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 Рwho has only generated further proof of their incompetence and unworthiness Рthrough 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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