Bullies can’t dance

Developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld attributes bullying to a psychological construct he describes as an “alpha complex”. He explains that it disrupts the basis for human attachment which demands that an alpha individual responds in an empathetic way to dependent posturing from another individual.

Neufeld explains that this is how human attachment works and it’s something we have in common with other mammals. The disposition of dependency and the behavior of seeking attachment are not confined to children. Similarly, the dynamics of attachment are active in all sorts of relationships over and above the bond between a child and principal care-giver(s).

Solid attachment between individuals involves an intricate dance during which the alpha and dependent roles alternate depending on the relative capacity of the two individuals to respond to life challenges. Being an alpha involves playing to your strengths in order to support or nurture the other individual. Being dependent involves accepting personal vulnerability or lack of capability and making the appropriate, functional overtures to the alpha individual.

Bullies can’t dance because they can’t countenance being personally dependent. They crave alpha status even in circumstances in which their capabilities are not up to the challenge.

In the context of explaining the psychological result of play deprivation during childhood, psychiatrist Stuart Brown talks about the issue of “resilience”. He says that those suffering from play deprivation lack resilience and have a shortfall in curiosity. They have difficulty regulating emotions and tend to be inflexible especially when something unexpected happens. They are rigid and easily startled. They substitute shock, fear and aggression for surprise or delight. This deprives them of the mental wherewithal when challenged to move gracefully from their fast, intuitive response to a rational measured response. Challenges include encounters with deserving alphas in circumstances in which the bully is — on the basis of relative capacity — the person in the dependent position.

Arguably, bullying is a complex coping mechanism for those who lack “resilience”.

What is “resilience”?

Lev Vygotsky suggested that play helps children development their meta-cognitive abilities. It helps children learn to monitor their thought processes and to understand their own emotional state. They develop the ability to self-regulate. This includes the ability to cope with challenges, adversity, trauma and significant sources of stress.

Resilience involves the following capabilities –

  • The capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out
  • A positive view of yourself and confidence in your strengths and abilities
  • Skills in communication and problem solving
  • The capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses
  • Generally expressing an “internal locus of control” — the belief that events in life, whether good or bad, are caused by controllable factors such as personal attitude, preparation, and effort.

Having been born with a brain deficiency, some bullies are psychopaths and, therefore, predatory. They are capable of “instrumental aggression” driven by lust and desire. The aggression is “instrumental” because it is a means to an end — a component in the enactment of a predation strategy.

A bully may have a personality disorder. Pathological narcissists project a “false self” and live life on the basis of maintaining a complex, manufactured image. The image bolsters feelings of self worth in the narcissist and this makes it defensive; it protects the individual from painful feelings. Bullying others is part of the relentless, ruthless protection of this false self. It helps shape the narcissist’s social world to maximize the supply of attention and adulation and avoid shameful exposure. It is an exercise in power undertaken by someone who, from the perspective of personal development, is far from complete.

It is commonly believed that both psychopaths and those with narcissistic personality disorder are incapable of empathy. Some commentators refer to “cold empathy” that facilitates the exploitation of the emotionally vulnerable. The perpetrator reads the feelings of others perfectly but does so coolly and dispassionately. The victim is being weighed up by someone perfectly capable of feigning compassion and that person sees the potential for personal gain.

Psychopaths and pathological narcissists are capable of attempting to rationalize their cruel behavior by referring to the guilt of the victim who “deserved” the treatment they were given. Pathologically avoiding shame, narcissists are never at fault in their own eyes. Projection is prominent in their armory of psychological defense mechanisms. Projection involves the narcissist attributing undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses to another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses but is being blamed for possessing them. Scapegoating, in other words.

The vast majority of bullies are actually capable of empathy but they are in the grip of “reactive aggression” meaning that they see threats where there are none and react aggressively. Another aspect of human resilience relates to how easily this “flight-or-fight” response can be activated. On the basis of self-awareness followed by self-regulation, resilient people tend to be calm and composed or, at least capable of restoring calmness and composure quickly without prolonged temper tantrums. Tiredness or a build- up of stress impacts negatively on resilience and makes it more likely for the over-stretched individual to lose his / her temper. Bullies have little resilience at the best of times and aggression (passive or active, overt of covert) is their default setting.

For non-resilient individual prone to bullying, occupation of the dependent position is threatening and they therefore adopt one of two strategies depending on their assessment of the power differential between themselves and the other individual –

1. I can bully this person to usurp them of the alpha position they deserve

2. I can’t bully this powerful person — I will be obsequious

Being obsequious is not the same as accepting your dependent status in a socially functional manner because it is excessive behavior and it is disingenuous despite the appearance of being “automatically” activated when the bully is in the company of a person (s)he fears. Bullies may habitually revert to obsequious, fawning behavior when around powerful people but nobody is naturally obsequious. Out of earshot from the powerful individual or outside his / her sphere of influence, the story is very different. The bully struts and postures — (s)he tells listeners that she measures up to the powerful person in every respect and could have him for breakfast but can’t spare the energy.

A bully can also corrupt an alpha role even when that person legitimately occupies the position on the basis of basic competence or experience. The alpha role carries responsibility. Those who accept responsibility accept the exposure to challenges that come with it. Acting as micromanager or control freak suggests acceptance of the burden of responsibility (an act of martyrdom) but it is actually inconsistent with resilient (functional alpha) acceptance of risk. The inherent message is “Mishaps or mistakes are unacceptable. Don’t dare expose me that that type of discomfiture. You are my scapegoat.”

The old adage about bullies being cowards is true in the sense that they will duck behind those they are supposed to lead because they lack the resilience to handle the unexpected. When the going gets tough, the bully sacrifices the scapegoat (spouse, child, sibling or colleague).

Complex, orchestrated bullying campaigns (the sort of tactical campaign that leads to “mobbing” of an individual by workplace colleagues) do not, in themselves, signal that the ring-leader is psychopathic or personality disordered. Pathology is not a function of the effort someone puts into bullying. Resilient individuals do not allow their behavior to be governed by destructive emotions that are sustained for long periods of time. Non-resilient people do. Bullies do. Even when they appear confident and composed on the surface, the inner fight against dependent status and the infatuation with alpha dominance ensure a bully remains in turmoil and victim to cruel irony — their mental resilience is heavily depleted by their machinations and performances in pursuit of dominance.

Bullies can’t dance and they are unlikely to respond favorably to those who can teach them the steps. Bullies are at war with those that are resilient, strong, affable and successful — solid, reliable alphas when called upon to fulfill the role. The bully is the bogus alpha, the deficient alpha, the alpha found wanting. The bully is the forever aspirant alpha who hasn’t got what it takes — the capacity to put others first. As Arnold Glasgow said: “A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit.” This expresses the grace of the true alpha. Accepting alpha status and the incumbent responsibility involves voluntary sacrifice.

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