Sue Shellenbarger’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Are you a hero or a bystander?” will help you analyze your potential to be a hero. It’ll give you clues as to whether you’re likely to step up in a crisis.
The article is typical of a way of thinking that’s irrelevant, misleading and destructive.
Some of the hidden assumptions behind the article are:
You are who you are; which is a product of the way you’ve been raised.
If you have certain beliefs – the reasons people gave for why they stepped up in a crisis – then that will determine how you’ll act. If you don’t have those beliefs, you’re stuck as a bystander.
If we examine the factors that people give for why they act brave, then we understand heroism and we can replicate it.
That approach is a dead end and a waste of time; it’s all mental and irrelevant in human affairs.
Instead, try a much simpler approach:
Confront your fears.
Decide how you want to act in any 10 recent examples that have made the headlines – the shooting in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, witnessing a car crash, hearing someone scream for help, etc.
Train yourself to act the courageous way you want to without thinking in the moment.
I know that sounds too simple but give it a try.
Remember, that’s the way we train cops, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, etc. That’s the way we train football, basketball and soccer players. They do the drills over and over and over until they react the way they want without thinking.
For example, only a small percent of us will go to war, but a large percent of us will witness harassment, bullying and abuse. How do you want to respond in the moment? Do you want to be a bystander or spectator? Do you want to be a witness or a defender?
Train yourself – discipline and preparation.
Remember Captain Chesley Sullenberger. He’s the pilot who put that commercial, jumbo jet full of passengers down in the Hudson River with no loss of life. He didn’t crash into Manhattan, which would probably have killed thousands. How did he know what to do? He’ll tell you that he heard of something horrific when he was about 11 years old, when people simply looked away instead of being courageous. He vowed he’d always act bravely and he trained himself to be prepared so he could act effectively. Discipline and practice.
Stopping bullies, whether overt, covert or cyberbullying, and especially stopping self-bullying, requires time, effort, courage, determination and perseverance – grit.
It’s easy to lose heart along the way, but we must not give into fear, discouragement, despair, defeat, loss of hope or depression. We must not listen to negative self-talk, or give in to the self-flagellation of shame or guilt, or pay attention to the voices who are convinced we’ll lose.
Instead, we need two crucial things to become effective in stopping bullying.
They may be the examples of family members, teachers, priests, ministers, friends. I always think of my mother’s mother, who walked across Europe when she was 16 in order to come to America – barefoot. I’m inspired by her example. If she could do it – with no cell phone, wireless tablet, social security, health or unemployment insurance – and not a word of English, how can I be less determined? How can I succumb to fear or despair?
They may be people in history or the news. Think of Joan of Arc or the women who walked across America along side covered wagons or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped from Somalia. Think of the men at Valley Forge or the Battle of Britain who kept going even though everyone “knew” they didn’t have a chance. Think of George Washington and Winston Churchill refusing to admit defeat.
Many movies and books come to a dramatic moment when the heroes can chose to give up or to continue on, whether they win or lose. For example, in the last “Matrix” movie, Mr. Smith is defeating Neo. He keeps calling him Mr. Anderson and trying to sap his will and strength by taunting him with, “Why do you keep fighting. You know you can’t win.” Finally, in agony and desperation, Neo says, “Because I choose to!”
We need helpers to lift us out of the pit of despair; who will march on together with us.
We usually need help to remind us to keep on when we might otherwise give up.
Family, friends and even strangers can sometimes say the right words or make helpful gestures. When abusive, bullies seem unstoppable or our self-bullying seems overwhelming, our guardian angels can encourage us to keep our spirits strong and stand with us to keep us fighting. They can keep us from defeat, depression and suicide.
Sometimes they’re the gestures of famous people who inspire us. Because I grew up in Brooklyn at just the right time, I remember Peewee Reese, from Louisville, Kentucky, putting his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder to let Jackie and the world know that Peewee was not a bystander. He was a witness for what was right, standing with him.
Sometimes fictional characters remind us of people being lifted and supported. In “The Lord of the Rings,” all the characters except Gandalf and Aragon have moments when they despair and are ready to give up to seemingly inevitable defeat by the forces of evil. And someone encourages them to keep fighting, because we must be an example for future generations and, also, we never know what will happen if we keep fighting. There are thousands of other examples.
