a far cry from what usually happened when our family got together with friends who had kids our age. A far more typical experience was for our playmates to quickly realize that this was a fun game that had absolutely no unpleasant consequences, posed no risk to them, and offered absolutely no chance that they would get in trouble for it.

I had simply never encountered this sort of peaceful resistance before in any of our peers. But there it was, and it was very consistent. Every day, when Julie came over to play, I knew I could look forward to several hours of peace.

It became all the more significant to me when I learned, many years later, that Julie was coping with plenty of her own secret pain at the time.

Obviously, then, not everyone who has the opportunity to bully does so — even people who are hurting on the inside, have some deep unmet need, are insecure, and have themselves been bullied.

What kind of person becomes a bully?

So what, exactly, goes into the making of a bully?

According to numerous expert sources, there are three key ingredients.

The first ingredient is an innate and distinct character profile that is highly specific to bullies.

In his 1993 book, Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do, Dan Olweus, PhD, identifies several characteristics of students who are most likely to be bullies:

  • They have a strong need to dominate and subdue other kids and to get their own way
  • They are impulsive and easily angered
  • They are often defiant, aggressive or contemptuous toward adults, including parents and teachers
  • They show little empathy toward other children who are victimized

Recent psychological research has debunked several deeply entrenched myths associated with bullying. For example, it has long been held that bullies are essentially anxious, insecure individuals who use bullying as a means of compensating for poor self-esteem. Using a number of different methodologies, including projective tests and stress hormones, Olweus concludes that there is no support for such a view. To the contrary, most bullies that have been studied had average or higher than average self-esteem.

In the case of my own two siblings, the description does not seem to fit my brother — who more often than not was a willing participant in the bullying, rather than being the  instigator. But as for Carol, who was nearly always the one who initiated the abuse, the description is remarkably accurate.

From my earliest memories, my older sister has always been supremely convinced of her own superiority over others. That sense of superiority encompassed everyone she encountered, whether within or outside the family. It included teachers, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, celebrities, public figures, and every person who has been president since we have been alive.

As a child, she could be remarkably oblivious to any evidence that might suggest her to be something other than her internal self-image of perfection. With maturity, that overweening arrogance has been tempered some by the usual bumps and bruises most people encounter in life. But at core, she maintains the deep conviction that no one else is as smart, as enlightened or as competent as she.

Lest you think I am merely using the safety of this platform to strike back at someone who caused me great suffering as a child, let me tell you that is not the case. She herself would tell you my portrayal is very accurate. She would have no shame in doing so because she does not care what you think. Remember, she is better than you.

How did she come by such hubris? It’s a source of continual bafflement to me, particularly since I seem to have come out on the opposite extreme. All I can tell you is that she seems to have been born with it, and it seems to be a permanent fixture of her DNA.

This character profile is what enables bullies to be oblivious to and unconcerned about the pain they are inflicting on their victims. It allows them, with a completely clear conscience, to lie about and deny the vicious games they play. And it allows them, more often than not, to wipe their memories completely clean of ruthless incidents they have instigated and participated in, leaving their victims to struggle alone with the painful memories.

Authority figures asleep at the switch

The second ingredient in the making of a bully is opportunity. In practical terms, that translates to an absence of effective monitoring and intervention by authority figures: parents, teachers, etc. In his 1991 book Perilous Rivalry: When Siblings Become Abusive, psychologist Vernon R. Wiehe describes a pattern of “parental ignorance, disbelief and inaction” when adults fail to intervene appropriately on behalf of their bullied offspring.

Wiehe was writing specifically about abuse happening within the sibling context, which obviously is a subject that is of particular relevance to me in my writing. However, judging by stories that others have shared with me, it’s safe to say that such responses from parents, teachers and others are equally damaging when the bully is not a sibling.

Wiehe presents a list of unhelpful adult responses, all of which were typical patterns exhibited by my own parents. They include:

*  Ignoring or minimizing the abuse

*  Denial

*  Blaming the victim

*  Doubt and disbelief

*  Indifference

*  Other inappropriate responses, some of which actually trigger more abuse. (In my case, for example, my parents frequently rewarded my siblings by giving them special treats while punishing me for having asked for help).

*  Joining in, which Wiehe says is “the worst response.” This, too was a frequent response from my parents.

Fringe benefits for the bully

The third ingredient in creating a bully is reward. There’s some payoff for the bullies to bully, or they wouldn’t keep doing it. Those rewards can range from gaining approval of teachers and parents to increased social status and power among their peers.

According to Rachel Simmons, an author writing in the Oct. 14, 2010, issue of Newsweek, bullying and aggression “can yield rich social rewards like attention, more friends, and power.”

