Stop Group Bullying (2)

Last time, I revealed how humans have intuitive, unconscious, evolved awareness that being mean can be socially profitable. That (unconscious) awareness of this is not lost on our little darlings. And, if we want to stop group bullying we’re going to have to realize and deal with this reality.

Last time, I promised to reveal how it’s “Good to Be Mean” – the path of escape from good nature and good nurture to participate in group cruelty.

Standing in the way of cruelty-based social profitability is something called empathy – feeling others’ pain.  And, there’s also a troublesome sense that cruelty is just … wrong. Our innate sense of morality gets in the way.

We need a way to escape our empathy and morality – to be free to profit socially through cruel actions, whether we initiate, participate in them, or just watch from the sidelines.

Would you feel bad if you stepped on a child’s foot and made them cry?

How would you feel if you stepped on your pet dog’s foot and made it yelp in pain?

Do you feel pain and guilt for stepping on a cockroach?

What’s the difference?

Remember that membership to the in-group defines who is protected by fair treatment – and that in some primitive cannibalistic tribes “not us” gave a whole new meaning to them “having you for dinner”.

The difference is in the label.

calling namesLabeling someone as part of an out-group – or as less-than-human – makes it “fair” to subject them to any other kind of mistreatment – including violence. (It is common in propaganda to refer to enemies as “cockroaches” or “vermin”.)

Dehumanization through name-calling and labeling is something I wrote about in this previous post from the series.

lookoutLet’s look through the lens of animal behavior we used last time, and imagine the instigator of group bullying is like the “look-out”. His initial name-calling is like a warning cry to the group. Other group members spread the warning by repeating the name-calling that identifies the target as an enemy.

Group defenders take action, soon in competition with each other for who is doing the most to harass the outsider. Their actions will become bolder and more aggressive as long as socially profitable. Dehumanization can be very dangerous when it shuts down empathy and disconnects morality: Sticks and stones can break your bones, but name-calling can actually get you killed.

Discrimination2Discriminatory Comparisons are helpful to disconnect empathy and disengage morality: “People who aren’t members are worthless”, or “our group is better than some other group” (racism is an example). Discriminatory Comparisons act on the brain much like name-calling.

Delicate Language is another way to feel less empathy and to disconnect morally from the things we are doing. We use this emotion-relieving strategy in other contexts quite often:

A dentist doesn’t pull your teeth out; he “performs a procedure”.

We don’t kill our dog for being old and sick; we “put them to sleep”.

SleepingDogGeorge Carlin did a whole comedy routine around this “softening of language”. And, bullies do the same thing with euphemisms for various acts of abuse. Many people are familiar with the term “wedgie”, but perhaps not as familiar with the “front-side” version of this abuse designed to injure the genitals. The technique is known as the “melvin” or the “minerva” for boys, or girls, respectively.

There’s also “pantsing”, the “tittie-twister”, the “noogie” (knuckles across the scalp), and the venerable “swirlie” – which sounds so much sunnier than holding a victim upside down with their head in a toilet while flushing.

This emotional trick allows people like nurses and surgeons to do their jobs without emotional distress. Bullies use it to free themselves of empathy and morals – for maximum social profiteering through meanness. Wherever we detect or use euphemistic language, someone is disconnecting from empathy and morality.

Denial of responsibility is also useful for silencing the nagging voice of conscience. There are several ways to do this:

Denial of harm is one of the easiest: “It didn’t hurt that much. He’s fine.”

Denial of malicious intention is another: “It was an accident. I didn’t know she would need stitches.”

BlameDenial of personal responsibility is one of the great advantages of group bullying.

  • We can blame it on the “leader” we were just following.
  • We can blame it on others in the group.
  • We can diffuse blame to the group as a whole.
  • We can deny participating in “the bad part” by admitting to involvement in only “the harmless part”.
  • We can say the target caused their own misfortune. “If he hadn’t fought back he wouldn’t have fallen down.”

Discrimination2Denouncing the target as Deserving mistreatment is one of the most powerful and important ways to release ourselves from empathy and morality so we can profit by harming others. This one goes hand-in-hand with Dehumanization through labeling: “Vermin deserve to be destroyed.”

These are the five categories of psychological tricks to disengage empathy and morality.

  1. Dehumanization
  2. Discriminatory Comparisons
  3. Delicate Language
  4. Denial of Responsibility
  5. Denouncing the target as deserving of bad treatment

If you are honest with yourself, you will notice the ways you use these emotional manipulations yourself – to make killing the cat easier, for instance.

When these five mind tricks come into play in the context of social profit through group bullying, the foundations of good nature and good nurture will crumble. Add to this the forces of peer pressure and conformity bias, and we can see how frighteningly easy it is for our little darlings to do wicked things.


What Can I Do?

Recognize it’s normal, and part of human social interaction and development (like sex). The most important thing is to admit that you do it.

The second thing is to notice where you’ve done it and improve the modeling you’re providing for others. Develop a cautious and aware ear that notices the methods of moral disengagement above. Practice and model shifting your language in specific ways outlined below.

In age appropriate ways, teach your children the power of language, and how manipulations of social order are done. Train them to behave according to your values – and to keep their focus on values and the outcomes of their choices.

Practice, Model, Teach, and Expect intentional application of the Six Empathy & Morality Activators to stop group bullying:

Humanization: Labeling and name-calling reduce perception of humanity; Using a person’s given name increases empathy and connection. Because humans are hard-wired for empathy, connection is increased when we make eye contact and look at their face.

Practice and model avoiding the use of labels and embracing the use of given names. Consistently look at the faces of others and make eye contact when you meet or interact. Teach, and expect children to use names and make eye contact. This activates empathy in them, and also in the people they interact with, making this simple habit doubly-protective.

Inclusive Comparisons: This is the opposite of discrimination – which is based on seeking and magnifying human differences. Just as the brain can sort for differences it can sort for similarities. Practice and model an intentional search for similarities with others. Use age and context appropriate teaching and expectations for young people to exercise the same skill.

Straight Talk: Tommy did not “get a wedgie”. Tommy did not receive anything. His clothing was damaged. And, he was humiliated and caused physical pain. Notice yourself using euphemistic language and challenge yourself about who it serves. Model using straight talk – and requiring straight talk – from both adults and children. Expect youngsters to talk straight about the outcomes of their choices.

Embracing Responsibility: A fundamental principle of Motivational Literacy is that power goes along with responsibility. Escaping responsibility requires focusing attention on what one doesn’t control. The mental process of escaping responsibility creates a world-view of powerlessness. A world-view of powerlessness aggravates social insecurity and often creates anger – feeding a cycle of bullying – and responsibility evasion.

“Control the controllable” as my friend Chris Dunn says: Focus on what one does control – and seize responsibility for that part of the system. Stay focused on what you control, your actions to do that, and the real outcomes your actions make. When we practice, model, teach, and expect this, we create what was once called “self-reliance” and “work ethic” – emotional habits that produce success – and within our moral values.

This builds a habit of planning good choices, protecting children from participating in group bullying. It also empowers potential target children to seize responsibility for every scrap of control they can find – which encourages tenacity and perseverance – rather than surrendering to an identity of helplessness.

Defining “Deserve: Most moral and religious systems tell us to refrain from judging others because of things we cannot know. The Founding Fathers of America built into the Constitution a concept of fairness & due process. Always, and without exception. Practice, model, teach, and expect – as part of your values system that nobody is beneath fairness and due process. Without exception. This is another doubly-protective training: Children with a strong foundation of fairness are less likely to take part in unfair play; and are more likely to assert themselves against it – to protect themselves or others.

Resist conformity bias & membership to a group of cannibals: Recognize social groups that always have to have someone to abuse. Ask whether you want to be a member of a club with such a despotic organization. Seek other environments, even it means changing jobs or social organizations, etc. We cannot expect youngsters to learn to “stand up” if we do not show them how that’s done. Any challenge you face as an adult is an opportunity to model for your child.