We need to build:
An inner world of those models who will inspire us by saying the right words when we need them.
A community of deep and sturdy friends who will inspire us to remain strong and dedicated.
They don’t have to make anything okay. But what they do in the darkest times is to show that there is light and they throw a life line.
Should we confront our toxic parents or not? Well, it all depends on us, them and the situation? But here are some guidelines we can use to decide what we want to do.
And what’s the “right time, place and way?”
Don’t use the word “confront” on ourselves. It’s a dirty word that bullies use to get us not to protect ourselves and not to set our boundaries. Bullies demand infinite forgiveness and unconditional love – but from us only; not from themselves. We must “protect ourselves” and we must “set our boundaries.” That’s a much better way of saying it. Notice how “protecting ourselves” and “setting our boundaries” are good and necessary actions. And if toxic, bullying, abusive parents keep trampling our boundaries, we have to ask ourselves, “Why are we with such jerks and control-freaks? Why are we presenting our throats to vampires? Why are we still letting hyenas feast on us? Why do we let sick people vomit on our feet? Why do we allow them in our space? Why are we in theirs?” Protecting ourselves is a more important value than not hurting the feelings of toxic people or not getting them upset or not making a scene or not upsetting the family.
Do we hope that “protecting ourselves” will change relentless bullies? Maybe when we’re young and they’ve just started, we might hope that standing firm and saying, “No! Stop! Sit! Stay!” will change them. Or maybe we might have succeeded by hitting them with a rolled up newspaper or biting them on the lip to show them who’s the alpha dog. But toxic parents have been mean, nasty, vicious predators for as long as we’ve been alive. A little kid really can’t resist them or change them. So by the time we’re middle-aged and they’ve been hurting and bullying us for over 40 years, we can release the hope that we’ll change them. I’ve seen toxic parents remain bullies even after near death experiences or being cut off from their grandchildren, although those two circumstances are the only ones I’ve seen effective in the rare cases of toxic parents who have changed. Standing up for ourselves probably won’t change them. But we can give it one more shot if we want to.
Do we hope that we’ll feel better or more powerful after we stand up for ourselves? We may and those are great reasons for defending ourselves and enforcing consequences. Words are not consequences; words without consequences is begging. Only actions are consequences. Take power. Don’t wait for jackals to empower you.
Will we speak up in private or public? We usually think of saying things in private the first time someone bullies us. But after a private talk, relentless bullies will think they can ignore us since we’re defending ourselves in private and they’re attacking us in public. Therefore, we have to speak out in public. Don’t let a lie or an attack or a put-down or sarcastic criticism pass unchallenged. We can protect ourselves in the moment, in public by saying, “That’s not true. That’s a lie. You’re still a bully and I won’t put up with bullying any more.” Don’t debate or argue whose perception is correct. We stick with our opinion; we’re the expert on us. Make them leave or don’t stay with they if they don’t change.
Might protecting ourselves change the family dynamics? Too many families hide the truth and live on lies. Too many families protect bullies and perpetrators because “That’s just the way they are” or “We have to put up with abuse because it’s family.” No. We don’t repay a debt to toxic parents by being their scapegoats or whipping posts because they once gave us food along with abuse. Don’t collude with these crimes. Speaking out can change the dynamics. Test everyone else. We’ll find out who wants to be friends with us and who wants to repress us – for whatever reasons. We’ll find out who we enjoy being with and who we won’t waste precious time with.
Will protecting ourselves set a good example for our children? Yes. And it’s crucial for us to set great examples. Be a model! Don’t sacrifice our children on some altar of “family.” Protecting children is more important than any benefit they might get from being with toxic grandparents.
What’s the “right time” to speak up? If we hope to change toxic parents, the “right time” and the “right way” can be considerations. But for any other reason, the time to speak up is always “NOW” and the place is always “HERE.”
Should we talk to our parents in a safe environment with our therapists present?The first step in stopping bullies is connecting with our inner strength, courage and determination. We are the safe place in any situation! We’re adults now. So what if they attack us one more time. Don’t be defeated. Look at them as predators or jerks and score them “failed.” We’ll feel much stronger if we say what we have to say firmly and then be strong and apply our consequences when they attack us. If people aren’t nice, don’t waste time on them.
