What Neuroscience and Emotion Theory Teach About Bullies

Richard, a former patient of mine, used to bully kids when he was in high school. When I asked him to share what bullying felt like, he told me intimidating kids was the only time he felt powerful and strong. He was beaten by his father. He showed the world his tough side, but he secretly believed he was the “weakest boy on earth.” The flip side to his rage and aggression was the tender emotions of fear, sadness, and worst of all shame, that lay buried beneath. All of us become scared and ashamed when we are treated badly by the people who are supposed to protect us.

Hardship and adversity, as Richard experienced as a child, evoke hardwired, universal, and biological survival responses in the brain. Emotions like anger, fear and sadness trigger a cascade of physiological responses that affect almost every organ in the body preparing it for survival actions, like fleeing, fighting or freezing. When a child, in the midst of experiencing powerful and painful emotions like anger and fear, is left to cope alone, the child’s brain uses another class of emotions called inhibitory emotions to prevent themselves from being psychologically overwhelmed. Shame is one kind of inhibitory emotion that very efficiently blocks anger and fear by causing a protective visceral withdrawal inward like a turtle fleeing into its shell.  While protective in the moment, toxic shame leaves a child feeling broken, unlovable and alone until it is healed.

Shame is an emotion we need to learn a lot more about. How much shame we carry and how we deal with it varies. In general, the amount of shame we carry correlates with the amount of neglect, abuse, and adversity we faced. Additionally, the more alone we felt in our suffering, the more shame we carry. Good shame helps civilize us, keeps us in line to fit in with our families, peers and other groups. Toxic shame, resulting from physical or emotional abuse or neglect, however, hurts us and impedes healthy development. The mind contorts in all sorts of ways to defend against the visceral and psychological pain of toxic shame.

How does the brain contort? A child develops defenses, like aggression, which turns into bullying behavior. Conversely, a child may cope with shame by disconnecting from their mind and body, which renders a person vulnerable to bullies for they have lost their sense of self. Aggression and disassociation are fail-safe ways to block the intense emotional and physical pain of emotions when healthier ways of soothing are unavailable.

When people learn about emotions and trauma, they feel less ashamed because they come to understand that they suffer for real reasons—bad things happened to them that were not their fault. And when people process their emotions instead of burying them with shame, the brain rewires, healing occurs, and people feel and function better.

Richard, my patient who bullied kids when he was younger, confronted the trauma of being beaten by his father. He learned to connect with and give compassion to his younger self for what he went through. He learned to experience the anger, sadness, and fear triggered by the abuse. He mourned the loss of a happy childhood. Experiencing those feelings brought relief, even though it was hard. He gained confidence from his newfound ability to process and work with his emotions instead of avoiding them. As Richard’s shame healed, and his confidence grew, his aggressive defenses melted away. They were not needed anymore to protect him.

Children and adults alike need to be educated on trauma, emotions and the brain. We need to deeply understand that it is not a flaw to have feelings, it is biological. We also need to teach children that it is not weak to need comfort and help in the midst of our emotions, for that too is innate biological programming. Men and women with influence—coaches, mentors, politicians—must speak out about this “cultural ignorance” that people can ignore their emotions and “get over it” without paying a price in mental health.

We learn in high school that we have a stomach, heart, muscles, and lungs. Why are we not taught about the biology of our emotions? There is knowledge available to help mankind find its collective empathy once again. And it will benefit us all.

(Patient details have been changed to protect privacy)

This post first appeared in Psychology Today.

References:

Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect. New York: Basic Books.

Kaufman, G. (1996). The Psychology of Shame. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

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