Remember the FOUR specific verbs:

  1. Practice – making the effort to notice and continually upgrade your own performance.
  2. Model – make sure you demonstrate the behavior to others in clear ways.
  3. Teach  – reveal explicitly the structures behind the behaviors.
  4. Expect – anticipate that youngsters will exercise awareness, empathy, and morals – and to help them notice and upgrade their performance as necessary.

Next Time: What Schools can and should be doing.

In the meantime, if you have comments or stories to share, please do that below. If you have questions, please ask them below and I’ll do my best to answer!

Posted in Anger Management, Bully Blog, Cultivating Character, Dealing with Fear, Dealing with Shame, How to Be Happier, Self Esteem, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Stop Group Bullying (2)

Understanding Group Bullying (part one)

Why do Bullies Gang Up on Targets?

Besides it being “safer” for several reasons we’ll explore in this post and the next one, when we want to understand behaviors, we pay attention to what they achieve.

Gang-up-bullyingThat’s why we define bullying as “social sorting by despotic means”. The despotic means are used against a targeted person. In group bullying this arises as a natural part of people trying to sort a social group.

In that frame, there are three reasons for a group to gang-up on an individual:

  1. The individual is a member of an identified out-group (enemy).
  2. The individual is not yet established as a member of the in-group (newcomer).
  3. The individual is a member of the in-group, but breaking some social norm of the group (law-breaker).

In adult society, these things are formalized, with the military to gang-up on enemies; the border patrol to gang-up on newcomers; and the police to gang-up on law-breakers. Each of those groups (military, border patrol, police) enjoy elevated social status and advantages.

Child society isn’t formalized in this way, but keeping these ideas in mind will help understanding of group bullying behaviors.

What Shape Has Only Two Sides?

As the old riddle goes, the answer is a circle, which has an inside and an outside. Just as a circle has to have two sides to define it, every in-group REQUIRES an out-group to define the boundaries – and the benefits of being a member.

Why is a group important at all?

In the primitive world where our brains were formed, being in the group is better than being out. Acceptance was a matter of survival based on mutual protection from predators, warmth, shelter, and shared food. And, in some cases membership to the group was the difference between protection – and being fair game to actually be eaten by the group. This history is behind our instinctive terror of being excluded from a group – and the intense shame we may feel if rejected.

Two important points about groups:

  1. The group boundary is defined by who cannot be a member.
  2. Membership defines who is worthy to fair treatment.

A third point is that status within a group is a zero-sum game. Status is like a pie – every member getting a slice of some size, and no left-overs. And, for one person to get more pie, someone else will surrender some of theirs.

Many people think the most intense competition is over who gets the biggest slice of pie – the top-dog slot. In reality competition to avoid being last – eating only stale crumbs – can be the most brutal. And, that is one of the missing pieces of the bully puzzle.

Awareness of social position and deliberate investment in improving social position is seen across the animal kingdom. And, our cousin primates often encourage their offspring to “play with the rich kids” (socialize with higher-ranking offspring).

The Four Social Roles

For social animals, all behavior has a social meaning or use. For social animals, including primates, elephants, meerkats, etc – a member of the community acting as a “look-out” gives a warning cry to alert everyone else of a predator or outsider. Often, look-out duty is reserved for high-ranking members.

The “look-out” defines the boundary and identifies the stranger. Then, some members  mobilize in group defense. Other members defer to the authority of the look-out and the defenders’ actions. And, a stranger who defies group territory has to deal with the consequences.

In this primitive and foundational group behavior, we find four roles defined by the actions group members take:

  1. Defining boundaries and rules (Leaders & Look-outs)
  2. Defending boundaries and rules (Soldiers & Police)
  3. Deferring to boundaries and rules (Members)
  4. Defying of boundaries and rules (Criminals or Enemies)

The Incentive to Be Mean

Each of these roles offers an opportunity for social profit by starting or participating in aggressive behavior.

Defining a boundary by noticing or creating a reason to call someone an outsider is like finding a status-token the whole group can share. If the group follows, the instigator earns status points. And, everyone who doesn’t share the outsider-marking feature gains the benefit (often the relief) of belonging.

AngryMob2Defending boundaries and rules by following the leader and harassing the “outsider” gains social capital both with the leader, and in the overall group.

Deferring to the boundaries and rules set by the leader, and defended by the soldiers, mere members either watch idly or are drafted to participate in some way. Whether soldier or mere member, once someone leads the charge and the action seems politically and physically safe, members will jump in and collect easy social status points.

Sometimes, even non-members can leverage points by demonstrating group loyalty through these actions. For example, Macaque monkeys can gain membership acceptance to a group by attacking a predator on behalf of that group. And, so it is with humans.

Defying the social order by refusing to be drafted, by “ratting”, or by standing-up in protest is also a defiance of leader authority and group rules (formal or informal).

Defining a boundary:

Children will ignore significant things – including race in many cases. But, they will find the most trivial excuses to define group boundaries – things never noticed until they became socially significant – or could be made socially significant.

When one child notices something “amiss” in another child, they give an “alarm call”: The leader or look-out defines the boundaries; the soldiers take defensive action; the members follow in deference; the outsider is harassed.

This is a primitive foundation underpinning much of what we call bullying behavior.

We can witness a rather pathetic “adult” version of this social profiteering in what some call “<like> farming” on social media. Attacking or piling-on against a “safe” target on social media will collect <likes> and yes-comments from click-surfers. Here’s one example:

gang up bullying

In a period of twelve hours on Facebook, this poster got 379 <likes> and 213 <shares>.

That’s social capital in the form of approval, group membership, and KLOUT score. It’s also literal profit through free advertising of <shares> and the traffic that drives to the outside web site selling T-shirts, printed posters, and the like.

Defending boundaries or rules:

We see this symbolically “courageous” activity in the comments from “adults” about the above poster. They included a variety of agreements, praise, “volunteerism”, and sadistically creative enhancements (one-upsmanship) including:

“why not birdshot? let it sting and let it burn before they die, so they will feel pain”

“What about dull pocket knives, for castrating the sorry POS”

“A thousand cuts with a razor and turpentine”

You can find similar “social profiteering posters” about any unpopular group or public figure – with similar agreements, “volunteerism” and one-up enhancements.

Here’s one that’s a tiny bit more subtle:

group bullying

Regardless of your personal politics, the structure is what we’re studying, here. The poster advocates DIFFERENT RULES for different groups of people based on an arbitrary label. Remember that only a behavior can be wrong or illegal – a person cannot be illegal or wrong. Remember from this post  and from this post that making a person themselves inherently wrong or bad is the structure of SHAME – and that shame is one of the primary contributors to bullying.

If you want to see more examples of this sort of pathetic social-scavenging committed by adults, try searching images for “Trayvon Martin poster” or “George Zimmerman poster”.

It is most important for real adults who want to make a real difference to understand the times, places, and ways in which they may be modeling this kind of “soft bullying” behavior. Because, when adults can’t resist the temptation of such low-hanging social fruit – and aren’t even aware of what they’re doing – what do we expect of children with developing and curious brains?

Deferring to group action:

When people “go along to get along” – either actively or passively – they gain by maintaining their own social status of “membership”. And, they avoid falling into the social status of Defier of the social order or group boundaries.

Defying group rules or boundaries:

Just as adult dissidents and whistle-blowers are subject to police brutality, persecution, or exile – children who defy the social order are subject to the same kinds of reprisal – from social demotion, to physical harm, to exile from the group.

A person who “stands up against bullying” has only three possible paths:

  1. Redefine the leadership of the group (prosecute a coup)
  2. Redefine the group culture (cultural revolution)
  3. Redefine their own membership (exit the group)

Just like the adult world, the rate of success for the first two paths is not high. Stories like that of Martin Luther King outnumber those of people like Lech Walesa. And, paths that consume decades of time aren’t relevant to a child in grade-school. More often, we wind up with stories like that of PFC Joe Darby, who blew the whistle on the Abu Ghraib torture practices – and was promptly exiled when outed by his own embarrassed Secretary of Defense.

What Can You Do?