Notice that all these considerations are about us and our judgment, not about the right way to convert toxic parents. It is about us and the personal space we want to create and what behaviors and people we’ll let in.
How can we still relate to the nice people in the family?
I think that we can only relate to those who want to have a wonderful relationship totally separate from the toxic parents. That is, we’ll talk to the nice and fun ones, text them and see them on our own without our toxic parents being part of that. Is that sneaky? No. That’s just cleaning up our homes and sweeping out the crud. And not allowing it back in. Tell the good relatives what’s going on and see if they want to have fun with us.
We must ask ourselves, “Are we doing all the work of self-analysis, apologizing, appeasing, communicating and being perfect? Are we wasting our time trying to turn hyenas into vegetarians?” If we don’t defend ourselves in public when hyenas attack, we’ll only encourage them to go after us more.
I was at a wedding and a funeral last week. Really; not a movie. And the people were fine.
But I was reminded of all the times I’ve been at big family events when some selfish, narcissistic, abusive, controlling, bullying family member demanded that they get their way or they’d make a scene, make everyone miserable and ruin either the celebration festivities or the solemnity. They knew what was best and we’d better do it.
Think of the relatives at all the special occasions – weddings, funerals, births, vacations and holidays. The relatives who get drunk and insist they be allowed to ruin the event; the arrogant jerks who think they own all the attention and air in the place; the nasty, greedy; jealous, vicious-tongued vindictive; the narcissistic, smug, righteous know-it-alls.
Think of the people who take over all the events because they want to. Whatever supposedly logical reasons, excuses and justifications they offer each time, I notice the pattern.
Even though they’re not the important person at the event, they always have to get their way or else. They’re not the bride or groom, they’re not giving birth, they’re not graduating, they’re not getting baptized, confirmed or bar mitzvah-ed; they’re not the host or planner; they’re not the person dying. They’re not even the turkey on the table, although I sometimes entertain fantasies of having a sharp carving knife in my hand.
Did I cover all the bases of your experience also or do you have a few other ones?
These bullies always think they’re right. And they’re willing to argue and fight longer, harder and louder to get their way, than anyone else, especially over what we think is trivial and a waste of time. And they let you know that they’ll retaliate and make us regret resisting them for the rest of our lives. They’ll bad-mouth, criticize and put us down in front of everyone forever. And the scene is our fault, not theirs. They want us the walk on egg shells around them.
So what can we do?
Typically, we find reasons to turn the other cheek. We try to rise above, ignore, look away, appease, understand, excuse because that’s just the way they are or tolerate them for the duration of the event. Typically we give them what they want because we don’t want to be judgmental or we’re too polite to make a scene or we think that if we follow the Golden Rule, they’ll be nice in return. I think that tactic is good to try but only once. Anyone can have one bad day and try to feel better by taking control. But real bullies and boundary pushers simply take our giving them their way as permission to act more demanding. As if they think they’re powerful and everyone is too weak to resist them. Like sharks to bloody prey, they go for more. And it’s always the people who can’t or won’t protect themselves – the weaker, younger, more polite, more bereft ones – who suffer the most when we leave them unprotected.
Instead, be a witness, not a bystander. Recognize that we’re being bullied and abused. Be willing to get out of our comfort zones to take care of the important people. The first time the person bullies, we can take them aside and tell them privately, in very polite and firm words, to “shut up.” But these control-freaks have demanded their ways for years so we know what’s going to happen. Ignore their specific reasons, excuses and justifications. Typically, we give them power because we fell sorry for them, we’re too polite to make a scene and, after all, they’re family. We give them power because they’re more willing to make a scene and act hurt and angry, and walk away. We give them power because they’re willing to destroy the family if they don’t get their way, but we’re not. Take back our power. Be willing to make a scene; to disagree, threaten or throw someone out. Find allies beforehand and stand shoulder to shoulder. We may not change their behavior, but that’s the only way we have a chance of enjoying the events.
There’s a world of difference between being an active witness to bullying and abuse, and being merely a bystander.
