“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
The Thich Nhat Hanh quote above is a popular idea about what makes bullies tick. We have been taught that people who bully are the way they are because they are troubled or anxious. We seem to believe that people only attack other people if they are feeling threatened themselves. We want to believe if we are kind, compassionate and understanding that bullies will not bully. We want to believe that we can help. But can we?
In George Simon’s book,In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, he says:
“Even when our gut is telling us that somebody is attacking us and for no good reason, or merely trying to overpower us, we don’t readily accept the notions. We usually start to wonder what’s bothering the person so badly “underneath it all” that’s making them act in such a disturbing way.”
George Simon goes on to discuss how thinking about bullying and other toxic behaviour patterns in the above way actually prevents us from being able to appropriately respond to an attack. Instead of moving into self-protection, we instead are side-tracked into trying to make sense of or respond to the other person’s presumed hurt or anxiety.
Whilst I do not want to fall into the trap of asking why bullies bully – I do want to note that current research seems to be giving us a different picture of bullies and their behaviour. There is evidence that bullies are different. They lack conscience and are unable or unwilling to be self-reflective – this means that they are not thinking about or concerned with the impact their behaviour is having on other people. Bullies are self centred and willing to pursue their own agendas with complete disregard to the rights and needs of others. They don’t feel guilty or ashamed about their behaviour and they aren’t remorseful. Bullying is not something that is done defensively – its something done consciously, deliberately and repeatedly in order to manipulate other people, to gain power, to hold control, to win.
Valerie Cade in her book, Bully Free At Work, notes that “the normal interpersonal expectations we have of one another – kindness, empathy, care and concern, inquisitiveness and general interest – are not met when interacting with a bully.”
Our job is not to sympathize with the bully, or to try to analyse why they are doing the things they do. Our job is to acknowledge that not everyone thinks or feels the way we do. Not everyone has the capacity or interest to be empathetic, caring, supportive. Not everyone is searching for mutually agreeable outcomes. Not everyone wants problems to be resolved. Some people do not care – their behaviour is toxic, deeply impactful and ultimately dangerous. Bullies may expend some energy to image manage, but they do not change their behaviour for long, and their intention to control, manipulate and hurt others remains consistent.
Our job is to recognize bullies for who they are and bullying for what it is and to then take significant, swift action to protect ourselves. There is often no real consequence for those who bully and they continue to bully for no other reason than they can. We may not be able to stop a bully from being a bully, but we don’t have to be sitting ducks either. By all means be compassionate, but do so informed with knowledge. Knowledge is power. If you are a person who cares about others, who carefully considers how your behaviour may be impacting others, who seeks win-win outcomes and who tends to think the best of others … know that a bully is not thinking what you think, feeling what you feel or wanting what you want. In short, a bully is not ” just like you”.