  • Notice the primitive and simple structure, and the four social roles involved in group bullying.
  • Notice that children in those roles are spontaneously recreating rules and roles that we formalize in adult life.
  • Notice the limitations they have in terms of genuinely possible behavior – and the real dangers and consequences they may face by becoming a Denier.
  • More importantly, notice the ways that adults model social profiting by participating in informal four-role structures like the political poster above.
  • Ask yourself in a very frank way how you may be modeling this sort of social step-stool in your words or actions.
  • Ask yourself how you may learn to notice this behavior more in the world around you – and how you can point out the structure to your children in age-appropriate ways.
  • Through this process, help your children identify the structure, and the four roles, and the pathetic nature of trying to socially profit by attacking weak targets.
  • Most important of all, suggest, model, and facilitate adventurous and genuinely contributory pathways to self-esteem and durable social standing.

Next time: “It’s Good to Be Mean” – how children escape good nature and good nurture to participate in cruel group bullying.

In the meantime, please leave your comments about the articles, and your questions about bullying – or about shifting behavior or culture in general. I’ll be happy to answer.

Posted in Bully Blog, Dealing with Fear, Decision-Making, How to Be Happier | Comments Off on Understanding Group Bullying (part one)

Understand Bullying: Overcoming Shame

Welcome (back?) to Understand Bullying – Overcoming Shame. Last time, I promised to reveal how you can protect your children against the most destructive dangers of shame and how to challenge shame that may exist.

Shame is the most potent and concerning emotion related to bullying and the centerpiece of the emotional system that drives the three actions of bullying:

•    taking Advantage of power
•    using Aggression
•    and Accepting mistreatment

Shame places people at risk both for being targeted and for engaging in bullying. And according to psychiatrist James Gilligan: “Shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence”. So, again, according to Gilligan: “What is most needed is a non-violent means to protect or restore self-esteem.”

Institutional environments like prison (and public schools) are massively shaming. They crush individual identity, creativity and self expression in the name of “order” (convenience of the management).

The least tolerated trait is not laziness or poor performance but non-conformity. And, the most valued human trait is neither innovation nor excellence, but conformity.

bullying shunningThe depersonalization of massive and enforced conformity is eroding to self esteem and a healthy sense of personal identity. In schools, we teach children about the Constitution – and all the high principles that they are not worthy of because their rights and human dignity are secondary to the “need” for conformity and compliance. They don’t have rights to free expression, or privacy, or security in their persons or possessions, or due process, or to refrain from incriminating themselves.

They are forced to memorize and repeat the list of rights and ideals by which our society counts itself better than others. Then, we both tell and show them they are unworthy to share in those protections – in most cases, merely because we find it convenientand we have the power.

In an earlier post, I mentioned the harmfulness of bullying by social exclusion. We force youngsters to live outside the fold of normal social protections and dignity, and then wonder why they don’t “respect” the social norms they’ve not been allowed to share.

The meaning a person gives to their experience may not be the meaning you expect them to take from it. Our challenge is to have empathy with the meanings people are actually forming – especially if those meanings are different from our intentions. Empathy, as you will see below, is one of the key skills to understand bullying so you can stop bullying.

The Simple Picture:

Last time I promised to package the material on emotions into a single picture that you can understand and act on easily. Here are four steps in graphic format. Have a look at all four, and read the text, and you’ll only need to remember the last one.

In earlier posts I talked about the Fight-Flight continuum, and how Posture and Submit are lower-intensity areas on the same line:

understand bullying shame

All conflict appears on this continuum somewhere:

  • from homicide to running for your life
  • from pushing into line to giving-way
  • from a bold step forward to a timid step back
  • from making an offer to making a compromising counter-offer

Bullying behaviors fall toward the extremes of the continuum:

understand bullying shame

This is an interesting reflection of how those most at risk for bullying behaviors also fall toward the extremes of their social metrics.

Near the middle of the continuum of social conflict, we find business negotiations, informal partnerships, and the like. The parties come to the situation with empathy and openness as well as confidence and resolve. Often such leave all parties happy:

bullying shame fight flightWe won’t resolve every single conflict in such a way, but we can certainly find out what influences the system to bring more people to resolve more often. The area of resolve requires us to bring our own sense of confidence and worthiness – as well as empathy and openness to new information and perspective. Healthy self esteem empowers those emotional responses – just as fear and shame dis-empower them:

bullying fight flight

This is the diagram you really need to remember.

When we understand that the forces of self-esteem and empathy move us toward resolve – and the forces of fear and shame move us away from it – the picture becomes even more clear. Luckily for us that shame and self esteem are exact opposites – a belief of unworthiness versus a belief of worthiness. Whatever builds one will erode the other.

The “Curse” of Shame:

A person who believes themselves cursed will become hyper-aware of every mistake, misfortune, and missed opportunity. And, as they become stressed-out about that, they make more mistakes – and so forth. An internet search reveals “the top ten signs of being cursed”:

  1. Nightmares
  2. Loss of energy
  3. Misfortune of loved ones
  4. Financial or property loss
  5. Relationship trouble
  6. Deterioration of health
  7. Legal trouble
  8. Direct perceptions of being cursed
  9. Sudden and serious illness
  10. Death

Almost any drug addict, accident victim, or severely ill person can qualify.

The things we think we know are the greatest barriers to our progress.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to notice, accept, and reference information that confirms what they already believe – and to ignore or dismiss information that conflicts with what they already believe.

Confirmation bias makes shame a catch-22:

Once a person believes themselves unworthy, they begin to interpret the world as if that were a true fact. Every inflection and gesture takes on meanings of rejection, contempt or exclusion. To believe ourselves unworthy is painful, but we can at least feel sane and “right” about what we “know”. Most people feel quietly sane and “right” about being unworthy – rather than risk a more public shame for causing loss due to “being a fool”, weak, wrong, or “crazy”. Every mistake, misfortune, or missed phone call becomes more “evidence” to support our belief – our rightness and our sanity.

This is the vortex of shame. And, if we throw in some actual targeted exclusion or mistreatment, we may have a whole committee helping to “make the case” and keep it spinning.

Challenging Shame:

The best I can tell, everyone questions their own worthiness at some time. And, the possibility that we could be unworthy is frightening. But, there is a difference between fearing unworthiness and collecting evidence to prove it.

We all fear unworthiness. Those with shame have convicted themselves of it.

“Secrets intensify shame.” according to Brene Brown, one of the most prominent researchers in the field. Luckily, she also tells us that “Shame cannot survive being spoken”.

Protect children from bullying behaviors by protecting them from shame.

Speaking about shame – a fear or belief of unworthiness – exposes a secret vulnerability, and so requires great courage. But, acknowledging vulnerability is only acknowledging reality. We are all vulnerable to something. And, as far as I can tell, we all have some fear of unworthiness.

We all believe things about ourselves that if said out loud – or about someone else – would be recognized as ridiculous. To speak it is to tame it:

Whatever unworthiness you fear, say it out loud, only say it about someone you care for. Include the reason or evidence you would use against yourself.

In other words, if that person you care for did, or failed to do, the same thing, would they be proven unworthy?

Reality check it another step further: Is there anyone in the world, who committing the same act could still be worthy?

Ask if someone committed the same act, and was unworthy because of it, could there be anything they could have done before – or after – that would counteract the worthiness measure?

This is the beginning of unraveling a sense of unworthiness in yourself or someone you are very close to. I do not recommend you get into playing amateur therapist with your kid if there’s some extreme issue. That’s what professionals are for.

What I do recommend is develop a family culture where fears – including the fear of unworthiness – are something that is normal to communicate about. Make it normal to openly interrogate any unworthiness bogy man that shows up.

Detailed conversations around these sorts of feelings tend to dispel them. And, a family culture where you do that tends to have a protective effect against little ones getting out of control – even if the mean girls committee is prosecuting the case.

Model the behavior – and lead kids through it: What you make normal will be normal. If you have fear (squeamishness) around doing this sort of thing, this is your crucible of character – urges versus values. When the character is revealed, what will it be?