A bystander has already decided to be an uninvolved spectator, to look the other way, to pretend ignorance if called upon.
A witness can make a tactical decision based on the circumstances – intervene now in some tactical way or speak up later.
At work, co-workers or bosses are bullies; at home, abusive parents will harass and bully one young child while lavishing goodies on the other; in addition, toxic parents will favor one adult child over another with love and inheritance on the line.
I’ll focus here on kids, but the larger implications should be obvious when you think about slavery or the Nazis or a hundred other public examples.
Often, at school and at home, mean kids will try to turn siblings or friends against each other.
For example, Charles’ friend, Brad, was relentlessly nasty to Charles’ sister Sarah. He made fun of her, called her stupid, dumb and ugly, and, even though Sarah was tall and skilled enough to play with the older boys, he’d cut her out of their games or he’d intentionally knock her down.
Charles looked on in dismay but never interfered. That was puzzling to Charles’ parents because, in one-to-one situations, Charles played well with Sarah and liked her. Yet Charles had become a bystander; he wouldn’t step up to what he knew was right.
How come he didn’t protect Sarah from Brad? Was Charles afraid that if he interfered he’d lose a friend or that Brad would beat him up? Did Charles secretly want his sister out of the way?
Without knowing the real answers to the “why” questions, the pain, shame, anxiety and stress of watching his sister tormented and the guilty laceration of his conscience finally drove Charles to choose which side he was on. He stood up for his sister and for high standards of conduct, but then he had to solve another problem; Brad was a head taller and 30 pounds heavier than he was.
In front of Sarah, Charles got in Brad’s face and told him to cut it out. If Brad wanted to be his friend and play with him, he had to be nice to Sarah…or else
Most of the Brad’s in the world would back down but this one didn’t. Angry words led to shoving and Brad grabbed Charles and threw him down. At this point Charles and Sarah’s advanced planning gave them a tactical advantage. Sarah, as tall and heavy as Charles, jumped on Brad’s back and the brother and sister piled on Brad and punched and kicked him.
As with most kid fights it was over fast. Brad got the message; he was facing a team. If he wanted to play with them he’d have to play with both of them. If he wanted to fight he’d have to fight both of them. No parents were involved and Brad chose to play with them and be nice to Sarah.
As much as the incident helped Sarah, Charles was the major beneficiary of his choice. His self-esteem soared. He had been courageous and mentally strong. And he learned that he and his sister could plan and stand firm together.
In a different situation, Ellen was popular and Allison, who was outgoing but had no friends, wanted Ellen all to herself. At school, Allison put-down and cut out anyone Ellen wanted to play with. If Ellen refused to follow Allison, Allison would get hysterical, cry and wail that Ellen was hurting her feelings. Ellen didn’t want to hurt Allison but she wanted to play with whoever she wanted to play with.
The situation came to a head during the summer. Allison wanted to play with Ellen every day. And on every play date, Allison would be nasty to Ellen’ younger sister. She’d mock Jill, order her to leave them alone and demand that Ellen get rid of her younger sister. They were best friends and there was no room for a little kid.
Ellen faced the same choice that Charles had; hurt her sister in order to collude with her friend or lose a friend and classmate.
Ellen didn’t agonize like Charles had. Ellen was very clear; colluding is not how a good person would act. However, her requests that Allison stop only brought on more hysterical anger and tantrums.
Ellen didn’t want to play with Allison any more but didn’t know how to accomplish this. When she told Allison, Allison threw another fit – hurt feelings and crying.
This situation required different tactics from Charles’ because Ellen was younger and arrangements for them to play during the summer and after school had to be made by their parents.
Ellen’ parents could have gone to Allison’s parents and told them what Allison was doing. However, they’d observed that Allison’s parents had never tried to stop her hysterics, blaming and finger-pointing at school. They’d always believed Allison’s accusations about other kids and added their blame. They demanded that teachers do what Allison wanted.
Ellen’ parents thought that raising the issue with Allison’s parents would only lead to negativity, accusations and an ugly confrontation, which would carry over to school.
They decided to use an indirect approach; they were simply always too busy for Ellen to play with Allison. The rest of the summer they made excuses to ensure there would be no play dates. When school started, they made sure there were no play dates after school, even if Jill wasn’t there. They didn’t want their daughter to be friends with such a stealthy, manipulative, nasty, control-freak like Allison.
