11. Fun and Games for the Bully - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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11. Fun and Games for the Bully

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > How Dangerous

 How Dangerous is this Person? Assessing Danger & Violence Potential Before Tragedy Strikes

BULLY: Characteristics, Criteria, or Elements for Aggression & Violence Potential
-- Code: NO=not applicable; YES=applicable; DEPENDS= Depends on other issues or occurs sometimes

BULLY: NO, Specific Triggering Event
BULLY: YES, Opportunistic Behavior
BULLY: YES, Sense of Entitlement
BULLY: YES, Self-Righteous Attitude
BULLY: YES, Ego-syntonic Perception
BULLY: YES, Self-Esteem Gain or Loss
BULLY: DEPENDS, Intense Emotional Arousal
BULLY: YES, Pleasure
BULLY: DEPENDS, Resentment
BULLY: YES, Functional Reinforcement (positive or negative)
BULLY: DEPENDS, Characterlogical Behavior/Perceptions
BULLY: DEPENDS, Transitory Behavior/Perceptions
BULLY: NO, Isolation/Avoidance Behavior
BULLY: YES, Social
BULLY: DEPENDS, Presence of Remorse
BULLY: NO, Empathy
BULLY: YES, History

Camila is a bully.  As a girl, she was a bully to her siblings.  She was bully in preschool, elementary school, junior high, high school, and college sorority.  Camila is a bully at work and in her church.  Wherever and whenever she could get away with it, Camila was and is a bully.  Camila is a bully to her partner Paige.  She ran with and often led peer groups as a child and teen where her aggressive bullying was held in esteem and fear.  Although others did not readily accept her, they often came to fear her because of how she could manipulate the social order.  She relished the power and status bullying and intimidating others gave her.  She felt entitled and being the boss or intimidator was ego-syntonic.  Whenever anyone questioned her aggression or abuse, she would be self-righteous about “having to” or “needing to” take care of herself or not let others get away with stuff.  Although she would blame someone for triggering her wrath, in actuality she was alert for any opportunity to dominate or exploit someone.  It was fun and games for her and made her feel good.  

Camila came to anger management group under the guise of working on communicating without so much intensity.  The actual motivation was she had been mandated to go to treatment by the court for domestic violence treatment.  The group leader began to suspect that there was more than communications problems when Camila would show a self-satisfied smile when she described how she responded- that is, punished Paige for forgetting to pick up her dry cleaning.   She showed emotions but they did not seem to be the correct or appropriate emotions for the circumstances.  Not exactly dispassionate or cold, Camila however did not show remorse or sadness when she described Paige being distraught, but seemed proud of herself.  When the group leader asked what happened or what Paige did in response to a conflict, Camila said that Paige was “good” after that.  Basically, bullying her or otherwise punishing, abusing, or intimidating her worked just fine.  Asked what that meant, Camila said Paige had learned not to displease her by forgetting and had been especially sweet to her afterwards.  Paige essentially rewarded Camila for her aggression. Camila said if Paige did not like how she was treated, then she needed to behave better. She did not seem to have any empathy for Paige. In a collateral meeting with partners, Paige defended Camila saying that Camila was not always mean.  The group leader understood that to indicate that Camila was “sometimes” mean.  Further exploration found that how Camila treated Paige depended on her mood.  If she had a hard time at work or over other issues, she was more likely to be “mean.”  Camila interjected that Paige did a lot of things that she let slide, but there were some things that she could not forget.  The resentments Camila claimed were plausible but not necessarily compelling to the group leader.

Several otherwise commonly accessed entries to treatment are closed off for Camila.  Appealing to empathy for Paige’s distress does not work.  Camila does not have remorse for Paige’s hurt.  Her aggression and abuse is ego-syntonic.  She is proud of how she dominates others.  There are not specific triggers that can be problem-solved.  She aggresses because she can and the situation allows for it occasionally.  The available entries to intervening with her are in her desire to be social and not be isolated.  Potentially losing her relationship with Paige is related to her caring also about whether she benefits or gets punished by her behavior.  As long as Paige gives her permission to continue to exploit, control, and hurt her, including being willing to stay with her, Camila would not be receptive to change.  Being a bully works for her in many ways.  Paige refusing to be mistreated and being willing to leave or actually leaving the relationship would create two potential entries to change.  The group leader has limited ability to promote change without working also with Paige as well.  If a professional or therapist in could work with both partners in couples therapy, strategies and interventions directed at Paige removing permission for Camila to abuse her can be attempted.  A possible entry would be to have Paige eliminate any opportunity for Camila to hurt her while remaining in the relationship.  