Building Self Esteem (the anti-shame):

I did a post earlier in this series on building self esteem. I hope you check it out again in context with the above, and find new perspective and value in it. Use the information there to inoculate your children against shame – by filling them with self esteem, the anti-shame!

Next time, I’m going to unlock the secrets of the “pile-on” – group bullying that can be some of the most crushing – or even dangerous – to experience. I’ll decode some of the dynamics, and disclose things you can do to help turn the tide.

Meantime, I hope you’re getting value from this series. I’d like to hear your stories, comments, requests, and questions. Thank you for asking below!

Posted in Bully Blog, Dealing with Shame | Comments Off on Understand Bullying: Overcoming Shame

Understand Bullying: The Role of Shame

Welcome (back?) to Understand Bullying – the role of Shame, which is the most potent and concerning emotion related to bullying. In the next installment I promised to reveal how Shame interacts with some of the other emotions; how it can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system; and what you can do to prevent or escape it.

Shame is the centerpiece of the emotional system that drives bullying. It is the most common, and most powerful of the related emotions. It both flows from, and reinforces the greatest number of other emotions driving the three actions of bullying behavior:

  • taking Advantage of power
  • using Aggression
  • and Accepting mistreatment

The emotion of shame places people at risk both for being targeted and for engaging in bullying.

It is important to understand what we mean by shame – something far past embarrassment or guilt. Shame is beyond DOING a wrong thing; it is the state of BEING wrong in an intrinsic way. For our purposes, shame means a sense or belief of unworthiness or worthlessness.

It is also important to understand the profound power that such a feeling about oneself can have. “The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence, whether toward others or toward the self.” – James Gilligan (Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic)

understand bullying and shameThe first recorded homicide was driven by the emotion of shame – when God hadn’t the same regard for Cain’s offering that he had for Abel’s. “Cain was furious, and he was downcast.” (Note that “downcast” is the nonverbal communication of shame.)

Shame can be compounded by being turned upon itself – being ashamed of feeling shame. The more trivial the cause, the more shameful it is to feel shame about it – and the more intense the feelings. This construct was identified by Psychiatrist James Gilligan as the motivation behind some profoundly and disturbingly violent acts. So, if we are concerned about cycles of violence in particular – and about building resilient youth who can move away from violence – it may be a good idea to understand this emotion, and how it functions in this context.

Name Calling and other Shaming as Bullying:

Probably the most common name-calling slurs involve bullies calling their targets by various names for genitals, male or female. Even our language shame is associated to genitals referring to them as the “privates” – like anything to be ashamed of or kept private. And, this isn’t new. In early translations of the Bible, the word “shame” was used interchangeably to refer to the genitals and the emotion: pudenda (“parts of shame”). More primitive yet are various gestures of our primate cousins who in submission to social dominance are forced to display their genitals in a vulnerable way.

The modern, civilized human version of this is demonstrated when smaller or younger boys (socially less dominant) are forced or thrown outside the locker room – to be seen naked, and demonstrated as too weak to conquer a simple doorway. Various other hazing or bullying involving display or disrespect of genitals or ritual rape-like behaviors are discovered on a regular basis. Modern and sophisticated humans seem puzzled by these things; primatologists would find them ordinary.

The point is that shame and shaming are central and inherent parts of social sorting by despotic means. This connection is in our language of the most recent 2,000 years. And, even the most primitive and shocking ritual versions of it still arise spontaneously in highly-stratified and aggressive human environments. We cannot really understand and cope with bullying unless we are prepared to understand these aspects of humanity.

Pathways to Shame / Pathways of Shame:

In the bullying context, we navigate in and out of Shame – coming from Fear, Frustration, Anger, or Surrender – and back again. As I mentioned in previous posts, we often believe that just experiencing the emotion of fear makes a person “a coward” – and that belief leads to shame. Likewise with surrender – an irredeemably cowardly act. Frustration can be seem to mean incompetence – and therefore unworthiness – leading to shame. And, anger, acted-out in a way that violates personal values or social mores – or even just causes an unexpectedly poor outcome – can lead down the dark path of shame.

understand bullying sadness

Whether shame leads a person to be more vulnerable to accepting mistreatment, to abusing power, or to acting in aggression afterwards depends on various factors – including opportunity. But, the psychological need to conceal shame by any means can be truly overpowering.

The Shame Vortex: Targets of Bullying:

It doesn’t matter whether they’re vulnerable due to frustration, fear, shame, or sadness. These emotional states make a person more vulnerable to choosing surrender as a way to deal with abuses of social power or aggressive strategies of others. Once a person chooses to surrender, they must deal with the social and personal interpretations of that.

understand bullying targetsSurrender suggests both physical and psychological weakness – that they are safe to attack. And, a safe target draws abuse. Inwardly we well as outwardly the choice to surrender and the abuse that follows appear as “evidence” of unworthiness – shame.

Feeling unworthy, and having that sense of self reinforced from without by bullying children is bad enough, but adults witlessly compound the shame.

In schools, children are drilled on pretty language from the Declaration of Independence – the “self-evident truths” of basic human rights to which “all men” are worthy. There, it is ironic to have zero tolerance of self-defense polices where those amount to an official proclamation that bullied children are unworthy of basic human rights or dignity.

It is profoundly shaming construct for a child to recognize their dignity and safety are worthless compared to the convenience of an administrator.

If a child manages to break through such profound shame to communicate with a parent or other adult, they likely fare no better because adult intervention is usually structured in ways that anger the bullies without changing culture or circumstances for the child – who has only generated further proof of their incompetence and unworthiness – through the desperate exercise.  And, the cycle turns.

The Shame Vortex: Bullies:

It doesn’t matter whether they’re coming from frustration, fear, shame, or sadness.

These emotional states make a person more likely to experience anger – and to act that anger out through abuse of social power or other aggression. Once a person chooses to express anger through action, they must deal with the social and personal interpretations of that.

Socially, aggressively acting-out violates various rules, written and unwritten. The social response to this is often isolation, labeling, condemnation, or other punishment. Often, this carries a lasting stigma of “bad guy” reputation.

understand bullying shame bulliesActing-out aggressively against a weaker person violates most ethical frameworks across culture and time. So, this behavior is often a violation of the personal values of the actor, along with a possibly-public loss of control. Thus, both the social and internal personal responses can invite a person to feel unworthy or “bad” – shame. And, every punitive action and labeling is more evidence to support that conclusion.

If the first response to the fear, frustration, shame, or sadness was to act out aggressively, compounding the experience through social isolation may increase the sense of shame – returning the child to the strategy they know – acting out aggressively.

Reactions to shame may seem “obsessive” – from ritual-like behaviors desperate to create a sense of calm or security to angry outbursts desperate to conceal fear, incompetence, etc.

Most of our current system for coping with bullying seems to be more about “cure” than any effective “prevention”. The “cure” we most often see is punishment. Besides the fact that punishment comes after damage is done – and that it does not prevent future or more creative acting-out – punishment may make the situation worse.

In our society, punishments are usually calculated to increase shame (the most powerful bully-making emotion), and to remove other means of protecting or restoring self esteem. This often leaves the domination or humiliation of others the only available strategy for fulfilling those basic human emotional needs.

The Crime of Punishment:

Another way to visualize and understand a shame-bullying system, and the adult participation in maintaining it is this flow chart: The Crime of Punishment.


Notice that standard punishments tend to be isolating, aggravating insecure social status – and to remove other means of protecting or restoring self esteem. Notice the opportunity for education and training to change the course of events. And, we know from many studies that education is the most effective means of reducing both violence and recidivism in prison systems. I wonder why we expect differently from youthful bullies?

Notice also that “negative attention” is attention, still – and a basic human emotional need. If the most reliable pathway to significance is through acting-out, and if the best quality “significance” a child is receiving is punishment, the behavior will continue or even increase. Harsher punishments may suggest that authority fears failure or is at the end of their wits. This may be a victory of sorts in that the bully realizes: “They’re like me.”

