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 becomes 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 the mild forms to the 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 results in bullying-induced psychological trauma and suicide.
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. You have to be strong. Don’t shrink under abuse. Life is hard.
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.
This article first appeared at open.salon.com