Anyone who missed a meeting, no matter the reason, could count on being raked over the coals. She’d point out all their mistakes and lack of effort, and suggest that the “offending” party probably won’t last until the next meeting. The public humiliation in absentia was crushing.
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.
If used well, blame and guilt don’t lead to self-bullying. They’re useful ways of motivating us to do better, even though they can cause a lot of wear and tear on our bodies, minds and hearts.
If we analyze our actions objectively we might take on the blame for some of what we did or failed to do. We can decide how to make amends. We can decide what actions would be better and we can strive to do better next time.
We can also use guilt and feeling ashamed of an action to motivate us to act better next time. That’s a hard way of motivating ourselves but it’s often effective.
Unrelenting and deep shame, on the other hand, leads to destructive self-bullying – negative self-talk, self-doubt and self-harassment, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and increased anxiety and depression.
By shame, I mean the idea that “There’s something wrong with me; I’m bad, evil or defective; I’ll never be free from sin; I’ll never succeed; I’m cursed.”
This kind of deep shame, as opposed to the way I’m using blame, guilt and feeling ashamed, is not focused on an action. This kind of deep shame points us at supposed defects deep within us, at defects that we can’t change, at defects in our identity. There’s no escape from the flaws we imagine are inherent and permanent. The self-laceration of this kind of shame is endless and self-defeating.
Where does this deep shame come from? We’re not born with this kind of shame. We’re born demanding that we be fed, clothed and have our diapers changed. Little babies don’t question whether they deserve to get what they need for survival; they demand it. That demanding approach is necessary for our survival.
Deep shame can only be taught to us through continued and brutal repetition – physical, verbal, emotional. Eventually, most children internalize constant harassment, criticism, put-downs and denigration – assaults on our identity.
Imagine how you’d feel if someone shouted or scolded you, 24/7, “You’re bad. You’re defective. You’re wrong. You shouldn’t have been born. You’ll never do better. I wish you were dead.”
However those harsh and shaming messages were thrown at us, whoever the bullies were, our task as adults is to leave them behind. The two critical steps in leaving home are to leave physically and to leave mentally-emotionally.
The first leaving is obvious to most of us; we get financially independent in order to stay physically independent. We test ourselves against the world, not our parent’s opinions. Can we earn a leaving? Can we meet people and make friends? Can we love and be loved?
The second leaving is mental, emotional and spiritual. We put aside all their beliefs, ideas, attitudes, values, opinions, rules, roles and moods – all the ways they thought mattered in how to face the world, how to earn a living, what equaled a good life, how to be a good person.
We put aside all the false ways they thought about us – whether we were good or bad, strong or weak, stupid or smart, pretty or ugly, hard-working or lazy, the prized child or the scapegoated child, probably going to be successful or guaranteed to fail, blessed to be happy or doomed to be miserable.
We put aside all we were handed when we were children and all we accepted because they were the big, right and righteous people and we were the little and learning people, and because we knew what would happen to us if we disagreed.
To become independent adults we must cast aside all of their opinions and, as independent no-longer children, we must choose and adopt our own beliefs. Some may be the same as theirs; some may be exactly the opposite.
The two important aspects of that mental, emotional and spiritual leaving: One is that our ideas are now adopted by us as adults, with our adult understandings, meanings and limitations. The second is that they are not carved in stone as childhood ideas are. We change them as we get feedback from the world – does this idea actually fit the reality I can now see clearly with adult eyes; does this way of facing the world get me closer to what I want; does it help me be and do good as I now think of that?
In this destroying and creating anew our inner world and our ideas of the ways of the outer world, we can choose whether to keep blame or guilt. But, in order to be free and independent, we must discard deep shame as a way of thinking about ourselves and of facing the world. We can excise the stain we once accepted, we can heal the great empty space we once had, and we can fill us with ourselves at our best. We can develop strength, courage and skill.
Then we can look back at the bullies in our family and decide whether to be with them at all or when and how to be with them. If they continue to bully us, if their bullying continues to trigger our self-bullying patterns we are better served by disconnecting, by making distance – electronically and physically.
If they treat us as newly made adults they’ve just met and want to be friends with, instead of forcing us back into their old images, instead of continuing to try to beat us into the shape they want we will probably want to be with them sometimes.
My recommendations: Don’t stay where you’re continually blamed, guilted or shamed. Be where you’re respected, appreciated, honored. Also, don’t accept the one of you that continually blames, guilts or shames you. Train and discipline yourself so that you have better internal self-talk. Live with the good inner coach you create, not with the internal bully who sounds like your parents, still ripping you down.
In her forthcoming memoir, “Miley Cyrus: Miles to Go,” Miley reveals that her younger days were spent “being teased, tortured and humiliated by school bullies.” The “Hannah Montana” star says she was “friendless, lonely and miserable,” and believes she would have been physically harmed if the abuse hadn't stopped.” Miley writes, “The girls took it beyond normal bullying. These were big, tough girls. I was scrawny and short. They were fully capable of doing me bodily harm.”
Most of the comments on many sites focus on the wrong areas.
People respond as if the important thing is whether they like Miley or hate her, whether they feel sorry for her or they want to see her hurt because she’s so rich and famous, whether they think she’s a selfish, twit who deserves what she got.
The important areas to focus on are: It happened to Miley, it happens to most kids, it happens to our kids. What can our children and teenagers do and what can we do?
Other people can take forever trying to educate and convert bullies and their parents, but not me. Stopping bullying doesn’t begin with understanding bullies or with their psychotherapy and rehabilitation. Educating bullies and their parents begins when they find out that the old tactics don’t work. Beginning by trying to educate them means that the rest of the kids remain victims until bullies decide to stop bullying (if ever). Instead, protect kids now; stop bullies first and then educate them.
Therefore, the lessons we can learn from Miley Cyrus are that in order to stop bullies and bullying we need:
Principals and other administrators who want to stop bullying.
Federal laws that require each school to create programs defining and prohibiting specific bullying behaviors and that hold principals liable if they fail to stop bullying.
School anti-bullying policies with specific behaviors spelled out. That way, principals and teachers will be supported in preventing bullying and, when bullying is discovered, in tackling bullies and their parents. Also, the principals who don’t want to act will be forced to, because they’ll be more afraid of the publicity and penalties they’ll get if they don’t stop bullying than they are now of the parents of the bullies.
Children, teenagers and parents who respond immediately; who don’t let bullying pass by; who call it like it is; who use the word “bully.” They’re alerting the rest of us and rallying us to be their allies and to help them resist.
In addition to professional experience, I learned practical, pragmatic methods growing up in New York City and then watching our six children and their friends and enemies. And we live in Denver, home of Columbine High School.