Next time, I’m going to reveal how you can protect your children against the most destructive dangers of shame and how to challenge shame that may exist. I’m also going to roll the entire series of posts on emotions into a single picture that you can understand – and act on easily.

In the meantime, I’m very interested in your personal experiences, stories, comments, questions or requests you have to learn about bullying and how to use Motivational Literacy to prevent or deal with it. Please share these things below, and I’ll do my best to answer them all.




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Understand Bullying: The Role of Sadness

Welcome (back?) to Understand Bullying and the role of sadness – the part that emotion plays to encourage the three actions of the bullying system:

  • taking Advantage of power
  • using Aggression
  • and Accepting mistreatment

At first glance, it may seem that sadness would only influence the third action of bullying – acceptance of mistreatment. Shame and surrender emotions both tend to lead into sadness.

But, we can understand bullying better when we notice that one common exit from sadness is angerwhich is also called one of the five stages of grieving. And, anger can easily invite expression through the other actions of the bullying system: taking advantage of power or using aggression.

understand bullying sadness
So, although our first guess about a child showing sadness may be that they’re more vulnerable to being a target, we have to allow that they’re also vulnerable to bullying behaviors as part of their coping with sadness or grief.

Sadness is a normal emotion, attached to normal experiences of life. And, as a culture, we love to be sad about things – partly because it sells.

I really said that: “sadness sells”. People get misty and they’re more vulnerable to a sales pitch that offers to perk them up – or to justify the D-word: “deserve”. That’s another pathway for the person who starts out feeling sad to find their way into abuse of authority or using aggression: “I deserve…” they say to themselves. And, off they go.

Back to Bully Culture:

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but look at the way our culture celebrates victim status – and suspends the normal rules of conduct and merit around anyone who has had misfortune. The messages from culture – and maybe from us – are that “victims deserve” something more than the average person.

Combine this sense of entitlement with the natural navigation from sadness to anger – and you’ve got immediate rationalization for bullying behaviors.

We can “give people a break” for misbehaving once. But, it’s important is to prevent such behavior from becoming a strategy – a consistent way to meet one’s needs. That sort of pattern will look disturbingly like the anger-and-blame vortex I described in the post on bullying and anger.

What Can I Do?

Sadness is a risk emotion for potential targets – and also a warning emotion that someone may be getting bullied. Sadness is also, a risk emotion for potential bullies. If a youngster you know is displaying sadness (and especially if they’re trying to hide it) – consider deepening your conversation with them – or seeking professional help for them.

The change you want to see is waiting – for you to make it happen.

…by modeling healthy ways to cope with sadness and grief.

It’s important for adults NOT to hide their own sadness – as if having or feeling or expressing sadness were something to be ashamed of. Vulnerability – and the ability to have it – is the opposite of weakness. Vulnerability is courage and strength – one of the anti-shame emotions.

Vulnerability is also fact: No normal person is without sadness and grief.

It is important to model that sadness is temporary – and that the other emotions around sadness are also temporary and expected (including anger). And, we must model that the anger is also normal and not shameful – when expressed in acceptable ways. Modeling – and accepting expressions of emotion in “safe places” and times can be very useful for navigating through sadness into something else.

When dealing with loss, it’s useful to realize that memories last forever – becoming resources to inform and enrich our future. Modeling this way of thinking – and acting – is the best way to invite children to also build effective strategies around sadness.

Remember the debriefing technique: Talk about experiences and emotions. Do that openly yourself and encourage children to learn this skill of self expression. It will pay dividends throughout their life in both self-growth and building strong relationships.

If a youngster you know displays, or tries to hide, sadness over an extended period of time – or at very intense levels – seek professional assistance to help them cope – and to help you coach – with the issue. There may be abuse or other problems that should be uncovered.

It is always easier to identify emotions and emotional patterns – and to learn skills for operating the emotional tool kit we are given – than to clean up messes created through poor operation of that took kit.

In the next installment I’m going to reveal the most powerful and significant emotion in the bullying system: Shame. I’m going to show how it interacts with the other emotions; how it can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system; and what you can do about it.

In the meantime, I’m interested in your stories, remarks, suggestions, questions – and requests for information about dealing with different bullying or emotional navigation puzzles in your life. When you post a comment below, I’ll do my best to answer in a useful way. If you have something more private, just use the contact link here.

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Understand Bullying: Why Some Surrender

Welcome (back?) to Understand Bullying – Why Some Surrender. Last time, I promised to disclose why some surrender to being bullied, and how that choice can lead to shame, sadness, and depression – even becoming a life-long narrative of victimization – or even harm to self or others.

Motivational Literacy considers surrender as an emotion – that of giving up or accepting defeat. In the context of bullying, this is the third action of the bullying system: Accepting mistreatment.

undersand bullying surrender

Surrender is the most common navigation from frustration by American youth – and the second-most-common by American adults. We call it “surrender” because of the language and gestures that go with it – raising the hands and saying “I don’t need this”:

Surrender is also a common navigation from fear, as a person moves toward submission or flight. And, surrender is often the next emotion after a person feels overwhelmed.

Most people move from surrender into shame or sadness – other bullying system states that encourage accepting mistreatment. Some people will surrender briefly and bounce back into persevering toward their goal.

What we repeat in one context makes it more likely we will repeat it in another. If we habitually surrender to frustrations, fears, and challenges – we’re more likely to surrender to bullying – which is just another kind of frustrating and fearful challenge. Children tend to copy – and to generalize – emotional patterns like this. So, question #1 for adults is: “What are you modeling?”

How often do you use a phrase like this – or something similar:

“It’s just not worth it.”
“I don’t need this!” (hands up like the picture above)
“It’s just too much to keep doing it.”
“I’ve had it.”
“I’m done.”

Each of those – or anything like them – are probably a surrender in progress – the ending of some effort; the unraveling of some commitment.

Remember that emotions are faster than rational thinking? So, any “reasons” we offer about those phrases and choices are really rationalizations we’ve built AFTER choosing surrender. Our response to frustration, fear, or overwhelm – has been to give up and, ACCEPT THE LOSS (the third action of the bullying system!)

Forget your “reasons” for a moment, and just be honest about how frequently you use phrases like the ones above. Realize that frequency is your frequency of modeling “surrender” as an emotional navigation.

We repeat whatever we repeat.

Regardless of your past pattern, consider using the debriefing activity I outlined earlier in this series to improve your batting average. Remember that the debriefing activity isn’t a “secret adult thing”, but part of an effective life-skills kit that youngsters won’t use if they don’t think it’s normal. Remember that all high-performance athletes and performers use this kid of activity daily.

Surrendering to Bullies:

In earlier parts of this series, I’ve said bullying is “social sorting by despotic means”. And, the third activity of the bullying system is “acceptance of mistreatment”.

So, in the bullying context, “surrender” means accepting “your place” in the social order as dictated by someone else.

The bully isn’t just advertising their position over the target; they’re advertising their authority to dictate social order. And, others tend to follow along with this through the psychological pressures of conformity. (check out the video I posted earlier in this series).

And, if we repeat surrendering in the face of one kind of challenge, it makes surrender seem like a natural way to deal with another.

In our culture, surrendering is considered the act of a coward- a shameful act. To accept being “put in one’s place” – having one’s worth defined by another – implies that the self has no inherent worth – that all worth comes from the grace of more powerful people. This is shame. And, it is crushing.

bullying emotions

Shame is self-sustaining with surrender: Each begetting the other.

And, it is not surprising that sadness follows in a way that can be life-threatening to the surrendering, ashamed, sad person – or even to others. Some people will “bounce” out of their sad desperation through an explosive expression of anger and violence…

What Can I Do?

If we want to reduce bullying, we must make surrender a less common navigation for fear, frustration, and overwhelm.

One of the most important things adults should do to help this is to demand an end to “zero tolerance” for self-defense. That kind of policy send a message to the child that they are not valued – and shouldn’t value themselves – encouraging them to surrender – and feel shamed for being unworthy of protection.

They will be punished for NOT surrendering to one despotic organizer – by the power of a different despotic (patently unfair) social organizer.

