psychology of bullying

The Psychology of the Bully with Dr. Lamia

Today we’re happy to present a follow-up to Narcissism and Shame on Social Media, An Interview with Mary. C Lamia, Ph.D., with an article written together with Dr. Lamia herself!

Dr. Lamia is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has spent 35 years teaching adults, adolescents, and preteens about dealing with behavior and emotion. Her young adult book Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings was the recipient of the 2013 Family Choice Award.

In this article, she helps us make sense of bullying by delving into the psyche of the bully—and you might be surprised at what you do (or don’t) find:

We’ve all heard the common saying, something along the lines of bullies pick on children they perceive as ‘easy targets’ as an outlet for venting their own internal and disguised frustrations, inadequacies, and pressures. It’s a common defense for understanding the psyche of a bully and a way of explaining a bully’s actions. But is it actually true?

To answer that question, one must first consider the damage bullying causes:

One of the most damaging childhood problems, bullying can lead victims to actions as extreme as suicide or to permanent psychological damage.  This problem has been gaining more attention and in March of 2015, a House committee approved anti-bullying legislation in the State of Idaho.  “The bill states that school personnel are authorized and expected to intervene in cases of bullying.”  Bullying is a very serious issue, and parents/educators need to understand the dynamics and be prepared to help their kids in case they became either a perpetrator or victim of bullying.

The first step to dealing with bullying is understanding the psychology of the bully and the motivation for their actions.  Knowing what’s behind bullying behavior can help you be more effective in dealing with bullies.

A major misconception is that bullies feel bad about themselves, and this is the reason why they hurt others.  The prevailing belief is that deep down they feel so insecure or ashamed of themselves, and this negativity seeks an outlet in hurting others.

In Dr. Lamia’s exploration of bullying, she’s found that, generally speaking, that’s not how bullies operate.  If they do feel bad about themselves they are not aware of it.

Feeling sorry for bullies can make you ill equipped to handle them and handle yourself in response to them.  A sympathetic response assumes bullies are aware of how bad they feel about themselves.TSpost6-54
Attacking others actually enables bullies to be unaware of what they really feel. They have a unique way of making others feel shame and humiliation, which is what they are hiding from themselves. They do this by intuitively recognizing a person’s insecurities and attacking them.

Attacking others not only keeps them from looking within themselves, but it also can give them a feeling of excitement or power.

Although bullies put down others in order to raise themselves up, they are not aware of how negatively they feel about themselves. Putting down others keeps them from recognizing their need to raise themselves up.  Most of them have deep-rooted feelings of shame that they are unable to address.

Responses to Shame

Psychologists have categorized these learned responses to feeling shame:

  • Withdrawal hides your feelings from others and it can lead to being isolated and depressed. This response is common in loneliness.
  • An avoidance response occurs when a person refuses to face what’s going on. The avoidance may involve addictive behaviors.
  • Another response to shame, attacking oneself in a psychologically or physically self-injurious way, is like giving in or giving up, and involves blaming yourself.
  • People who bully use the most destructive shame response: they attack others.  The attack other response to shame occurs when a person feels psychologically endangered and incompetent.

These feelings of incompetence, combined with the excitement and power that they feel when they bully others, makes bullying an outlet for the negativity lurking deep inside.

Bullies are confident about themselves and this confidence is like a shield from their feelings. It’s possible to be confident and look confident, all the while not realizing that you feel bad about yourself. But in order to remain confident, bullies find victims to feel the badness that belongs to them.


Protection against bullies

As a parent or educator, you will be vulnerable if you feel sorry for a bully and believe they actually suffer from feeling the effects of low self-esteem.  A sympathetic response may not allow you to take the proper actions required to address the issues.

And most importantly, it may leave the bullied child vulnerable to further attacks.   Victims of bullying tend to be sensitive people who are likely to attack themselves in response to being attacked.

Understanding the psychology of a bully can help create a strategy for dealing with situations on a case by case basis.  If you understand that the bully is feeling shame and negativity that they are running from, and they bully others as a way to avoid dealing with their emotions, then you’ll know those bullies do not feel bad about their actions.  In fact, they probably feel a sense of satisfaction as they feel the excitement and power of running away from deeply rooted emotions.  Knowing that they are not to be pitied, you can address the problem with sufficient firmness and clarity.

Bullies MUST learn that hurting others is NEVER acceptable. By conveying this message you will also inform the bully that it is not acceptable for anyone to bully him or her as well.

Finding Support

For children who are bullied, uniting with their peers against bullying will give them a place where others understand what they feel. Often victims of bullies are isolated or silent as a result of being shamed by a bully.TSpost6-56
By uniting with others, it will be the bully who faces the threat of isolation.  Encourage these children to find support with their peers, as well as family members and teachers.

A bully should be helped to navigate their feelings of shame and negativity.  They may not have the tools to deal with how they feel, so whenever possible, help them gain the tools they need by explaining the situation to parents or family members.  It may require a deep dive into their psyche, but the sooner they can unravel their inner turmoil, the sooner they can learn to have peaceful and amicable relationships with others and, most importantly, with themselves.

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