In addition, they told Ellen’s teacher what Allison was doing and asked them to watch if Allison tried to control Ellen and cut out other kids.
Most important, Charles stopped being spectator and became an effective witness-participant. Ellen also would not remain a bystander. She made her feelings clear and her parents helped intervene. Both children learned important lessons in developing outstanding character and values.
Tactics are always dependent on the specifics of the situation. As parents wanting to help and guide your children and grandchildren, remember that there’s no one-right-way to act. The people involved get to choose where they want to start the process of standing up as witnesses and participants. You can get ideas and guidelines from books and CDs but on-going coaching, to prepare you for your “moments of truth,” is essential. You will need to adjust your plan in response to what happens at each step along the way.
There are moments of choice in all our lives when we are called upon to stand up for our best dreams and aspirations. Sometimes we recognize and seize these opportunities, sometimes we ignore these moments and sometimes we don’t ever hear their call to our spirits. Each of these moments and our responses create long-lasting effects on our self-confidence and self-esteem; on our vision of the futures we want and on the dedication and determination with which we pursue our dreams.
Obviously, being subjected to harassment, bullying and abuse, or giving in to the temptation to bully helpless people creates these critical moments. And being a bystander or a witness to bullying and abuse is also one of these moments that calls out to our spirits. Will we step up and defend what we know to be right? Are we cowards or lazy? Do we know what to do? Are we skilled?
There are major long term effects on kids who are bystanders and look away or don’t know how to act effectively or who aren’t supported in their actions by responsible adults. New studies are beginning to provide public evidence, but from our own experiences we all know what the results of those studies will be.
When we see a wrong being done, often repeatedly, and when we don’t act or when no one else acts to right that wrong, we are deeply affected. When we don’t know what to do to stop the wrong our helplessness increases. When the adults and other students don’t act to protect targets of abuse, our own vulnerability and insecurity increases tremendously. Our guilt for our inaction tries to goad us to do better next time.
When we’re children, we try to make sense of the world. When we see actions that don’t make sense or that seem evil, we are thrown into confusion and fear. Naturally, we want our world to be reasonable and controllable. And we want to be protected by the responsible adults – principals, teachers, parents. When evil triumphs or wrong goes unpunished, the world becomes bleak and too many kids lose confidence in their own efforts and chances of success; we can get insecure, stressed, unassertive, discouraged and depressed, and we can give up. And we also carry a great burden of guilt, shame and negative self-talk.
Since 60-70% of school children witness bullying, the scars on a significant percent of the population can be staggering.
A key factor in every successful program is that bystanders-witnesses are rallied to support bullied targets, have been trained to be skillful in their actions and are backed by principals, teachers and staff.
Opportunities, moments of choice are precious and critical in every child’s development. Every call we spurn becomes a burden that weighs us down. The scars left by inaction when facing wrong or evil can last a lifetime and can diminish our lives. They always remain to call us to do better next time.
As Pat Tillman’s father said about his son answering such a call, “You only get a few chances in life to show your stuff. Often it’s a split second when you step up or you don’t. If you don’t step up and you should have, that eats away at a young man. And I don’t think it goes away when he gets older.” The same goes for a young woman.
“Be nice to kids when they’re mean to you and before long they will stop being mean. This is known as the Golden Rule and is the solution to bullying.”
“Don’t tell on kids who upset you.”
“Don’t get angry at kids who upset you. Make it clear that they can insult you all they want and it doesn’t bother you. After a few days they will stop.”
“If kids bring you nasty rumors, don’t defend yourself.”
“If a kid hits you and you’re not hurt, act like nothing happened. If they keep hitting or pushing you, ask them calmly, ‘Are you mad at me?’ If they aren’t, they’ll stop hitting you. If they are angry, they’ll tell you why. You can discuss the matter, apologize if appropriate and they will also stop hitting you.”
Dr. Kalman doesn’t work with the targets of real-world school bullies. His advice is great for the targets of nice kids who are bullying one time because they’re having a bad day.
