The vulnerability problem of the bully
From research by The Neufeld Institute
Dr Deborah MacNamara, who is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, an author and family counsellor, has some profound insights into why bullies behave the way they do and how best to treat them.
Bullies thrive on exploiting the vulnerability in others. Instead of protecting those who are in a weaker position they take advantage of them. They revel in having the upper hand. They don’t play by the rules or believe the rules apply to them. Bullies don’t think twice and lack the capacity for reflection. They are fearless, tearless, immature, and have to get their own way. They do not adapt when they face futility – they cannot hear ‘no’ and accept it. Bullies are dark inside; there is a void where vulnerable feelings are no longer felt.
One of the reasons we cannot make headway on bullying is we fail to make sense of the bully’s vulnerability problem. A bully’s emotional system has become inhibited and they no longer experience a range of vulnerable emotions from sadness to joy. They lack empathy, caring, and consideration. They don’t show remorse, gratitude, or forgiveness.
The human emotional system is meant to be responsive to one’s environment, but if feeling sets someone up to get hurt too much, the brain will naturally start to inhibit the experience of these emotions. Emotions go missing when they would get in the way of surviving a wounding environment. In other words, bullies lack caring because to care sets them up to get hurt too much.
Bullies have hardened hearts. Their brain has moved to defend them from seeing their own vulnerability. This renders them devoid of caring and responsibility. They are numbed out, tuned out, and in some cases, detached altogether from human relationships. Bullies are deeply wounded individuals, which is ironic considering the wounding they create in others.
Bullies are in a flight from vulnerability and cannot tolerate anything that would signify weakness in them. They project onto others what they are most defended against in themselves. Bullies are psychologically very fragile. The problem is their lack of vulnerability does not draw out the caring in others. Their inhumane acts often draw the bully out in us.
The reason for the emotional defenses in a bully can be many, from feeling too much separation from the adults that they are attached to or feeling too much shame or a sense of unsafety. Separation can be experienced either emotionally or physically, but can include when a parent does not have the heart of their child, or that child has to work for parental love and approval. When a child feels there is something wrong with who they are, often as a result of repeated messages by attachment figures or peers, it can create havoc with a child’s emotional system. There are many reasons for hardened hearts, but what is clear is that a bully’s ‘caring’ has gone missing.
There are a number of problems with bully programs today:
A Focus on What Happens Between Kids – A popular intervention when bullying has taken place is to have children share their experiences with each other, highlighting how they have been hurt. Well intended as this approach is, the problem is that bullies do not have soft hearts and are likely to use what other children say against that child to hurt them as their modus operandi is to exploit vulnerability.
Zero-Tolerance Policies – The problem with this approach is that we have to wait until there is a victim before we deal with a bullying problem. The policies also move the bully along, and while certain kids may no longer be in danger of getting hurt, the bully has not changed and will continue to wound others.
Consequences and Punishment – While consequences and punishment need to be part of many settings such as schools and workplaces, they are largely ineffective in changing the bully. One needs to feel sad about what does not work in order to learn what does work. Bullies don’t feel sadness given their muted emotional system – consequences and punishment are rendered impotent against this problem, as a result.
Sensitivity or Empathy Training – The idea that we can teach a bully to have a soft heart fails to understand how the emotional system works. Emotions are meant to be felt vulnerably and move someone to care, to caution, to be considerate, and to have courage. When you try to teach a bully to be more sensitive to other people’s feelings and to respond with empathy, you can actually make them more effective at exploiting people emotionally.
If being too hurt is the problem for the bully, then caring for them is surely the answer. The challenge is that bullies are so wounding towards others that they draw little compassion out of others to care for them. The good news is that every bully can be made human again but the answer lies in bringing the emotional system back online and resuscitating it.
The focus will need to be on building a caring relationship with the bully. This is easier when the bully is a child or a teenager and requires at least one caring adult who is willing to try and forge a strong connection with them. The adult will need to invite the child to depend on them, to take the lead in caring for them, and convey that they can handle the child. When issues arise it will require being firm on behaviour, but being easy on the relationship. Bullies are brought into relationship with others through a strong caring stance.
Emotional defences in the bully can be softened when right relationships are achieved and will require leading them to more vulnerable feelings, shielding their emotional system from further wounding, and reducing harm wherever possible. The softening of hard hearts takes patience, time, and good care-taking.
We would prefer to think that the bully is someone who exists outside and is separate from us. The problem is that the bully can emerge from each and every human being. When the heart goes cold and when our caring feelings go missing, it is then we become inhuman and can act inhumane. It is the lack of vulnerability that is at the root of the bully problem, and is indeed a problem for us all. The challenge is how to keep our hearts soft in a world that seems too much to bear at times.
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From research by The Neufeld Institute, 31/03/2021