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

Cathleen Hulbert

Cathleen Hulbert

Cathleen Hulbert, MSW, LCSW, is a free-lance journalist and clinical social worker who spent six years living in New York City where she earned her graduate degree from Columbia University School of Social Work and worked in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. During that time, unexpected teachers began to emerge who would set the stage for the writing of  the novel, “The First Lamp — A Story of Cosmic Illumination,” a time-travel tale about original innocence. For more information about the book go to www.cathleenhulbert.com. She later traveled to Hawaii to answer the call of Kalah and to embrace the healing power of Aloha. She returned with a renewed dedication to sea turtle conservation, a burning love for the Hawaiian culture and a deeper respect for the needs of Mother Earth. She now lives in Roswell, Georgia, where she works in the healthcare field and continues to write. In November 2008 Cathleen was a co-recipient of the National Hemophilia Foundation's "Distinction in Communication Award" for helping teens with chronic bleeding disorders create their own camp newspapers. Her current project is a sequel to "The First Lamp."

  1. There must be common wavelengths for people’s thoughts. Just an hour ago I was thinking that the conservative family is a punitive organization and the resentment children store up has to be avenged later. But, I think I went a step further in thinking that perhaps all the yelling and screaming the tea party base are indulging is a virtual venting. In which case, all the sound and fury might actually be cathartic. Also, railing against Obama may be a sign that he’s perceived as a safe target, someone against whom one can yell with impunity. He’s scary like that spook in the haunted house.

  2. Frank Povah

    “…stoked by religions and secular teachings that emphasize hellfire consequences for being imperfect”

    How true this is. However, it’s not the kids who plan the ad campaigns or preach the sermons or manufacture the clothes or dictate the trends, is it?

    Wouldn’t it be nice if some school principal somewhere said “A simple school uniform is mandatory; cheating or plagiarism equals failure; bullying equals automatic suspension for X weeks, depending on the seriousness of the incident; make-up and jewellery are not to be worn to school; cell-phones are to be handed in prior to classes commencing and collected after school; and this school will adopt a cause that helps the less fortunate (or adopts a school in another, ‘really foreign’ country).”

    But of course we can’t do that, can we. They’re not really kids any more, are they Mommy and Daddy. They’re just adults whose bodies are in various stages of arrested development and if we criticise them or discipline them or deny them their wishes it might leave them unfulfilled, harming their fragile psyches.

    That Dad in Florida deserves a trip to the White House and an illuminated award.

  3. Mark Dohle

    “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.”

    Understanding the above is a big step but one that is necessary if health is to be achieved. However self awareness has to be developed as well, which is an arduous journey.


  4. Jim Fitzgerald

    Very well said Cathy! Thank you for taking the time to bring such a thoughtful analysis to our attention. I hope it gets wider dissemination.

  5. Jack deJarnette

    Having been bullied as a youngster, I concur that it stinks, but it certainly doesn’t always lead in a negative direction. I vowed that I woud never be the bully to others and for the most part have succeeded.

    Now as to Monica’s statement about conservative parents, “I was thinking that the conservative family is a punitive organization and the resentment children store up has to be avenged later.”

    Monica, I your statement as a hateful prejudicial form of racism. I am the product of a conservative family and I raised my children with a conservative method which is guiding their parenting. There never was anything punative in out dealings with one another, parent to child, parent to parent or child to parent. We established boundaries and violation of the boundaries brought consequences which were explained with compassion and grace. We never used guilt inducing terms against our children, nor did I with my parishoners. My children are well balanced, intellectually competent, well educated people. They are each comfortable in their skins and are making significanty contributions to society.

    Cathy, thanks for an insightful piece. We must find a way to stop our children from bullying their peers lest more youngsters do damage to themselves or others. I suspect that it needs to start at home.

    1. Well, my assertion is not a pre-judgment (prejudice), it’s based on careful consideration and first-hand observation of many punitive situations that did not necessarily rise to the level of abuse. It is a negative judgment. I consider the punishment of children for parental gratification or to relieve stress to be evil. What race has to do with it is beyond my ability to comprehend. As far as I know, there are punitive parents everywhere. Their sustenance of the children is conditioned on the children demonstrating obedience and proving themselves useful — i.e. deserving.
      I will admit that I have not yet settled on a term to categorize punitive authoritarians who rely on depriving others of the necessities of life to gratify their addiction to power. “Republicans” have clearly not been like that, nor are the majority of the base now. Neo-conservative doesn’t fit because the adherents of that ideology are into outright destruction; never mind stopping at deprivation of rights. Neo-cons would just as soon be rid of a significant percentage of the globe’s population because they’ve convinced themselves that, like Hiroshima, something better will magically rise out of the ashes. Randians, one is tempted to suspect, promote strictness with others to balance their own randy inclinations. Humans do seek balance in rather peculiar ways.
      People who put the welfare of children foremost are not conservatives, in my mind. However, that self-centered individuals who care little for the future are legion would seem to be evidenced by the fact that the U.S. alone, save for Somalia, has refused to ratify the Convention of the Rights of the Child. That the Party of Family Values is resistant to the recognition of human rights, leads me to think that what they value is hereditary authority, not the welfare of the future.

  6. Cathleen Hulbert

    I appreciate your comment that your experience with bullying did not lead to a need to lash out at anyone, including yourself. Some people, including children, truly are resilient enough to endure the taunts and to process them in a way that does not lead to self-punishing or lashing out behavior. Having a supportive family also can help, but it clearly is not a requirement. The experience of being bullied also can lead some to become compassionate healers, leaders and keepers of the peace if the bullying experience did not overpower their ability to cope at the time. Unfortunately, many are not so fortunate and the extremes of murder or suicide can result. We have seen both scenarios play out among the young.

  7. Cathleen Hulbert

    As a social worker in the healthcare field, I work with many families under stress who come from both sides of the conservative/liberal spectrum. I also work with families from a variety of countries, representing all of the major religious groups. I have known many parents who are so-called conservatives in political philosophy but who are quite liberal, as in generous, with their love toward their children. I have also worked with those who identify with the political left who are so scarred by their own experiences that they inadvertenly shame their children by passing along messages of “not good enough.” Many people who are in fact bullies toward their children would be quite shocked to realize that this is what they are doing. I think education is the key.

    1. Frank Povah

      Cathleen: What part do you think the final fragmentation of the extended family – largely in the years following WWII but begun during the Depression – has had to play in all this?

      It seems to me that when we lost easy access to grandparents and their parents and siblings, along with closer-knit neighbourhoods, we abandoned an invaluable fount of expertise and wisdom and are now paying the price for it.

  8. Cathleen Hulbert

    Frank, I agree with you completely. Animals under extreme stress (and we have an underlying animal make-up) often attack their own offspring. The human animal can become a human time-bomb when the pressures of jobs, bills and parenting are not softened by the pressence of extended family. As a pediatric social worker employed for nearly a decade at children’s hospital, I saw the beauty of extended family in action when aunts, uncles and grandparents relieved the parents of a sick child and sent them home to rest. Those children who only had their parents on which to rely, with other relatives far away, were often considered “at risk” because these parents so often hit a wall and burned out. It’s ironic because the modern emphasis on self-reliance often plants the idea that individuals must pretend that they can handle it all. Until they go crazy and child protective services gets called in.

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