Archive for October 2010

Shotgun Shame: Why Some People Bully and Some People Watch

October 13, 2010


Bullying makes the news and grabs our collective attention when suicide happens. That’s better than nothing. But just barely.

If we could freeze-frame the tragic headlines and rewind, we would see good people looking the other way. Bullying occurs in plain view of those who know better. It thrives on silent collusion. Why? There is a sick vein of shame running through 0ur collective systems: our school systems, our work systems, our cultural infrastructures. Bullying actually is a variation on domestic violence and child abuse. These three forms of psychological violence often are intertwined and can occur in one family system, branching out when the toxic shame of a bullied soul becomes too overwhelming to contain. That is when the victim can become the perpetrator.

And that is when a good person on the sidelines might privately let out a sigh of relief: In that brief moment someone else is the target of shaming. This isn’t as shocking as it sounds. From early childhood on, watching another get teased, bullied or tormented provides  momentary respite from the near universal feeling of being not good enough. The roots of this fear go deep and are stoked by religions and secular teachings that emphasize hellfire consequences for being imperfect. Combine this wounding experience with the need to save face and project a facade of strength even under fire and you have a river of shame flowing beneath the surface of even the healthiest looking adult. I would venture to say that this human experience could unite us rather than divide us if we could all find the courage to own it and find a safe way to neutralize it. But most people can’t bear to go there. It’s just too painful.

When we look at self-hatred, from constant self-reproach to malignant personality disorders, we must separate it from the appropriate guilt that comes from doing the wrong thing. Learning to manage this uncomfortable emotion and grow in the process of repairing a wrong — that is a step toward becoming a healthy human being. It has nothing to do with the type of self-hatred, projected onto a target, that can result in bullying-induced psychological trauma and suicide. It is also true that not everyone who is bullied turns out to be a bully. Some people, including chidren, have the resilience to endure this pain and become compassionate leaders, healers and parents. But the memories endure, particularly the memories of those who watched in silence instead of intervening. 

So let’s take another look at why good people often shrug their shoulders over bullying. Could it also be that we’ve all had a taste of bullying, maybe in the guise of tough love? Generations of bullied individuals might pass along the “toughen up” message to their offspring, producing the message that you have to learn how to take it in this world. Don’t shrink under abuse. I’m doing this to make you stronger.

It never really works that way, of course. It stinks to be bullied, even if someone is supposedly doing it for your own good. Under the facade of the toughened up child/teen/adult there exists wounds from this kind of upbringing that create the need to get someone back.  You don’t think you are capable of being that childish? Think again. It is one of the most common impulses in the human psyche: the need to get someone back. For some, it happens in traffic. For others it involves yelling at the kids because somebody at work won’t get off your back. The greater the feelings of unworthiness, the more a human being is driven to find a target for the transfer of that shame. That means that the person who labels and hates all gays or all Muslims or all Christians or all of the people of a rival political party is dealing with massive amounts of toxic shame. And when this kind of shotgun hatred starts exploding, whether it’s within one family’s home or on the internet, somebody is going to bleed.

Cathleen Hulbert, LCSW, is a clinical social worker in the healthcare field and a free-lance journalist with a background in newspaper reporting. She also is the author of “The First Lamp — A Story of Cosmic Illumination,” a time-travel tale about love, forgiveness and original innocence. She lives in Roswell, GA. For more information about the author and the book, go to The pelican, a symbol of service to others, is her personal mascot.

Scroll down to links for more blogs by Cathleen Hulbert.


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