This is another reason children suffer silently and don’t even talk to their parents. Under “zero tolerance” for self defense, standing up for themselves in the short term means bigger and farther-reaching punishment including, loss of grades, permanent record, and being labeled a trouble-maker (one who does not surrender).

Can we wonder why children would choose to surrender to the smaller and lesser of bullies – or why they choose to suffer silently rather than suffer even worse shame?

Adults should model effective coping with frustration, fear, and overwhelm by moving into states other than surrender and anger – by doing “troubleshooting” to discover and learn from the experience. Adults can also model perseverance – and maintaining that by taking smaller bites of the elephant. We should model a healthy diet of developmental frustration and fear – to build our tolerance and navigation into determination and resolve rather than surrender.

Beyond modeling, adults can facilitate healthy doses of frustration and fear -making sure to provide right-sized experiences so they grow rather than retreat. If we (or a child) takes too big a bite and winds up in surrender, model or coach a bouncing-out navigation – back into resolve.

Well-managed martial arts classes are a good venue for youngsters to face fears and frustrations and build the vital success habit of persevering and overcoming. Every fear, frustration, and overwhelming situation is another opportunity to model, practice, and encourage this habit – and to use debriefing to make sure they notice and take it in.

The change you want to see is waiting – for you to make it happen.

What are you waiting for?

Next time, I’m going to show the role sadness plays in the bullying system – and how it can lead down a dark path – to both being a target – and to bullying!

In the meantime, I’m very interested in your personal experiences – and any comments or questions you have. Please share these things below, and I’ll do my best to answer them all.

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Understand Bullying: Angry Kids

Welcome (back?) to Understanding Bullying. This installment is about Angry Kids – or really about the function of anger and the role it plays in the bullying dynamic.

The change you want to see is waiting – for you to make it happen.

All that’s left to do is to gain an understanding bullying and the emotions that run it – and apply that understanding in your daily modeling and communicating with young people.

understand bullying angerNow, let’s look at the emotion of ANGER, and how it operates with other emotions to encourage the three actions of the bullying system:

  • taking Advantage of power
  • using Aggression
  • and Accepting mistreatment

Last time, I promised to reveal how anger can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system that works almost like an addiction – and what you can do to prevent or escape it. Remember that emotions are biologically faster than rational thought?

Have you ever experienced anger – and blamed someone – only to later realize that blame was misplaced – or that the anger itself seemed silly?

That’s what I’m talking about. Any weakness can inspire the emotion, and once it’s upon us, we need an object to make sense of the experience. In our game of mental catch-up, we often pick the nearest person or thing and write into our story to make sense of the experience.

When people act out or express anger, they usually wind up regretting it (don’t you?) – in a weakened social state or being ashamed (in the state of shame) over their actions. If they “swallow it” instead, that can result in everything from digestive problems, or another path into shame. Or a ticking time bomb of violent revenge…

One of the greatest risks with anger as the gimme-extra-strength drug is that a nice jolt of it feels like a double-espresso – or a line of cocaine. And, people can get into a habit or pattern of seeking excuses for a fix of that. Cycles like these tend to be isolating, which can further entrench them.

You can find really obvious examples of this on social media – where someone you know posts things to be outraged and angry about every day – maybe several times a day – and usually followed by a ranting thread of “they should be killed” sort of talk. That may be an “anger junkie”…

In Motivational Literacy, we recognize several of these repeating anger patterns. We call one of them the “Anger and Blame Vortex”:

anger and blame anger management

When a person enters an anger and blame vortex, they continuously move from anger – to blame – to feeling they are a victim – to the insecurity that creates – and from that weakness back into anger.

Anger is a universal emotion. We all experience it, and we all have to learn to cope and recover our grace after expressing it. Regardless of what a person claims “caused” them to feel angry, that emotion invites the bullying behaviors of abusing authority, and acting out aggressively – using those strategies to cope with feelings of weakness – whether they are actual or imaginary. Looking at things this way makes it much easier to understand bullying, and angry kids.

Just like fear and frustration, once we recognize the biological purpose and function of the emotion, we can acknowledge it as normal and universal. Doing that put us in a position to manage it better; to become ever more skilled at that; and to be forgiving of others who are also learning to deal with their own human challenges.

Manage anger in four steps:

  1. Acknowledge that it is natural – and have a sense of humor about it (not shame).
  2. Explore the weakness – identify it –see if it is even real.
  3. List resources that counter the weakness and put them to work.
  4. Create and acknowledge experiences of overcoming the weakness.

Adults can model this pattern, and teach and remind children to follow it. You can use the debriefing activity I talked about earlier in this series to improve coping with anger across time.

Again, I’m going to recommend well-run martial arts programs as an environment where a good coach will help youngsters recognize weaknesses that aren’t real (perceptions only), and acknowledge (rather than deny) any real weakness so they can cope through building skills rather than shame and acting out.

Next time, I’m going to disclose why some surrender to being bullied, and how that choice can lead to shame, sadness, and depression – even becoming a life-long narrative of victimization – or even harm to self or others.

In the meantime, I’m very interested in your personal experiences – and any comments or questions you have. Please share these things below, and I’ll do my best to answer them all.


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Understand Bullying: the Frustration Factor

Welcome (back?) to Understand Bullying: the Frustration Factor

If you’ve been following the series, you may remember how action-and-results-focused my other posts have been. Last time, I mentioned how things like reporting (statistics), judging (labeling), postering (kitschy sayings), and punishing don’t create real and useful change.

Anything that doesn’t build coping skills or shift culture isn’t going to make real change.

understand bullyingTo achieve real change, we want to understand the mechanics, and then commit to doing things differently. By understanding differently, adults must come to talk differently, to act differently, and to expect different behavior from our own children. That’s the definition of “shifting culture”. It’s not immediate; it’s not effortless; but it does pay huge dividends.

The change you want to see is waiting – for you to make it happen.

Remember that every action is an attempt to escape an emotion – or to create another. And, that emotions operate in relationships and patterns to form systems.

This time, we’re going to look at the emotion of FRUSTRATION. How does it operate with other emotions to encourage the three actions of the bullying system:

  • taking Advantage of power
  • using Aggression
  • and Accepting mistreatment

Last time, I also promised to reveal how completely necessary frustration is to our mental health, overall well being, and success – and to show how you should be facilitating healthy doses of frustration often.

Think about an achievement you are proud of – something you really feel self-esteem over having accomplished. Chances are you didn’t achieve it on your first try. It probably took focused effort over a period of time, and the overcoming of obstacles. Some of the obstacles probably took more than one try – and some learning of skills or growing of strength along the way.

Now, think about something mundane you do all the time – tying shoes, for instance. Do you feel much self-esteem over that? Why not?

True achievement means overcoming challenges and obstacles. And, the proof that an obstacle is a worthy challenge is that it takes effort – probably repeated effort, learning, and personal growth. Not getting what you try for the first time is called “frustration”. So, the process of doing something to call an “achievement” involves navigating frustration skillfully and repeatedly:

All roads to achievement and self-esteem run right through frustration.

And, there’s no way around it: Frustration is inevitably between you and any worthy achievement. In fact, you can’t even get to determination without going through frustration first – to build up the necessary intensity by testing commitment.

Motivational Literacy calls frustration a “worthiness test”: If a challenge isn’t enough to frustrate you – at least at first – it isn’t really worthy to help you build self-esteem. And it’s likely to bore you pretty soon.

Unfortunately, we’ve allowed marketers to convince us that frustration is intolerable, and our children are getting better at avoiding it than at coping through it. The result is that frustration builds bullying behaviors in ways very similar to the ways fear works:

bullying emotions
This happens when a person navigates from frustration to shame because they think feeling frustrated means they are incompetent, they are primed to conceal that shame by Abusing authority or acting aggressively.

Frustration can contribute to bullying when a person navigates from frustration to anger triggering the use of aggression.

When a person navigates from frustration to surrender and submission they are more likely to Accept mistreatment.