But real-world school bullies will be delighted by kids making Dr. Kalman’s responses. Real-world bullies are relentless predators who look for weak and isolated prey. You can’t stop real-world bullies by being nice, understanding, kind and rational, or with the Golden Rule. Real-world bullies take your use of the Golden Rule as a sign of weakness and an invitation to bully you more. Real bullies don’t have the empathy to stop abusing you because your feelings are hurt or because you’re a caring little saint.
How do I know this; check your own experience. Ask yourself about the kids you saw who were nice, but had one grumpy day versus the kids you saw who were relentless bullies. What stopped the relentless bullies?
After bullies are stopped or removed, then you can work on their therapy and rehabilitation. But I wouldn’t want my kids to be victimized while we wait for the bullies to become nice citizens.
Although Dr. Kalman’s suggestions are directed at bullies in school, how many of you have seen his suggestions as successful in stopping the real bullies at work? Again, all the lawsuits and comments about workplace bullies show that real bullies are relentless and don’t stop when you’re nice, kind, understanding and reasonable.
The other expert in the article, Barbara Coloroso, author of “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander,” on the other hand, has much right, but she also makes a common mistake when she advises, “Don’t tell your child to fight back.”
Sometimes, fighting back is the only language a bully understands. And your suspension from school is worth stopping a bully. The same applies at work, where fighting back usually means a law suit backed by great documentation.
You have a pattern of being bullied all your life?
You’re a target?
You have a chance to join such a pack of jackals and are afraid to refuse because you might get attacked?
You’re a bystander and your heart goes out to a victim?
Bullying, cutting-out and creating and attacking scapegoats comes from a deep place within us and is found in almost all cultures, places and times.
Sometimes you can see that the person on the receiving end has done many things to offend almost everyone else. But let’s put that situation aside for this post and focus on all the rest of the times when the person being cut out or attacked has been okay and the problem is the group that attacks their scapegoat.
If you’ve been bullied all your life, you have a problem that you’ll have to solve before you can deal effectively with a bullying clique. Even if you haven’t done anything wrong to the pack of predators, you’re wearing a neon sign: "Kick me." Lions, wild dogs and sharks can see who the weak and vulnerable ones are. Bullies can too. You’ll have to change your attitudes and beliefs so you’ll have a different sign: "Don’t mess with me!" Let’s also leave this situation for another post.
Many people hope to stop cliques of bullies by analyzing why they do it and then using their understanding to design solutions. Don’t waste your time. You know why some people find others to pick on. That catalogue of reasons is enough.
Management training rarely works. Textbook and educational approaches – we’ll talk and I’ll show them why it’s wrong and they’ll see the error of their ways and become caring – rarely work. They won’t stop bad behavior that’s driven by underlying emotions.
Predatory behavior by packs isn’t driven by intellectual reasons, it’s driven by emotions. Of course the perpetrators can find reasons to justify their behavior, but they don’t do the behavior because of the reasons. They do the behavior because of their own emotional needs and then they try to cover up the ugliness with a pretty picture of justifications.
Make efforts to be friendly in practical ways, in order to give them a chance to change – without doing anything immoral, illegal or odious. Bring pizza and donuts. Cover for them when they need help. Socialize with coworkers.
If they continue targeting you (which they usually will), get help to develop tactics to isolate the ringleaders or get them fired. The key goals are: separation and isolation. Terminated is better than transferred, because transferred means that you’ve helped them create another bully-scapegoat situation. How nice is that?
Get firmer and firmer. Don’t threaten or share your tactics with them. Get an attorney to advise you about local laws. Get allies – HR and managers rarely want to be involved, but give them one chance. Document, document, document.
If you have a chance to join such a pack of jackals and are afraid to refuse because you might get attacked, you have an integrity choice to make. Do you want to live in fear or do you want to win a workplace war?
If you’re a bystander and your heart goes out to a victim, you have another integrity choice to make. Often, if you help a victim, the victim won’t help in return. Be prepared to act alone, if necessary.
The strong and clear voice of an outside consultant and coach can change these behaviors or empower managers and staff to remove these bullies. I’ve often helped companies and even non-profits and government agencies create and maintain behavioral standards (team agreements, ground rules for professional behavior) that promote productivity.