Recent reports about Mitt Romney bullying a fellow student who was perceived to be different and possibly homosexual have brought the subject of bullying to the forefront again. And once again the topic is being described in a narrow and simplistic way.
In general, bullying is seen as something children do to other children. The bully is seen as a villain, oftentimes with hateful or prejudiced motives, and the person who is bullied is viewed as an innocent victim. However, bullying is much more pervasive than that, much more complicated, with psychological consequences for both the bully and the person who is bullied.
The bullying that occurs among teenagers is but one of many kinds of bullying. Bullying starts in families. Parents or older siblings are the original bullies. Children are taught to be bullies or to be bullied by the family system in which they grow up.
One of my patients, Albert, had what is now categorized as a “self-defeating personality disorder” but used to be called “masochistic personality disorder.” He suffered from lifelong abuse. Indeed, he originally came to therapy because of this problem. His life was a series of relationships, jobs and situations in which he would be treated with condescension and even contempt. He complained of continually getting teased, mistreated, and rejected by women, of being unfairly treated by bosses, of being betrayed by friends. “I don’t know why,” he would complain, “but everybody always seems to look down on me. Without even knowing me, people suspect the worse of me.”
Albert was unconscious of how he had been conditioned by his childhood to act in such a way as to provoke bullying. He was the youngest of three brothers. His parents were both alcoholics and were always fighting, and the father bullied his wife as well as the three children. The wife, in turn, emotionally bullied the children, especially Albert. In addition, the oldest boy bullied the two younger boys and the second brother bullied the Albert. And so Albert, being the youngest, was the ultimate target of bullying in the family, and was treated by everyone as if he was stupid and deserved the bullying. The more Albert was treated as if he was stupid and weird, the more he began to act that way.
When Albert was four, he could sing harmony, and he and two older brothers entered a local talent contest. The audience fell in love with Albert, a cute four-year old standing on a stool between his two brothers and singing out the second harmony of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” Albert, and not his two brothers, was later invited to sing for the various local organizations and was momentarily famous in the town. This made his two older brothers jealous and they began to pick on Albert even more. Eventually they made him feel that he was an evil little boy who was trying to upstage his brothers. As a result, he grew to think that his talent was a bad thing and never developed it.
The consequence of this type of childhood is that he became a self-defeating personality. There is a cliché used about some people that they are wearing a sign that says, “Kick me;” this cliché would describe Albert. Through his body language and his expressions and because of how he responded to bullying, he would tend to provoke even more bullying. If someone teased him, he would become irate and fight back by warning the person not to tease him. This only made people laugh and got them even angrier at him so that they teased him all the more. He had never learned in his family how to cope with bullying. Instead, he unwittingly had learned how to provoke it.
In addition, his health suffered. Because he was in a constant state of high stress, he developed diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. A recent National Geographic documentary called, “Stress: Portrait of a Killer,” details research on the connection between bullying, stress, and later diseases.
And what about his brothers? How did they fare in life? They became adults who had almost no self-awareness. They maintained the attitude that they were superior to Albert and they laughed between themselves at the way that Albert was always getting into bad situations. “That’s Albert,” they would laugh. If Albert attempted to bring up to them what they had done to him in childhood, they would treat him as though he were over-reacting and dismiss the subject. Neither had any capacity for empathy.
The oldest brother became an emotional bully to his own children and was a parent who would not tolerate it if the children had any complaints about him. He seemed to have a narcissistic personality disorder, resulting in several divorces and in the children of these marriages later distancing themselves from him. The second oldest brother never married and spent his time drinking and gambling away his money. Both brothers developed gray hair at an early age and tended to worry a lot. Although they had repressed the incidents of bullying Albert, those incidents had a negative effect on their development.
Bullying is complicated and, as I said before, pervasive. It starts in families but it takes place in all aspects of life. It occurs in schools, in companies, in athletics and in religions. Individuals can be bullies and groups can be bullies. The Nazis in Germany before and during World War II are a notorious example of group bullying, as are the Muslim terrorists in our own time. Any group that uses intimidation, manipulation, guilt-tripping or other methods might be described as a bully. Any group that disparages another group-that accuses another group of being hateful, inferior, bigoted or in some way dangerous and uses that as an excuse to discriminate against that group-is a bully.
To end bullying, we must see it in all its varieties and in all its complications: which means, we must also see the bully in ourselves. That’s the hard part.
Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst, a professor of psychology and the author of 20 books.