Any of these things can happen when someone is frustrated beyond their ability to navigate to more useful emotions.

Frustration can build into monumental determination when youngsters learn that navigation. Frustration can also inspire groundbreaking creativity if a person learns to choose that course.

These navigational choices can only be made if the child understand the emotion is normal (not shameful). While learning to navigate frustration, the challenges must be appropriately-sized, and the student must plan and rehearse the direction they want to go – by applying what we call the “measure of measures”…

Well-managed martial arts classes usually follow these guidelines, allowing children to face frustrating challenge repeatedly, and to deliver rehearsed responses so they can develop positive navigation of frustration. This can also be true of team sports and most forms of artistic expression as well.

Parents should model the understanding of frustration as normal – and a signal that they have stumbled upon a worthy challenge for their next achievement. Acknowledge frustration as the opportunity to learn and overcome rather than being something intolerable, shameful, or helpless-making.

Parents should be creating frustrating experiences of the right size for their children, and insure they are having them regularly. And, don’t rescue them or give in when the child navigates to surrender or even anger. That’s the wrong direction!

Facilitate frustrating experiences in both the physical and mental aspects of life, modeling and encouraging creative and persistent strategies to overcome challenge.

If you check your personal history, you’ll find this is the pathway you took to most of your own best achievements. You can install that effective strategy into youngsters with your modeling and orchestrating of learning experiences that culminate in achievement and self-esteem.

In the next installment I’m going to reveal how anger can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system that works almost like an addiction – and what you can do to prevent or escape it.

In the meantime, I’m very interested in your personal experiences – and any comments or questions you have. Please share these things below, and I’ll do my best to answer them all.

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Understand Bullying: the Fear Factor

Most of what I find written about bullying falls into four categories:

  • Statistical reports
  • Labels and value judgments
  • Posters and Platitudes
  • Punitive actions

Statistical reports help us notice that bullying is universal across time and human culture, but provide no suggestions for useful strategies.

Labels and value judgments make us feel better, and allow us to create a frame to imagine our name-calling is somehow different than what bullies do on the playground despite the fact that the empathy-destroying effect is the same. Like statistics, labels are very helpful for finding a path forward.

Posters and Platitudes are well-meaning efforts that do more to make the adults feel better than they do to make real changes for children. At their worst, these programs are only models of hypocrisy: One does not build self esteem or social competence through posters, pledges, or platitudes.

Punitive actions are often of the one-size-fits-all, zero-tolerance variety – the laziest and least accountable actions the adult bureaucrat can get away with. Punitive reactions are often meted out equally to both bully and target in the clearest message of adult indifference to both children and to the principles of fairness those adults hypocritically prattle over. Punitive responses are often calculated to cause shame, which is really the fertilizer that grows bullying.

The problem is that reporting, judging, postering, and punishing aren’t things that create real and useful change through building skills or shifting culture. To achieve skill-building and culture-making, we have to understand the underlying mechanics, and commit to doing things differently on an individual level.

The change you want to see is waiting – for you to make it happen.

Every action is an attempt to escape an emotion – or to create another. Emotions operate in relationships and patterns to form systems that drive actions. This time, we’re going to look at the emotion of FEAR. We’re going to explore how fear operates with other emotions to encourage the three actions of the bullying system:

  1. taking Advantage of power
  2. using Aggression
  3. and Accepting mistreatment

Last time, I promised to reveal how important fear is, and why we should be having regular doses of it. And, we can’t understand bullying if we don’t understand fear.

You are in a restaurant with your family, enjoying a meal. In walk two hulking men in biker attire who take an immediate and obvious dislike to the mixed-race couple at a nearby table. The motorcyclists begin to speak in loud tones and obnoxious language, obviously designed to disparage the couple. The waitress takes orders from the men, who she appears to know. As they wait for their food, the loud, rude behavior escalates, obviously frightening young couple.

As the title of the CBS series asks “What would you do?”

This is also the trick – because everyone has a story about what they would do, though few people really know what that would be unless they’ve been there before.

We talk about “teaching character”, which at best is delivered in hypothetical situations in warm, comfortable surroundings. And, the stories about how “I’d teach ’em some manners” evaporate under the hot spotlight of fear. Suddenly, there are other considerations – like the safety of one’s own wife and children – and the many good reasons to “mind your own business”.

Motivational Literacy understands fear as part of the “crucible of character” – a context made of fear and opportunity – where our values meet our urges – and there both form and reveal our character.

Fear: the crucible of characterMarine Corps basic training is not held in an air conditioned classroom because we cannot “teach” character in an academic way. Most attempts to “teach ethics” fail for this reason. Always, there must be a context of fear and/or the opportunity to break our values. Only in that environment can we grow – or really measure – character.

That’s why it’s called the “moment of truth”.

This is also why we should be facilitating regular and appropriate doses of fear for our children – so they can grow the character and courage we say we want them to have. Depriving them of the fear they need to grow would be as cruel and senseless as depriving them of nutrition.

There can be no courage without fear.

And, fear is an inevitable emotion. If we don’t prepare youngsters to cope with it effectively, what later appears as their failings of character are rightly our failings as parents and mentors. If we don’t understand fear and how to use it for growth, we can’t understand bullying – or manage it.

These are the emotions related to bullying, and how they relate to each other:

bullying and fear

Fear builds bullying behaviors when a person navigates from fear to shame because they think feeling fear means cowardice. The psychological need to conceal shame is a powerful trigger for using aggression – to prove they are not “a coward”.

Fear can contribute to bullying when a person navigates from fear to anger and using aggression – or from fear to surrender and accepting mistreatment This happens when they experience fear beyond their ability to cope in other ways.

Or, fear can build into heroic courage when a child navigates from fear to resolve.

This can only be done if they understand the emotion is normal (not shameful), and have the opportunities to learn navigating appropriately-sized fear by following a good and rehearsed plan to success.

Repeating this process is part of how heroes are built.

Well-managed martial arts classes usually follow these guidelines, allowing children to face threatening stimuli repeatedly, and to deliver rehearsed responses. They also facilitate free-style experiences with properly-sized fear can be navigated to success. This same principle holds true for team sports, drama, public speaking, musical performance, etc. – when they are well-designed.

Parents can model the understanding of fear as normal: something to be learned from and mastered rather than something intolerable and helpless-making.

In the next installment I’m going to reveal how completely necessary frustration is to our mental health, overall well being, and success – or how it can become a trigger for dangerous addictions. I’ll show how you should be facilitating healthy doses of frustration often, and how you can be more effective yourself as you model skillful navigation of this normal and vital human emotion.

In the meantime, I’m very interested in your personal experiences – and any comments or questions you have. Please share these things below, and I’ll do my best to answer them all.

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Risk Factors for Bullying (part two)

Understand Bullying: Risk Factors (part two)

Last time, I shared the idea that the three A’s of bullying behavior – taking Advantage of power, using Aggression, and Accepting mistreatment – can be found more often at the upper and lower extremes of ranking systems like physical size, intellectual ability, popularity, etc.

I invited you to look at your own experience with bullies and bullying to notice how often that rings true. I wonder what you discovered…

That’s why last time, I promised to reveal the specific emotions adults should be looking for in the context of bullying. We should do this always, but especially in people who appear near the ends of any ranking system like those I mentioned last time.

RULE ONE about emotions: they are biologically faster than rational thought.

We are always playing rational catch-up to our feelings. This is part of what makes them useful for signaling in reliable ways. Anger can be masked by a smile, but not before providing a warning glimpse of itself to those who are paying attention…

Could you notice that someone was sad or afraid, just by the way they walk, or the expression on their face? So can an aggressive person looking for a “safe” target. These emotions are not only feelings; they are powerful communications that most often occur outside conscious awareness. This is part of the signaling system we use to sort our roles and find our places in the social order.

With that in mind, let’s pay special attention to these five emotions and the roles they play in the bullying system, either by inspiring or triggering reactions in bullies and targets:

  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Sadness


Fear of bulliesOnce we are in a state of fear, we’re likely to react in more extreme ways (more aggressively or more submissively) to any new input. So, fear can inspire target behavior (submitting or fleeing) or trigger bullying behavior (posturing or fighting). There are a variety of factors that decide which, and when.

