The Psychology of Bullying: A Letter to a Bully

In our previous articles on ‘Bullying and Harassment’  we, perhaps understandably, focused on giving a voice to the survivors of these behaviours, helping them to understand their rights and the options open in terms of both seeking and accessing support.
However, in order to effect real change we feel it is important to look at both sides of the coin – and that’s why we commissioned Clinical Psychologist and Director of Connected Futures Psychology Ltd, Dr Sarah Wassell to help us explore and understand the psychology of bullying and how we might help those who engage in bullying behaviours. The article includes advice on further support for those that feel they may need it.   

The Psychology of Bullying

Go on, admit it, the buzz of feeling like you hold all the cards is pretty intoxicating, isn’t it? Some of us have more experience with this sensation than others, but as humans, built as we all are for survival, we understand why feeling ‘Top Dog’ is so enticing. That sense of strength and power in comparison to others is attractive, particularly for the ambitious, especially in competitive industries. Is it any wonder then that we might excuse ourselves stepping on another for an opportunity, while telling ourselves ‘We can’t all be winners’? Or dabble with bully-like behaviours …. the odd put down or eye roll, schadenfreude gossip, or lack of open invitation to join the clique elite.  

If not as adults, many of us experience this within school years. Part of growing up is experimenting with roles and hierarchy and identity, and so many of us flirt with bullying behaviors, or catch ourselves caught at the raw victim end of it. Often, we experience both. 

What tends to keep this behaviour in check, is the most beautiful qualities of humanity; empathy and compassion. As fun as it is to feel like you are winning, if your success is at the expense of another’s wellbeing, the victory tastes less sweet. Sparks of guilt help us review and refine how we relate to others. As we mature, we hope to become more secure in ourselves, and it becomes less important to compare ourselves to others, and less gratifying to be bully-like. 

This is not everyone’s path however. For some it is hard to step away from those dynamics. The drive and need to engage in bullying behaviour can be so strong that it overrides the ability to prioritize compassion. Let’s be clear, none of us have purely 2D victim or bully personas, but rather survive life by adapting our relationship style to each situation. 

However, if you feel that when experiencing certain triggers and relationships, bullying is your default, I’ve written you a letter. A letter from a therapist who wants to protect victims, but also wants to support you to be the healthiest version of you. Of course, I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but humour me. Allow me to offer you some compassion….

Dear Bully, 

This letter is a challenge to you. 

To be vulnerable, just for a moment. To be seen. To remember times of not being seen. To feel. 

I understand if that feels too much. You’ve spent your life running from just that. 

I’m calling you a survivor, not a coward……. someone who has learnt to survive, but at a cost. Often that cost looks like the wounding of others. People don’t always see the cost to you too. 

The longing to have a true connection.

The loneliness.

The desire to feel seen, understood, accepted and celebrated. Not the superficial celebration of your achievements when your mask is on, but the delight of others in the ‘you’  that hides underneath. That is the painful cost. 

I wonder what it was you survived, that made you want the strongest armour and the sharpest weapons? This will be so hard to say. To touch on it might feel scary. It’s so much easier to minimize or deny it, to reject this idea. 

To admit you felt unsafe when younger, when you were your most vulnerable is huge. To hold that you are no stranger to feeling powerless and afraid of not being seen, or cherished…. well, that would get right under that armor. You have learnt to never let anyone do that.   

What would it be like though, if you did see it?

If you could sit with that idea, maybe you’d really understand why you wear your armor. Why sometimes it feels safer to attack than risk another attacking first. Why is it so threatening to see others with potential? 

You might not accept this idea, but don’t throw it away just yet. Hold your curiosity, because one day this could be useful. 

Let me tell you my hope for you. 

If you were to entertain that your early life wasn’t perfect, then maybe you’d see with compassion that you needed that mask, armor and weapons then, as a younger and vulnerable you. And then you could review if you really still need them, as an adult.  

You might feel able to put them down. Such a brave thing to do, but such a relief, because carrying all that stuff is tiring, right? And it keeps people so far away, keeps cutting that connection that you long for. 

I hope that in your world today, as ‘adult’ you, you find glimmers of predictability, or comfort and safety. Try spotting them. 

Try looking for the people that would be safe to risk putting down your shield with, if just for a moment, to see how it feels. 

Did they take the opportunity to attack? Or did they appreciate the privilege of seeing a bit of the real you. 

Some of the most incredible human connections I’ve had are where people let me in behind their shield. I treasure these moments, and am always in awe of their bravery. My hope is that you allow someone in your life that privilege. 

This letter might have been hard to read. It describes a life journey. 

Take it one step at a time, and while you are on that journey, I will hold my hope for you. 

Wishing you bravery, and comfort with your vulnerability. 

The caring side of humanity motivates communities to support and protect victims, and rightly so. Society has a duty to protect individuals’ rights to experience safety and respect, and victims have a right to their anger, and other’s support, if these are violated.  However, those who bully are often demonized, with comparatively little support to review their behaviours and relationship style. This seems so simplistic. Humans are so much more than just ‘victims’ or ‘bullies’, they are a complex cocktail of vulnerabilities and strength. I find that where there is bravery to embrace the complex, and compassion for both the self and the other, there is strength and health. So, whether you identify, or have identified as a victim, bully or both, I wish you and those around you that bravery and compassion. 

If you would like to further develop the health of your relationships, it can be invaluable to talk to a psychotherapist or psychologist. To help ensure you have a safe and quality experience by a trained professional, do first check that they are registered with the appropriate regulatory bodies. A Clinical Psychologist would be registered with the Health Care Professionals Council and a good place to find a Psychotherapist is on the UK Council for Psychotherapy Register There are many models of therapy that seek to address how we relate to others, including Accelerated Experiential-Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)  and CAT (Cognitive Analytical Therapy)

Dr. Sarah Wassall

A Clinical Psychologist offering clinical assessment, therapy, consultancy, supervision and training for individuals, families and professionals.

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