Bullying reaches deep into a person’s psyche; it shatters the soul and destroys a person’s self-esteem and trust in the world. The lasting impact of bullying is evident in therapy rooms everywhere, and it’s remarkable how often clients undergoing counselling trace their issues back to when they were bullied in childhood; "I was a happy child until I was bullied in sixth class, but I’ve been insecure ever since", or "My life fell apart after I was bullied as a teenager in secondary school". Anyone who has experienced bullying knows that it has a profound impact, but why do people bully? And how can we get them to stop?
If we examine bullying within nature, we can see that the instinct for survival among animals often leads to bullying behaviour. Predators such as eagles, hawks, lions and tigers are unconsciously programmed to bully – they use their superior power to systematically and repeatedly hunt the weak, and then they enjoy a good meal as a consequence. In addition, weaker communities of animals are driven by the instinctive need to protect the purity of the group, as they are more at risk of dying than the stronger members and that is why bullying often begins with exclusion and social isolation. It is also these weaker members who are keen to establish a pecking order within the original group, giving as a pecking order further strengthens the group. Animals in nature don’t want outsiders coming and going, as this weakens the pack and they tend not to welcome the outsiders into the pack until they are sure they will remain and until they are sure that they will be a valuable addition to the group.
The reality of a pecking order among a group of little boys became very clear to me recently, when my six-year-old boy recently started soccer training. I was simply amazed by how often my gentle little boy was suddenly embroiled in fistfights with other kids on the pitch. During training sessions, a minor disagreement would have boys knocking the head off one another quicker than you could say ‘pecking order’. My boy, who was the newest kid on the block, seemed to have a handful of fights during every training session for the first few weeks. A few months in, and the boys seem to have established who’s who and there are very few outbreaks nowadays.
The groundbreaking work that is being done in neuroscience in recent years has inspired many new theories on bullying. It is now known that the amygdala in our brain serves to trigger our ‘fight or flight’ response. When we believe we are being attacked – whether by a mugger in a dark alley, by a lion in the jungle, or by a hot-tempered kid on the first day of soccer training – we tend to act first and think later; some of us take flight and some of us stand and fight. It is only later on that we analyse and figure out whether we behaved correctly.
The good news is that the prefrontal lobes in the brain give humans the ability to attempt to persuade, placate or outwit their adversary. Empathetic people find it easier to talk their way out of a bullying situation, as they can understand how the aggressor is feeling and so they can figure out what they need to say to placate them. Indeed, empathy and moral engagement are the key qualities that need to be taught to everyone involved in a bullying situation.
Bullying is a complex issue. Many bullies don’t realise the damage they are causing to their victims – you see, they haven’t got enough empathy to figure this out. And in turn, many victims of bullies don’t understand why they are being targeted – they, in turn, haven’t the emotional intelligence or the brain space to determine how to avoid the malevolent eye of the bully. Moral engagement teaches the bystanders and the targets to engage with the bullies and to stand up against bad behaviour. We need to be taught how to take responsibility and we need to realise that, if no one else is doing it, then it is our job to intervene. Moral engagement also teaches the bullies the impact of their nasty behaviour.
We all prefer to keep bullying simple – the bully is ‘pure evil’, and the target is innocent. But, as with all issues involving human nature, it is rarely as simple as this, and the more people understand and care about how their behaviour impacts others, the easier we will all find it to get along.
Psychotherapist & Career Guidance Specialist