If we want our society to put a stop to bullying—an excellent goal, of course, one embraced by President Barack Obama, educators, and celebrities—we can help the cause by better understanding the underlying psychological dynamics of bullying and by teaching this knowledge to our kids.
What are these underlying dynamics? The bully—girl or boy, man or woman—appears bold and confident on the surface. But this person is emotionally entangled in substantial self-doubt. All of us grow up with some degree of self-doubt. This feeling can be quite conscious and intense, or it can be repressed and inconspicuous. Our self-doubt produces uncertainty concerning our value, significance, strength, goodness, and worthiness. Even more so, it can produce deep emotional convictions that we are lacking in value, are deeply flawed, and are deserving of disrespect.
Self-doubt is a universal condition. We compensate somewhat for the painfulness of it when others give us recognition, acceptance, praise, and validation. The existence of self-doubt is evident in the human passion for fame, glory, power, and wealth, all of which bestow an illusion of value and superiority. Self-doubt is also evident in bullies who belittle and abuse others in their desperate need to feel superior and more powerful in themselves.
What is the source of our self-doubt? Many thoughtful people, of course, have tackled this age-old question. One answer, I believe, lies in our emotional conviction that somehow our essential, intrinsic self was never fully recognized and appreciated as we were growing up. Unspoken words, addressed to one’s parents, convey the feeling: “You don’t really know who I am.” The feeling is personalized: “If you don’t know who I am, then I’m probably not worth knowing.” These feelings can be present even when we had kind, decent parents.
We also associate our sense of self with our subjective experience of early childhood development. The determination of parents to subject us to the necessary process of child-rearing—highlighted by toilet training and the battles of the “terrible two’s”—can leave us convinced emotionally that some essential part of us was unacceptable, even wrong and bad. Such feelings live in our psyche at a deep, repressed level.
Bullying begins deep down inside of us. Our self-doubt supports the existence of an inner bully—our inner critic or superego—that operates in our psyche. We experience self-doubt most emphatically when our inner critic whispers or even seems to shout in our ear, belittling us and our accomplishments. This voice from our inner critic mocks, harasses, and torments us on the pretext that we somehow deserve to be treated with this disrespect. (Read, “The Tyrant that Rules Our Inner Life.”)
How does our inner critic get away with bullying us? How come we put ourselves at such a disadvantage? It only happens because we’re not sufficiently conscious of these inner dynamics. The human race has simply not been able to come to terms with the fact that we have a fundamental inner battle in our psyche between aggression and passivity. This war between inappropriate aggression (our bullying inner critic) and inner passivity (our defensive unconscious ego) is waged with the ammunition of false accusations, weak defenses, and emotional punishment.
Every psyche has aggressive and passive deposits. Usually, people don’t mind being identified as aggressive, but they invariably hate being identified as passive. So our instinct is to disavow our passivity. Bullies are inherently passive individuals who are often neglected or treated roughly at home. Inwardly, they feel devalued, unworthy, and passive to parents or siblings. At the same time, they may see their parents in the grip of these same painful emotions. Their instinct is to cover up this self-doubt, and they can do so by becoming aggressive with other children who are smaller or more passive. Now, for the moment, self-doubt vanishes. Bullies feel they have the power and are the better person, as they torment the one they have identified as a lesser person.
The aggressive behavior of bullies doesn’t allow them to escape from their emotional entanglement in self-doubt. That’s because, unconsciously, they identify with the victim of their bullying. Emotionally, they “sneak” into the skin of their victim, and through identification with their victim they feel what it’s like to be bullied. The victim typically feels enormous self-doubt. As Lady Gaga, a victim of bullying in her childhood, told The New York Times, “I was so ashamed of who I was.” Victims of bullying can be taught to become stronger emotionally so they feel better about themselves and are less likely to be targets of bullies.
Some bullies can’t resist the sadistic gratification they feel. The sadist, like the bully, appears to get this perverse gratification by feeling power and superiority over the victim. However, the perverse pleasure is ultimately of a masochistic nature. It is produced, as mentioned, mainly through the aggressor’s identification with the helplessness and worthlessness that the victim is presumed to be feeling. Bullies who are taught that their impulses to mistreat others are based on their unconscious wish to identify with the alleged inferiority or helplessness of their victims will begin to think twice before acting out.
Bullying is a psychological defense. It attempts to cover up the bully’s identification with the victim’s passivity and sense of having little value. “Look, I am the aggressor,” the bully’s defense maintains: “I am the one who is superior. This is what I want and this is what I like—to feel superior to this worthless weakling and more powerful.”
This makes their bullying a compulsive behavior. All of us can be quite compulsive when it comes to using various self-defeating behaviors to cover up what we don’t understand (and don’t want to acknowledge) about ourselves. Hundreds of various self-defeating behaviors are used by people to cover up our unresolved emotional attachments to feeling deprived, refused, controlled, rejected, criticized, betrayed, abandoned, and disrespected.
Bullying is essentially an instinctive acting out of the conflict in our psyche between aggression and passivity. Bullying also serves as a psychological defense that covers up the bully’s emotional attachment to feeling self-doubt in the forms of passivity and lack of value. With consciousness or self-knowledge, we are able to resolve this inner conflict, which then nullifies the instinct to act out being a bully or to feel deserving of being bullied.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.