So powerful are those rewards that Dr. Olweus has developed a bullying prevention program that acts specifically to “change the ‘opportunity and reward structures’ for bullying behavior, resulting in fewer opportunities and rewards for bullying.” The program has been implemented in a number of U.S. schools over the course of a 20-year period, with impressive results. Schools have reported significant reductions in the number of bullying incidents, in associated anti-social behaviors such as drinking and theft, and substantial improvements in the overall social atmosphere to reward more positive interactions.

Some obvious conclusions

If you’ve read this far, then I hope you’ve reached the same conclusions I have:

1.  Bullies are inherently predisposed by their very natures to bully.

2.  Give them the opportunity to bully, and they’ll do it.

3.  Reward them for their bullying, and they’ll keep it up.

The opposite corollary, I hope, is equally obvious: Remove any one of those ingredients, and you stop a potential bully from inflicting harm on another person.

The likelihood of being able to change a person’s innate personality is a topic that goes far beyond my expertise to comment on. But it should be fairly clear that the other two ingredients — opportunity and reward — are well within the range of factors that can readily be controlled by effective monitoring and intervention.

And that’s very good news.

Well, maybe not for bullies.

*a pseudonym

© 2012 by Ann Graham Price. All rights reserved.

Your turn

OK, readers. It’s your turn. Is it a new idea for you to consider that bullies are not sad and insecure — that, in fact, their self-esteem is unusually high? What does that suggest to you about the approaches people typically adopt in dealing with bullies? Is it time to re-think our strategies and possibly take a stronger stance? Please let me know your thoughts and ideas, and share them in the comment area below.

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Let’s just get right down to brass tacks and talk about that one thing we’re all trying to avoid, shall we?

You know what I’m talking about.

The dreaded “F” word. Forgiveness.

No doubt you’ve already heard from everyone who feels entitled to offer you advice that You Must Forgive Your Bully.

You must do it because it is the right thing to do.

You must do so because it is what God wants you to do.

You must do it because you will never be free until you do.

And that’s all true enough. But how, pray tell, is this properly done?

I mean, seriously. How do you forgive someone who has not asked for it, does not want it, and refuses to acknowledge that he or she has done anything that requires it? Someone who, in addition to refusing to repent, very likely will continue to compound the original damage with fresh onslaughts at every opportunity?

Someone, in short, who doesn’t deserve it?

How do you forgive that person? Because, let’s face it: If we’re talking about a bully here, we’re talking about someone who has a very slim chance of ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever EVER acknowledging his or her wrongdoing.

Or even remembering it, for that matter.

Well, I’ll tell you exactly how you’re going to forgive your bully: By the sweat of your brow, by the endeavors of your spirit, by the toil of your hands, and by undertaking the agonizingly slow work of remembering every painful detail of what happened, so that you know exactly what it is you are forgiving. Forgiving involves the excruciating process of looking every memory squarely in the face and calling it by its proper name, acknowledging and working through the painful emotions that are attached to those memories, and then in time, when you are ready, coming to terms with them.

And it’s not easy.

And it’s not quick.

And it’s not pretty.

And it’s not all neatly tied up in handy platitudes or convenient quotes from Scripture. No, you have to do it the hard, sweaty, gut-wrenching way. The one that makes you wonder, much of the time, if this can possibly be the right way to do it.

Yep. That’s the one. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

So just to be clear that we’re all speaking the same language, let’s talk for a minute about what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not letting the other person off the hook. Denying the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, or minimizing or justifying the wrong, is cheating. And it’s not cheating the other person; s/he has everything to gain and nothing to lose by being let off the hook. The only person who is cheated by this cheap and easy style of forgiveness is you.

*  Forgiveness is not an inevitable path to reconciliation. Sometimes reconciliation is impossible if, as is often the case with a bully, the person refuses to cooperate in a meaningful discussion. In other cases, reconciliation might be inadvisable, if the person is likely to continue to do hurtful things.

* Forgiveness is not dependent on the other person changing. If you waited for your bully to see the error of his or her ways before you could forgive, more than likely you’d be waiting forever.

*  Forgiveness is not a rigid mandate from God that will result in your immediate banishment to hell if you fail to comply. Bullies are notorious for self-righteously quoting Scripture if it helps them intimidate their victims. For instance, this one’s popular: “Forgive or the Lord will not forgive you.” Luckily, God is bigger than that and can probably be persuaded to cut you some slack. Try praying something along these lines: “Lord, I’m working on it, and it is my intention to forgive. I’m just not there yet.”

*  Forgiveness is not a one-time deal. You may find yourself feeling as if you’ve finally been able to forgive, then remembering some nuance of a specific incident that you had not considered before, and having to work your way through the memories again from this heightened perspective.