That may be a viable strategy in some types of relationships, but that is not possible in an intimate partner relationship that requires mutual vulnerability.  If Camila and Paige together or Paige alone wished to stay together for some other reason than intimacy- for example, to raise children or for financial security, then avoiding showing any vulnerability to preclude any opportunity for abuse becomes a necessary strategy.  The partners or a partner such as Paige may accept this.  This would challenge the therapist whether it is the type of couples therapy he or she wishes to be involved in.  In the anger management group, the group leader may be limited to presenting the possibility or probability of relationship termination to Camila, since he or she may not be working regularly with Paige or the partners together.  As long as it works for Camila, she would not be receptive to change.  Or, unless the consequences are tangible and severe enough, she would not be motivated to be less abusive or violent.  The group leader, therapist, or professional may explore how he or she can make it not work for Camila or to create compelling punishments.

The aggression and violence of a bully is largely functional.  Cultural aspects contribute to someone becoming a bully.  Aggression to gain preeminence is considered a valuable character trait, especially among boys and men and in competitive economic and political realms, if not also in academic and scientific arenas.  With greater gender equality, females exercise both traditional feminine styles and aggressive styles previously reserved for men.  Male bullying has tended to follow male socialization, which largely involves contention for ascension up the peer hierarchy and avoiding descending the hierarchy.  Female bullying, following female socialization of inclusion versus exclusion involves ostracizing victims along with assaults on their relationships and their reputations. In certain societies and communities, there has been greater emphasis and need for aggression and violence to serve survival needs against competitors for scarce resources.  This can be a country surrounded by hostile nations or a playground with limited toys.  It also can be a girl who decides to be the queen bee of the yard who develops her covey of followers.  They follow her lead and tell the scapegoat/victim, "We don't like you.  We don't want you to play with us."  It can be an academically failing boy who gains notoriety through fear rather than respect or affection by bullying smaller kids on the playground.  It can be an Aryan-based Nazi supremacy that entitles a country to conquer and devastate countries and groups of people.

It is arguable whether certain religions or philosophies promote greater aggression or whether aggressive individuals have interpreted religion or philosophy to support their desires for domination and acquisition.  There may be a natural convergence between power seeking individuals and aggression validating religion or philosophies that empowered their actions.  The religion or philosophy, much as aggression or violence "works" effectively for such people.  It works for the queen bee bully or the bully boy.  It worked for Adolf Hitler.  It worked for Camila.  An individual often seeks esteem, status, influence, power, and control through a variety of strategies and techniques.   The crude bully is often unable to gain such social deference or eminence through academic, social, athletic, artistic, musical, or personality skills, behaviors, or activities.  Bullying which includes emotional, psychological, and social intimidation and assaults in addition to physical attacks gains a semblance of status.  However, rather than admiration, affection, or respect, the bully gains power and control through intimidation and abuse.  Fear is the foundation of their status.  The more sophisticated bully such as Camila may already have relatively high social status and influence, and power and control in his or her academic, social, job, or professional circles.

The key first step or strategy to prevent bully based aggression or violence is to prevent it from gaining the power and control desired.  If blocked, including quickly punished with compelling consequences, bully aggression or violence does not serve its purpose for the person.  The therapist, professional, or other concerned person can significantly prevent a great deal of bully based aggression and violence with interventions based on eliminating effectiveness and punishing rather than allowing it to gain rewards.  Once aggression and violence loses its effectiveness, only then will a bully consider alternative behaviors to gain esteem, status, influence, power, and control.  In that sense, bully based aggression and violence is relatively simple to stop and prevent.  Individual or systemic (classroom, school, workplace, or community) response to block desired benefits and punish bully ordinarily will stop and prevent such aggression and violence.  Self-esteem based approaches would tend to be more effective with the crude bully who otherwise had no alternative for meeting such needs.  By themselves, however self-esteem approaches are inadequate for the more sophisticated bully.  The sophisticated bully such as Camila, who is often already popular and has esteem, status, influence, power, and control needs established, aggresses and abuses to maintain, accentuate, and increase dominance.  Punishment and vigilantly maintained boundaries with compelling negative consequences consistently applied are required to prevent further aggression and abuse.  Depending on the circumstances and the authority of the therapist, professional, or other concerned person, it may be challenging to maintain such vigilance and apply consequences when boundaries are crossed.

An individual such as Paige as a partner or a child who is victimized on the playground often have their own issues and vulnerabilities which undermine any ability to be sufficiently assertive when dealing with a bully.  In addition, unless there is a greater systemic or institutional authority to manage the community and compel the person's cooperation, someone such as Camila if unable to bully Paige will move on to find another victim.  Thus, intervention may "work" to keep Paige safe, but not work protect a next victim.  Empowering the individual and/or activating the system or community, however may be difficult because of cultural rigidity, institutional intransigence, denial, and political resistance among other issues.  Unfortunately, institutions often address bullying as an individual issue with one bully and one or more victims with circumcised unique circumstances.  Systemic change remains essential for fundamental change when bullying has become a part of the school, workplace, or organization's culture.  A family, school, or workplace can become safer, but only through leadership and members changing institutional culture so that values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors actively identify, block, and punish bullying abuse and violence.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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