My cousin Mike as a child was a terrible bully. All the kids in town were terrified of him. I remember in the first grade telling someone that he was my cousin and they looked at me astounded — YOU are related to HIM? (I was a quiet, curly-haired uber dork. Bully bait. And he was this blonde, athletic neo-Nazi.)
He used to jump out of bushes and try and knock me and his sister Suzy off of our bikes. Or he’d tie us to a tree and punch us in the stomach. Or dunk us in the swimming pool until we nearly drowned. Yeah, he was delightful.
Anyway, he’s all grown up now and by all accounts a well-adjusted husband, father, business man and golf aficionado. My grandmother used to say, “God, he was a rotten kid, but he’s so NICE now!” I dunno. I have my suspicions. If he had a torture chamber set up in the dungeon of a country club pro shop somewhere, I wouldn’t be surprised. But near as I can tell from brief encounters with him at family gatherings, he doesn’t remember any of our history. He shakes my hand and is quite friendly.
The point of this little save-it-for-therapy nugget is that as a child, when I would complain to his mother that he was being mean, she would say — “Oh, that’s just because he likes you.”
Yes, that’s what boys do when they like you — they torture you and call you names. This was very confusing to 6 year old me, because I clearly felt that Mike did not like me one bit. Bullying me was great sport. But maybe I just didn’t understand boys? Maybe sticking my head under water was a sign of affection? Or attention getting? Did I have him wrong? This was my first introduction to subcontext — the idea that people had hidden motivations that were completely incongruent with their behavior. That there was a context (affection) beneath the other obvious context (aggression).
As much as I thought about bullies growing up (when I wasn’t trying to avoid them altogether), I heard that they suffered from low self esteem. They had issues at home that drove them to be bullies.
But then studies came out in recent years — with more societal openness and concern about bullies — that lo and behold, bullies don’t suffer from low self esteem . They think they are just splendid. In fact, that’s part of their problem — they apparently have too much esteem for themselves and not enough for others. If you want to read more on the topic, here’s an interesting article summarizing the research. It discusses an additional phenomenon about aggression — it’s a narcissistic kind of “self esteem” that is highly sensitive to insult. One researcher theorizes that bullies lash out when they feel this highly inflated sense of themselves is threatened by others. So best to keep the troops in line, let them know what’s what.
God, where was this research when I was a kid? My instincts were dead on. That suggestion that Mike “liked” me was utter bullshit. No, he slugged me in the stomach because he felt entitled to pick on younger, smaller, weaker kids. I don’t deny he was troubled or had issues (clearly!), but he had no business preying on us, just because he could.
I think there is a real danger in asking children to sympathize with someone who is abusing them. It teaches kids, especially girls, to be chumps. To see the “good” in bad behavior. To come up with convoluted reasons why people treat you like shit. Well, they had bad role models, a poor diet, shame issues, FOO issues, were abused themselves. And the trope you see all the time — hurt people hurt people.
No. Entitled people hurt people.
We’ve all been hurt. No one gets through life unscathed. It doesn’t give you permission to treat others like shit.
You see this hurt people hurt people thinking on reconciliation sites all the time. Or call-in advice shows, like Dr. Jenn. Some poor woman will call in — “Well, I’ve been dating Bob for 7 years and he won’t commit.” Then she gives a long litany of Bob’s misdeeds and proceeds to excuse every one of them with crap like “he’s confused, and very afraid to trust again. He was hurt so badly in his other relationship/by his parents/was scared by a clown as a child…” Meanwhile, Bob goes happily along being Bob. While she tries torturously to decode him.
Because there is SOME other reason, right? It can’t be that Bob likes to tie you to trees and punch you in the gut? The REAL reason somewhere in this mess is that Bob LIKES you. Let’s find the evidence for that. Isn’t that a better message than Bob is an asshole?
Why are we so reluctant to draw conclusions about bad behavior? Why do we need a host of motivating factors? Why can’t we believe that some people behave abhorrently out of a sense of entitlement and POWER?
Let’s take a historical example. How ridiculous would it be if I tried to explain Saddam Hussein by saying he suffered from low self esteem? When he was gassing Kurds, he did it out of deep feelings of inadequacy and residual rage he felt towards his mother.
Of course, that’s silly. We all agree he was a ruthless despot. He gassed Kurds because he could. Because they annoyed him with their demands for autonomy.
Or take the institution of slavery. There you had a whole culture of entitlement. Generations of slave holders felt it was perfectly their right and due to treat blacks as inferior, because they OWNED them (or they had to be owned, because they were inferior). Every slave holder wasn’t a personality disorder — they just operated with a set of cultural assumptions that said it was okay to keep slaves and treat them like shit. It was permitted. Encouraged even!
So knowing this about human nature, why don’t we draw these parallels to our personal life. Dynamics of power and aggression exist. People will try to gain advantage over other people for their own selfish purposes. Sometimes people will behave cruelly, because they see you as weaker or less deserving then they are.
Sometimes these people are wicked tyrants in foreign lands and sometimes these people are your cousin. Or your spouse.
Well, that’s the disturbing thing, isn’t it? The people close to us are not supposed to abuse us. They must have reasons that go beyond the obvious (i.e., it’s fun to fuck around). They have intimacy issues. They were threatened by your success. They were driven to it by your sexlessness. Maybe they really like you! It’s just that they can’t communicate that, because they fear your reaction. They feel shame.
I think you should be more patient with them. Love them through this difficult period. Be more understanding. Write them a letter telling them how you feel! Dialogue!
How’s that working for you, chumps?
Yeah. Didn’t work for me either.