Bullies Use Fear-Based Coping

            Why do some people bully others? This is a question with complex answers, but let’s see if we can come up with some general guidelines to help move toward an answer. This analysis applies no matter who the bully is: classmate, politician, neighbor, stranger, parent, teacher – it doesn’t matter.

            First of all, recognize that the bully is afraid. Of what? You! “Why,” you might ask, “would a bully be afraid of me? They sure don’t act like it!” Ah, they don’t act like it. And there’s the key to understanding what motivates most bullies. Something you do, or the way you look – literally any quality or action you show could be the culprit – reminds the bully of some internal, unresolved fear that they do not want to face because it is a source of anxiety to them. So, to avoid having to face their fear, they lash out at you to prove to themselves that they are superior – fearless – to you.

            Sometimes the train of associations is not obvious. For instance, 14-year-old Jasmine bullies 13-year-old Savannah at school, on the school bus, and on social media. She likes to get in Savannah’s face and call her names, jostle and push her, and threaten her. Savannah’s parents noticed something was bothering her, and they finally got her to share her anxieties. After hearing their daughter’s story, they decided to talk to Jasmine’s parents – calmly and respectfully – about the situation. They didn’t know the parents but got their phone number through the school. Savannah’s mom made the call and had a heart-to-heart with Jasmine’s mom.  

            “It wasn’t easy calling her,” Savannah’s mom confessed. “I was really nervous that the whole thing would go south and she would begin yelling at me or whatever; all kinds of negative concerns entered my mind. But it went OK. I was careful not to lay any blame on anyone, but just describe the situation. And I said that our daughter was getting nervous about school and feared encountering Jasmine. I said we felt that wasn’t right, and we hoped we could work with her parents to try and improve things.”

            Savannah’s mom was surprised when Jasmine’s mom said, “You know, I agree with you. I’ll have a talk with Jasmine. I don’t know why she’s picking on Savannah, but I’ll get it to stop. You know something? I wish I had done this last year, just what you’re doing now. Jasmine was being bullied by an older girl at school, and I never talked to her parents. We went to the school principal and complained, and the parents got all mad at us and they still are. And now here we are. Jasmine is doing to your daughter what happened to her last year.”

            It’s often true that bullies were once bullied. Child abusers, in fact, often have a history of being victims of abuse. And now we see Jasmine going from bullied to bully. Only by talking with Jasmine could we ever truly fit the puzzle together, but it’s reasonable to assume that her experience with being a victim caused her great anxiety and damaged her self-esteem, confidence, and sense of being worthy of love. One way to hide those uncomfortable feelings would be to show herself that she is stronger than the bullying experience makes her feel, and one way to do that would be to bully someone who reminds her of herself, someone like Savannah.

            Bullying can take many forms. Would you consider the following an example of bullying? In a small (population 12,000) town, when there’s a local election for mayor or town council, the party affiliation of candidates is not listed on the ballot. The idea is to encourage voters to make their choice in a bipartisan way, voting for a person’s position on issues, not on their political party. One year, however, the town’s state representative proposes that party affiliation be listed on the ballot. The representative’s party has a clear majority in the town, and many people accused the representative of “playing politics,” and trying to ensure that members of his party would be elected by informing voters of their party affiliation.

Looked at another way, however, the representative could be showing that he is afraid of the ideas associated with the other party; he fears voters will prefer those ideas to his own, which would threaten his own political future. Thus, he uses his proposal to bully his way into convincing those in his party that the positions of the other party are dangerous and to be feared; he bullies his way into presenting the other party members as “them,” the bad guys, the other tribe, the ones to blame for the town’s problems. He can’t accept “the others” as having legitimate ideas because to do so would threaten his self-esteem, and throw his psychological balance into emotional disequilibrium. Fear – desperate fear of his own inadequacies – motivates him to identify “them,” so he can bully them, the opposition, into submission so he can deny to himself that he is afraid of them. If voters can entertain this possibility, they may be better equipped to think critically about the party-identification proposal.

            There are many ways to handle a bully. Some may work, some may not; it all depends on the nature of the situation. One thing for sure, however: If you have a feel for the psychological motives and inner turmoil of your tormenter, you have an advantage because such knowledge gives you the “high road,” the benefit that allows you to exercise some control in the situation by being able to choose the most appropriate strategy for you. For instance, Ken, a 9th grader, sees Bret – who likes to bully Ken – coming down the hall. Ken thinks, “Uh, oh, he’ll really come at me now after I answered that question in algebra class that he couldn’t handle. I made him feel inferior to me.” Armed with his analysis, Ken decides to go on the offensive. Before Bret can say a word, Ken says, “Hey, Bret, that stuff in algebra today is a killer and I’m not sure I really understand it. I got lucky answering that question. I’m getting together with some guys from class for a study session tonight. Want to join us?” Now Bret may throw Ken against the wall. Who knows? Caught off guard, however, he just might say something like, “Uh, not sure I can make it. When and where? I’m probably busy with other stuff.” “Well, let me know,” says Ken. “It would be a help to have you there.”

            FYI, the Jasmine and Ken stories are real, but have been modified. Jasmine’s parents told her to leave Savannah alone, and she did. Bret showed up at the study session and other ones after that. His algebra grades began to improve; he stopped bullying Ken. The political example is also real, but there’s been no resolution of the proposal yet.

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