Hurt People Hurt People - Bullying Series, post #6

(This blog post is part of a special series addressing the topic of bullying)

“I wish every day could be Halloween. We could all wear masks all the time. Then we could walk around and get to know each other before we got to see what we looked like under the masks.”  - R. J. Palacio

On the surface, bullying appears to be someone just being mean to someone else. But to fully understand bullying, you have to look beneath the surface. This is discernment – understanding the deeper reasons why things happen. It is important to accurately identify what is really happening in order to respond effectively.

Let’s take a quick look at 2 theories of human development that will help us understand what might be going on inside of a bully that causes them to make the choices they do.

The first theory is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It was developed by Abraham Maslow and described in his book Motivation and Personality, published in 1954. In short, Maslow postulated that humans must have certain fundamental needs met before reaching higher levels of reasoning and maturity. Maslow’s theory is often depicted as a pyramid with the most basic and fundamental needs at the bottom and more complex needs at the top.

The first level of the pyramid contains physiological needs for survival such as food, water, and air – without which we would die. The second level consists of security needs such as health, personal safety, secure property, and stability. The 3rd level is the need for love and belonging, which includes family stability, friendship, and intimacy. The 4th level is called esteem and involves respect for others, respect for self, productivity, confidence, and achievement. The 5th level is called self-actualization, which means reaching your full potential. In this level, an individual develops creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving ability, moral clarity, and higher-thinking skills.

Notice how these levels are a progression. You really need to finish lower levels before moving on to higher levels. Just as when you build a house, you do not begin with the roof, humans should satisfy foundational needs in order to develop and progress to higher levels.

When you consider bullies, they lack respect for themselves and others (level 4) and they struggle with the basic morality of treating others well, not being prejudiced against others, and constructive problem solving (level 5). Maslow’s hierarchy suggests these individuals might have some basic needs that have gone unmet.

Perhaps the bully feels out of place, not accepted, or unloved (level 3) or maybe the bully feels threatened, insecure, or has been bullied by others (level 2). When I was teaching high school, I talked to a young man after school who exhibited bullying behavior in how he talked with other students. When I asked him why he talked to others the way he did, he looked at me in surprise and shared that that was the way he was talked to at home. In other words, he had learned this pattern of behavior from his parents and adopted their style of communication as his own. The hurtful things he said to others was simply a replication of what was being said to him…day in and day out.

This doesn’t mean that bullies are not responsible for their choices and behavior. Ultimately, each of us is the “captain of our ship” in that we make our own decisions that affect our lives…and the lives of those around us. But, just like all of us, bullies are influenced by what they have experienced. For example, it is very difficult to respect and care for others if you don’t feel cared for, yourself. Being aware of a bully’s situation helps us understand more of what is happening.

Another theory of human development is Attachment Theory. In the late 1940s John Bowlby was commissioned by the United Nations to study children who were orphaned as a result of World War II. These children exhibited challenges in developing healthy relationships with others and normal social skills.

Based on Bowlby’s work, Mary Ainsworth developed what she termed “Attachment Theory.” Ainsworth attributed these deficiencies to a lack of healthy, foundational relationships with people who were significant to the children. She proposed that in order to interact appropriately in a social context, a person must have a foundational relationship with a “secure person.” Having this relationship gives the individual confidence to explore relationships with others. Without this secure base, the individual finds it more difficult to interact with others.

But what does this have to do with bullies?

Some bullies might behave the way they do because they do not have love, acceptance, security, or the benefit of a good example in order to understand how healthy relationships should work. They drag others down to build themselves up. They try to make themselves appear more secure and powerful by hurting others. They feel the need to demonstrate their power and control. They cover up how they truly feel with a mask of toughness, indifference, and superiority. But, on the inside, they are hurting and don’t know what to do to make the pain go away.

Now that we understand the bully a little better, let’s switch our focus to the victim.

 

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