The Empathy Solution to the Bullying Crisis

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Not long ago a patient of mine pleaded with me to find time to see her son in consultation. Marie is a single mom raising two boys, ages 19 and 16. She has been divorced for several years, her alcoholic husband hit her one too many times and she left him when the boys were quite young.

Her oldest son Nathan has had a very troubling life, often acting out in school, quite aggressive and extremely disrespectful of authority. He quit high school in his junior year, has drifted throughout the country and eventually found what he has come to call his new family, the infamous group called white supremacists.

I agreed to see Nathan and our one time consultation proved to be invaluable in my further understanding of the mind of the bully. Nathan proudly let me know that he has beaten blacks, Jews, gays, Italians, Puerto Ricans etc. He made it clear in the early moments of this consultation that he and his fellow supremacists were the only ones who were truly protecting American values. His initial story was not uncommon, I am sure you have heard these descriptions of violence in the name of distorted views of justice.

The Real Story-The Hidden Injury
Nathan was particularly prideful about his hatred of blacks; he talked of how they were truly inferior, less intelligent than whites, living off the system as he continued to ramble on about their destruction of white society for several minutes. I listened for the most part as he ranted.

At one point he commented that he knew I must agree with his views.” After all my mom said you’ve been at Harvard and “there aren’t many blacks walking around in Cambridge”. I of course informed him there were many black professors at Harvard and in particular several who were noted for their brilliance in the medical school. He argued and again I just let him vent. After I was able to calm him by listening attentively I slowly asked him if he would give me an honest answer to an important question. He proudly said of course as I knew he would not want to convey retreat.

I asked him if he thought he would score higher on an IQ test than one of my black colleagues if I could arrange for testing in a few days. He fumbled for an answer and for the first time I could see his exposed vulnerability. “I’ve never been school smart; it doesn’t matter anyway on the street”.

I then complimented him for answering honestly. He was surprised as he did not exactly answer my question. I mentioned that he revealed his answer without many words and although he was feeling angry I could tell he was an honest person. Nathan, at this point, had calmed down somewhat and I knew I had his attention. I then asked if I could ask a second question and he agreed. His pride seemed to be pushing him forward.

The Scene of the Crime-the Original Story
I asked Nathan how it came about that he developed such hatred for blacks. He went on tell me how he grew up in a poor neighborhood outside of Boston. He was one of the few white kids on his street and he was taunted and hit on the bus repeatedly by black kids who were older and stronger. He felt totally humiliated day after day. “I told my old man what was going on but he was always too drunk and never did a dam thing about it, my mother was too scared herself and eventually we moved but not after me learning what these n……were really all about”.

The Bully was Bullied
As Nathan told of his early suffering and how his rage developed he began to mellow, at one point his rage turned to tears. The origin of his hatred was clear, there is always a story of hurt, humiliation and damaged self worth behind feelings of rage. We ended our conversation that night and I never saw Nathan again. His mom moved to Florida to take care of her elderly parents shortly thereafter. A few months ago I received an email from Marie saying Nathan had left his so called friends and was living with the her and his grandparents. She said things were still quite difficult, his temper could erupt at any moment but he was enrolled in an IT school to gain certification as a technician. She also mentioned he seemed to be benefitting from conversations with her father, an ex marine who had great respect for what violence can do to a person’s life.

An Ordinary Human Being
You may think of Nathan as unusual and in many ways despicable. After all he took delight in bullying and beating innocent people. He is however not so unusual in terms of the development of a bullying personality. Aggression fosters aggression, empathy fosters empathy. Nathan, like many other abusers, was abused himself. He lived with unbearable humiliation, lacked the support of a stable family to help him cope and as a result eventually feel prey to the seduction of the supremacists. They initially offered him connection, support and a family structure that seemed to guarantee him safety and security. They united with him in rage toward a common enemy as they superficially built up his self esteem. They praised him for following their dictates and rewarded his bullying under the disguise of protecting white people who were being robbed of their independence and rights.

I am reminded of the classic studies by psychologist Stanley Milgram when he was determined to understand how seemingly ordinary people could commit atrocities such as those perpetrated by the Nazi’s during the holocaust.

Dr. Milgram designed an experiment where some individuals were told that they were helping researchers to find ways to improve memory. They were divided into roles of teachers and learners. Learners were to memorize a set of words, teachers would administer the testing. In actuality the learners were actors implanted by Dr. Milgram. Teachers were to deliver and electric shock for wrong answers, beginning with 15 volts. The control panel of the electroshock machine was labeled slight shock to danger to severe shock. Even though the learners were shouting “ I can’t stand the pain” at 450 volts, once the experimenter stated that he would assume all responsibility two thirds of the teachers continued to elicit shocks to the very end of the scale. This result shocked the researchers themselves but proved that ordinary, decent people could perpetrate acts of violence and cruelty. This experiment has been duplicated many times indicating that when people shift their sense of responsibility to an authority they are capable of doing immense harm. Nathan had shifted his sense of responsibility to group leaders, freeing him to unleash his sadistic side without evoking his conscience.

Human Beings are born to Care not Hurt
Numerous studies indicate that we are genetically programmed to care for each other. If however were abused, neglected or humiliated the capacity for empathy withers and we are left with a sense of helpless rage toward those who inflicted suffering on us. I was asked recently by a reporter if empathy can be taught. I answered in seconds, “absolutely”.

In conducting group psychotherapy sessions over the years I have witnessed many individuals develop this capacity even if it was under-developed for most of their lives. Human beings cannot resist empathic attunement. Even Nathan, with all his rage, began to soften as he felt understood. I saw in his eyes the hurt humiliated boy who desperately was searching for understanding, belonging and safety. When we don’t feel secure and safe we are vulnerable to being manipulated by predators and we are vulnerable to forming long lasting prejudices that fuel resentment and chronic unhappiness.

The Societal Factor
If as a society we want to reduce bullying and aggression we have to place more emphasis on teaching cooperation and less emphasis on idealizing the win at all costs attitude. We reward the aggressor in many instances on a regular basis. Professional athletes and celebrities act with disdain for human life and we forgive them because they perform and achieve on high levels. This attitude promotes valuing status over character and achievement over quality relationships. If our goal is to become rich materially at the expense of becoming poor spiritually we will continue to witness acts of terror.

Our young people will continue to take their lives as they envision no hope for fairness and equality in a society devoid of empathic understanding of differences. Developing and expanding our innate capacity for empathy is the salve our society is in desperate need of, let us all place our inherent goodness as the guiding motivation to living and behaving with compassionate and tolerance. Our youth is in need of rescue, it is a critical, immediate need we are responsible to fulfill.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

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Arthur Ciaramicoli PhD

Comments (3)

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kat Tansey, Loving Your Child. Loving Your Child said: To reduce bullying and aggression we have to place more emphasis on teaching cooperation and less emphasis on… http://fb.me/OMz1iybj [...]

  2. Patricia F. Consolo, LCSW-R says:

    Terrific article; as always useful in my Practice. I am looking forward to seeking
    out your books, “Performance Addiction” and “The Curse of the Capable” ~ so pleased to be on LinkedIn and discover such useful insight and writings. Patricia

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