*  Forgiveness is not linear. It proceeds along a complex, circuitous pathway with many twists and turns and has its own internal logic, which often is not entirely clear except in retrospect.

*  Forgiveness is not forgetting. This one is so important I’m going to say it again, because it flies in the face of what most of us have been told over and over. But it’s true: Forgiveness is not forgetting. In time, the painful memories do lose their power to wound you. I promise. They do. But they never go away. Ever.

Here, then, is what forgiveness is:

*  Forgiveness is hard work. If you have openly, easily, readily and rapidly forgiven someone whose behavior nearly ruined your life, there’s a strong possibility that you have opted for one of the options in the above list of things that forgiveness is not. Go back and re-read that list. If any one of those items sounds a little too close for comfort, you’ve still got work to do.

*  Forgiveness is a process. It leads you slowly, painstakingly, sometimes over the course of several years, toward a sense of peace and quietude within your soul that allows you to live at peace with what has happened to you.

*  Forgiveness is costly. It will cost both you and the other person something, but in all likelihood you may be the only one who recognizes what has been lost. For you, it requires giving up forever on the hope that things will ever be as they might have been, could have been or should have been. You accept the reality that the person is who s/he is, has done and will continue to do similar things in the future, and will never change. For the other person, it means that s/he will lose your trust for all time. It may be a loss that the other person never recognizes. But you will.

*  Forgiveness is complicated. You may have experienced multiple incidents of bullying, each of which has its own distinct nature and requires its own distinctive pathway to putting it in perspective. You may have tried to confront your bully and encountered a range of responses, some of which are helpful, some of which are not. You may have  some good memories of interacting with the other person along with the bad ones, which makes the betrayal more difficult to reconcile. And, there may have been more than one person involved in the bullying, with each one playing a different role: parents, teachers and other acquaintances who could have stopped it and either failed to protect you or out-and-out contributed to the bullying. And each of them may require a different kind of forgiveness.

*  Forgiveness is acceptance of things as they are. It means living with the knowledge that it could all happen again, and that you can survive and even thrive if it does. Because you’ve already done it once.

*  Forgiveness is a highly individual endeavor. No one can really give you much of a road map, because what worked for someone else might not work for you. It is always helpful to hear how others worked through their pain, but by no means must you feel obligated to follow someone else’s formula. The one that works for you is the one that works for you.

*  Forgiveness is hearing that still, small voice inside your head that says: “I believe I have now said everything I needed to say about this subject, in as many different ways as I needed to say it, and as often as I needed to say it, and I am now prepared to live with it on the terms that have become clear to me over the course of my talking about it.”

So then, you wonder, when will you get to that point?

There is only one answer I can rightfully offer.

You will get there when you get there.

© 2012 by Ann Graham Price. All rights reserved.

Your turn

OK, readers. It’s your turn. What has been your experience with forgiveness? What was the most challenging thing you faced in trying to forgive your bully? What was most helpful?

I was more than a little surprised the day my older sister, Carol, invited Peggy Wilson* to our house to do homework.

Peggy was a violin prodigy who had started studying the Suzuki method at an age when Carol was still studying Wednesday and Pugsley Addams’ techniques on how to torture your youngest sibling. (In our family, that meant me.) Moreover, Peggy was so accomplished on her instrument that by fifth grade she had already been the featured soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.

But that wasn’t why I was surprised to see her at our house.

No, the reason I did a double-take when Peggy Wilson walked through the door, chatting amiably with Carol as if the two had been best friends all their lives, was that for the past two months since the school year had started, I had heard nothing but what a wretched person this Peggy Wilson was — this arrogant, conceited girl who had moved to town and thereby threatened Carol’s sense of entitlement as Perpetual Teacher’s Pet.

“That Piggy Wilsow is so conceited,” Carol would fume. “The teachers think she’s so big just because she was the soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.”

Or, “I hate that Piggy Wilsow. She gets everything she wants just because she was a soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.”

Or this: “Piggy Wilsow is so stupid. She only gets good grades just because she was a violin soloist with the Kalamazoo Symphony.”

On and on it went. You get the idea. Peggy Wilson was, hands down, the absolute worst thing that had ever happened to truth, justice and the American Way — and certainly to Noelle– since time began.

A slap in the face — literally

So you can imagine my shock when Peggy Wilson walked into our living room and the first thing she said to me, in an accusing tone of voice, was this:

“I hear you think it’s funny to call me Piggy Wilsow.”

OK. I have to confess, I had laughed the first few times when Carol used that moniker. And, I had probably used it myself once or twice in conversation with Noelle.