And, the behaviors may BOTH happen in the same person and in a very short time frame: A child is menaced and punched by a stronger one, and within moments the targeted child may menace and punch a weaker one.

Fear can be a risk factor for being targeted – or even the instrument of bullying: A child with an intense fear is vulnerable to abuse of that fear – whether it is about insects or snakes – or even something actually life-threatening such as a food allergy. Food allergy bullying is becoming commonplace.

I had a client, “Larry” who came to me in his 40’s for a roller coaster phobia. As a child, little Larry had his first roller coaster experience while seated next to an older and more aggressive boy. When the older boy recognized Larry’s fear, he used that fear and threatened to throw Larry from the car on one of the high turns. As Larry clung to the safety bar for his life, the older boy violently rattled the bar and screamed that the tracks were broken and everyone was going to die, terrifying Larry (to the older boy’s great amusement).

This case illustrates several things, including the way a person in an already fearful state is more vulnerable to being further frightened. It also shows how fear can be attached to whatever we notice during the emotion: Larry came away from his experience terrified – not just of the other boy but of roller coasters as well – for the next 35 years.

Pre-existing fear may advertise a child as a “better target” because they may be more submissive. Or a fearful person ashamed of their fear may conceal it with aggression – triggering a bully into action.

This is why it’s important to monitor for fear, especially fear that seems to be ongoing or regular. The source of the fear isn’t important unless it is related to an existing bullying problem because any consistent state of fear places a child at increased risk of bullying – or being bullied. It’s especially important to watch for fear in children who are outliers on the status-related scales I outlined last time:

•    Physical size and ability
•    Economic status
•    Popularity
•    Intellectual ability
•    Health and Handicaps

In the next installment I’m going to reveal how important fear is (we should be having regular doses of it), what it’s useful for, and how to prevent it from transforming into super-bully-fuel (shame).


Frustration leads to bullyingFrustration is the emotion of unfruitful efforts and unmet needs. Many people, Americans in particular, have a low tolerance for it – maybe due to marketing propaganda that suggests unpleasant emotions are either intolerable or are a symptom of a mental disorder.

Think about something that frustrates you. Think about the last time you were frustrated by it. Imagine yourself back in that situation, and notice the emotion that came to you right after the frustration.

Based on our studies, the emotion that most often follows frustration is anger; the second-most common is a feeling of defeat or surrender. Have you noticed a tendency to react more strongly when you’re frustrated? That’s normal.

Like fear, frustration magnifies reactions. It can inspire target behavior (submitting or fleeing) based on a feeling of defeat – or trigger bullying behavior (posturing or fighting) based on feelings of anger.

Frustration in others can be interpreted as a sign of incompetence. And, our awareness of that can lead us to feel shame about being frustrated. And, shame is the super-bully-fuel…

It’s important to monitor for frustration, especially in children who haven’t learned to navigate it well. Anyone who has a low tolerance for frustration – is frustrated quickly or easily – who reacts to it with distressing anger, sadness, or apparent shame – is at increased risk of bullying – or being bullied. It’s especially important to watch for frustration issues in children who are outliers on the status-related scales.

In a future installment I’m going to reveal how completely necessary frustration is to our mental health, overall well being, and success – or how it becomes a trigger for dangerous addictions. I’ll show how you should be facilitating healthy doses of frustration often, and how you can be more effective yourself as you model skillful navigation of this normal and vital human emotion.


Angry bulliesAnger is the extra-strength-potion emotion. It tends to cause tunnel vision for whatever we think caused the need for extra strength. When studying anger we must keep rule #1 in mind. Emotions are biologically faster than reasoned thought:

First we feel the emotion. Second we try to make sense of it.

Because of biology, we will always be behind in this. That’s why we usually think the “cause” is outside ourselves – which means we are not in control of the problem. The extra strength and focus of anger are supposed to help fix that – to overcome and seize control.

Anger in others can be a warning sign: that they are in a state of elevated strength; that they will be less open to reason and more prone to action; and that they are seeking something to focus that strength against to get or demonstrate control.

These are also the reasons anger may lead to bullying behavior – and why the real “source” of the emotion doesn’t matter. Once someone enters the state of anger, mission #1 will be to make sense of it through “blame” or targeting the actions they will take.

A “need for extra strength” is the definition of “weakness”.

So, biologically, all anger springs from weakness, consciously perceived or not. Thirst and hunger are biological weaknesses we know make people prone to anger. A perception of weakness relative to another (on any of the social scales I’ve mentioned) may also encourage anger. And, shame is also a type of perceived weakness especially prone to activating anger. Finally, one of the recognized “stages of grieving” (a weakened state) is anger.

Anger is a common response or “next emotion” for ALL FOUR of the other emotions in the bullying system.

While anger erupting from fear or frustration usually gives some warning, anger that follows shame or sadness can be especially explosive and unexpected.

It’s especially important to watch for anger in children who are outliers on the status-related scales. Angry upper-end outliers will find it easier to blame – and abuse those below themselves. And, just being a lower-end outlier on any of those scales is likely to trigger anger – especially if there are other weak-making factors like poor sleep, poor nutrition, poor hydration, or other stressors.

A child who shows patterns of anger may be experiencing the emotion in response to one – or many of these things – and like everyone else will be playing rational brain “catch up” to the faster emotional system. So, they are most likely not able to be aware of all the real factors involved.

In an upcoming installment I’m going to reveal how anger can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system that works almost like an addiction – and what you can do to prevent or escape it.


Shameful bullyingShame is a key state for understanding bullying. Shame will commonly follow other bully system emotions, especially Fear, Frustration, or Anger. Shame is the belief that one is bad, or unworthy – and is the “super-fuel” of bullying problems.

Shame is the most concerning of all the risk-factor emotions.

Shame may be difficult to detect for those who are not skilled at non verbal signals, partly because it is “the secret emotion”people do their best to hide it, often behind anger or aggression. So, shame may be a trigger emotion for bullies.

Shame, like fear, can be used by a bully against a target – by threatening to reveal something like a secret crush they think themselves unworthy for – or an aspect of themselves like gender identification or orientation. People who believe themselves unworthy are also often welcoming of mistreatment. So, shame is a very high risk factor for targets.

Intense shame is closely associated with intense violence – toward the self or others.

We must watch for shame in children who are outliers at either end of the status-related scales – and look behind the emotions of Anger and Sadness, particularly, for an underlying shame that can dramatically increase the risk of participating in the bullying system – or of injury from that participation.

In a future post, I’m going to reveal how Shame interacts with some of the other emotions, how it can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system, and what you can do to prevent or escape it.


bullying is sadSadness may come from many life experiences – including the choice to give up something due to overwhelming Frustration or Fear. One of the “stages of grief” is also anger – another bullying-related emotion. Sadness is also related to Shame – the bullying super-fuel, and prolonged sadness – especially when related to bullying – may be a risk factor for harm to self or others.

Sadness offers a rather clear set of non-verbal communications that may also make a sad person vulnerable at a target for bullying, although there is risk for the bully in the form of social blow-back, depending on the situation.

We need to watch for Sadness in children who are outliers on the status-related scales – especially at the bottom end. Sad lower-end outliers may be easier targets, may also be suffering shame. And, just being a lower-end outlier on any of those scales is likely to create  Sadness – especially in the absence of better position on any other scale.

Remember again that Anger is one of the main emotions people use to escape the weak feeling of Sadness. So, a chronically sad youngster may show explosive Anger.

Sadness is a risk emotion for potential targets – and also a warning emotion that someone may be getting bullied. If a youngster you know is displaying sadness (and especially if they’re trying to hide it) – consider deepening your conversation with them – or seeking professional help for them.

Next time: Understand Bullying – the Fear Factor

I would like to hear your stories, comments, and questions. And, I will do my best to answer any that you leave below. Thank you for participating in the conversation.

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