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The Culture of Bullying

I bullied a Deacon once.  Unfortunately, it was easier to do than I thought. And I found I was quite good at it.

A few years ago we, at Beverly Therapists, collaborated with Blossom Boys to foster their initiative, “Bully Free Beverly”.  A Deacon at a south-side church asked us to help a task group to understand and learn how to intervene with bullying.

They were a lovely, inviting group. They shared their fellowship meal with us, and we talked and laughed.  Then we presented on the basic dynamics of bullying: the bully who seeks power at other’s expense; the “victim” who becomes the designated “lesser than” target; and the bystanders who stay ineffective on the sidelines.

We asked for volunteers to create an experiential role play to understand the dynamics firsthand.  The Deacon volunteered to be the victim: someone with a basketball looking to play a game.  No one wanted to be the bully, so, as the leader I stepped up.

Wow.  I am amazed at how well I played my part.  He was gentle and kind.  I took his ball and verbally degraded him.  As he tried to be assertive, my inner bully used her power to win the “game”.  As he began to deflate, I rallied the support of some bystanders to join me in “keep away”.  One of the bystanders tried to appeal to my better judgment, but I easily plowed past her on my entitled high. Interestingly, no one stepped forward to comfort the Deacon.  I ruled the show.  It was scary how gratifyingly easy it was to bully.

I know the Deacon was glad when I ended our 5 minute role play.  We processed it as a group.  Everyone agreed that intrinsically we KNEW how to play these parts.  We have each have within us a bully, a “victim” and a bystander.  We have each felt justified to use power at someone else’s expense, and know subconsciously how to do it in a cheap mean way.  We have each elected to stay safe and not risk disempowerment by associating ourselves with a victim.  And unfortunately, since childhood, we have experienced being small, possibly degraded, and without equal rights.  We shared personal experiences of hurt, fear, victimization, and bystander moments.  However, our sweet Deacon remained quieter than when the evening began.

Next, thankfully, we flipped the script and introduced the power of “upstanding” or standing up in the face of aggressive power plays.  We replayed the scene.  This time when I stole his ball, the Deacon maintained his self-worth and helpers moved to his side.  No one joined in with my attempts of harassment.  In fact, this wonderful group of people were kind to me.  One woman told me I had too beautiful of a spirit to bully. She offered her friendship, encouraged me to return the ball, and congratulated my goodness.  Wow again.  Inside me, I felt a genuine shift of being seen and cared for.  Underlying my needs for power were needs of validation and connection.

We finished up the evening, hugging and laughing.  As I drove home that night, something did not feel right.  It sunk in: while playing bully, adrenaline kept me from my empathy.  Even though we were role playing, the Deacon truly got hurt.  I exposed and abused his vulnerability, and had stripped him of his defenses.  I found his woundedness and used it for our temporary role-play.

The next day I called him and acknowledged his authentic and vulnerable heart.  He told me about past injurious incidents that got triggered in our role play.  I apologized for not only reenacting these injuries, but for all the times he undeservingly was discounted and hurt by others who had not apologized. ­­­­

As it becomes easier in today’s climate to bully, know there is a big price to pay.  It feels absolutely dismal to the soul to assault someone’s vulnerability.  If you are unable to feel that level of empathy, most likely you have ridden the waves of adrenaline to not feel your own vulnerable feelings and needs.  Conversely, it feels absolutely wonderful to be an upstander and to protect, encourage and love others when they are momentarily lost in the drama of bullying.


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