But this had a whole different feel to it. Somehow the insulting name had become my idea, rather than Carol’s.

Speak up, my mind shrieked. Tell her the truth.

But as was often the case when Carol would twist the truth around in a way that left me looking guilty and defensive, I stuttered incoherently, despising myself for my inability to mumble even a few words that made sense.

“Oh, really?” Peggy said sarcastically. Without another word, she slapped me smartly across my cheek, while Carol smirked triumphantly.

I stood still for a moment, my cheeks burning as much from rage and humiliation as from the stinging slap. Everything in me yearned to strike her back. But I knew from experience that if I did that, Carol would incite Peggy to join her in tackling me, and then I would have a fight on my hands I couldn’t possibly hope to win.

Without another word, I turned and walked stiffly out of the room, trying to muster as much of my tattered dignity as I could. I could feel their contempt burning into my rigid spine as I made my way clumsily across the room and stumbled up the stairs.

‘You be the bigger person’

Later that evening, as I recounted the incident at the dinner table, I asked my mother to speak to Peggy about it, and perhaps to Peggy’s mother. At the very least, I hoped against hope that she might reprimand Carol.

No such luck.

Mom shrugged indifferently, a reaction I had come to expect from her by then. “Why should I?” she said. “She didn’t hurt you, so it doesn’t matter. Besides, you’ll be the bigger person for it if you just let it go.”

But I did not feel the bigger person for it — not at that moment, nor at any other time as I grew older and reflected on that incident from the perspective of time, experience and maturity.

Quite the opposite. I felt exceedingly diminished by it.

Bullies and wimps

In his online article, “Dignity Beats Back Bullies,” Domenick Maglio, Ph.D. and self-described neo-traditionalist, asserts that because so many of us have been taught similar messages about turning the other cheek and Being The Bigger Person, we are becoming a nation of bullies and wimps.

“Bullies and their counterparts, wimps, are increasing in number,” he writes. “This should not be surprising given what we tell our kids. The child is told not to retaliate in self-defense because if he does he is the same as the bully. He is taught to ignore or accept the bullying until the perpetrator gets tired of abusing him and goes away. The problem with this is it doesn’t work.”

When a bullied child is pressured to “understand” and “befriend” the bully, it merely compounds the dynamic that has already been developing. The aggressive child, Maglio says, “sees this as weakness and becomes more emboldened, while the compliant child is further humiliated.” Furthermore, it solidifies the roles of victim-aggressor in the eyes of others, who may decide that it’s okay to join the aggressor in tormenting the victim.

Maglio further observes that all too often, school authorities take the easy way out by treating bullies and their victims equally.

“It is easier to avoid a comprehensive, time-consuming investigation [that would] get to the truth,” he writes. “It is more P.C. and less disruptive to give each child an equal consequence, avoiding all the problems of judging who was the initiator, eliminating parents being irate in defense of their child.”

‘Strike back’

In other words, Maglio suggests, a kind of pervasive moral cowardice prevails, so that even those who are in a position of authority tend to take cover rather than taking a meaningful and appropriate stand.

Among his more provocative suggestions: Teach your child to hit back when provoked.

“Bullying is part of human nature,” he says. “It has and it will continue to exist. Society, with proper standards and expectations, can keep it under control. Without an understanding of how our current practice of coddling and appeasing is fostering abusive behavior, we will continue this epidemic of bullying.”

In light of Maglio’s observations, I ask myself, all these years later, Should I have struck Peggy Wilson back? The answer, given my particular circumstances, is still a resounding no.

Not that she didn’t deserve it. She did. But she and Noelle together no doubt would have subjected me to a far worse drubbing than a mere slap if I had retaliated — and I didn’t deserve that. Moreover, it was clear from my mother’s response that there would be no consequences whatsoever for either one of them.

Another way

Still, l think Maglio is onto something. Maybe there’s a larger lesson here, and it has something to do with each one of us — you, me, teachers, parents, everybody — deciding to be neither bully nor wimp nor heedless bystander. Maybe it means that we all need to develop and heed our own internal moral compass that can determine the right course of action. Perhaps only then can we hope that onlookers and others not directly involved will intervene and stop leaving it to the bully and victim to “sort it out for themselves.” Given everything we know about the dynamics of bullying, and how it escalates over time if allowed to continue unchecked, such a moral compass seems to be our best hope of dealing with the issue of bullying.

*a pseudonym

© 2012 by Ann Graham Price. All rights reserved.

Your turn

OK, readers. It’s your turn. What do you think? Should children be taught to fight back? Should schools, parents and others take a stronger stance against bullying? Do bystanders have a moral obligation to intervene if they can? Please share your thoughts and ideas.