Carl loved his 45 year-old son, Brian, and was overwhelmed with feelings of compassion for his son’s plight.  Brian could never hold a job.  Also, any time Carl or his wife, Vickie, didn’t do exactly what Brian wanted or didn’t give him what he wanted, Brian would throw a fit – he’d yell and scream and curse them, even in front of his own wife and children, or in public.  Many times, Brian would suddenly turn on his own long-suffering wife and children in the same way. How could Carl love his son and have compassion for him, and still protect himself and his wife from Brian’s harassment and bullying?

Everything I say about this family situation is the same I’d say to people trying to have both compassion and protection when dealing with abusive and suffering:

  • Parents.
  • Friends.
  • Extended family.
  • Co-workers.
  • Drunk drivers.
  • Strangers in public places.

The tactics we choose would depend on the specifics of the situation, but our attitude and general direction would be the same.

For decades, Carl had bit his tongue as best he could and had asked Vickie to do the same.  His heart went out to Brian because of his suffering.  Brian’s mother had died when he was 9 years old and two years later Carl had married again.  His new wife, Vickie, had done her best to take care of Brian and she did love the boy.  But no matter how she tried, Brian hated her and made her pay.

Out of compassion for Brian’s struggles, Carl had given Brian hundreds of thousands of dollars and also had bought many things for Brian’s children.  But it never seemed to be enough for Brian.

Brian denied that he needed any help.  He thought he was fine the way he was and he had good reasons every time he exploded.  It was everyone else’s fault that he lost his temper, and they deserved what he said or did to them.

He told Carl clearly that if Carl didn’t do what he wanted and didn’t endure the attacks, Brian wouldn’t allow Carl to see his grandchildren.  There it was; not only attacks but also blackmail.

Carl was stuck.  His compassion didn’t allow him to set any limits.  All he’d allow himself to do was to beg Brian to change.

Separate from the blackmail, Carl suffered from a common misunderstanding about compassion.  He thought compassion meant that he had to give Brian what he wanted and to keep giving and to take the abuse in hope that, someday, his love and forbearance would cause Brian to have an awakening and become a grateful, appreciative, civil and polite person.

Carl also thought that if he acknowledged his anger and dislike of Brian, or really did anything serious, that would mean that he’d given up on his son.  Also, it would be wrong to try to force Brian to do anything against his will.

After coaching, Carl decided that there were two distinct and separate scales he had to operate on in order to protect himself and his wife from Brian, and to preserve their retirement funds that Brian wanted to get his hands on.

On one scale, he could love Brian and have infinite compassion for his suffering, even though it was self induced.  And Tom could always pray for Brian’s spirit to take charge of his life.

On the other scale Carl could see that he had to deal, not with Brian’s spirit, but with Brian’s personality – his weakness, selfishness, arrogance, need, sense of entitlement, anger and narcissism.  Against Brian’s personality, Carl had to protect himself.  Out of compassion, he’d do that calmly, lovingly and clearly.

So what did Carl do?

  • He and Vickie decided to tell Brian that they wouldn’t take the abuse any more.  They were going to create an Isle of Song for the rest of their lives.  Good behavior was required from anyone to get on that Isle; blood wouldn’t count.
  • They knew they’d said that before, but they’d always given in and had pretended that the bullying had never happened.  They knew also that Brian counted on that.
  • The next time Brian exploded at them in front of his 11 and 13 year-old children, Carl said publically that they weren’t going to put up with that behavior any more.  They weren’t going to see Brian.  They’d love to see the kids but Brian probably wouldn’t allow that.  They wanted the kids to know who was responsible for the breach.
  • Carl told Brian they were taking a break from involvement with him for at least six months.  He’d have to make it on is own.  After then, if he wanted to resume contact he’d have to call and apologize and promise never to act that way again.  He’d especially have to apologize to Vickie.  Carl was going to protect his wife against all comers, even his son.
  • Even after that time, they were going to continue to withhold money because they wanted interactions to be based on fun, not need or greed.

This time Carl and Vickie kept to their bargain with each other.  They said they were able to stay on track because they still allowed themselves to feel compassion toward Brian, and especially his wife and kids, but they weren’t going to rescue Brian from the effects of his behavior.  Also, they saw that the most compassionate thing they could do for Brian was to demand good behavior and maintain their boundaries.  Their new vision would determine what they did, not some old, out-of-date feelings and assumptions.

My experience has been that the Brian’s of the world never learn by being coddled.  The only chance they have to learn is by being kicked out of the nest and letting the world, not their parents, teach them the natural consequences of their obnoxious behavior.  That doesn’t always work, but it’s the only chance.

Some other situations are examined in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids.”

Sneaky, manipulative, covert bullies try to force us into difficult, all-or-none choices.  They figure we won’t make the hard choice; we’ll choose them instead.  Don’t accept the choices they present to us. Don’t give them control of how to look at things. For example: Tim’s first wife had died 20 years ago and he’d been happily married to Jennifer for 15 years.  She’d tried to be a good step-mother to Tim’s daughter and son, despite hatred and intense provocation, especially from Tim’s daughter, Coral.

Coral was now 28.  She’d harassed, abused and bullied Jennifer all during her upbringing.  Two years ago she’d even slapped Jennifer in the face.  Coral’s excuse was always that she was still suffering because her mother had died, because Jennifer didn’t give her everything she wanted and because it was Tim’s fault that he wouldn’t defend her.

Actually, Tim had been riddled with guilt and, although he’d pleaded with Coral to be nicer to Jennifer and to himself, he’d never enforced any consequences that mattered to Coral.  In fact, he’d trained Coral to believe that if she was nasty and negative, and threw temper tantrums long enough, he’d relent and give her what she wanted.

Jennifer had always felt like a second-class citizen, lower on Tim’s priority list than Coral.  Tim always excused Coral by saying that she was young and still suffering from her mother’s early death.  He excused his tolerating Coral’s behavior, his not protecting Jennifer by saying that eventually, if he loved and forgave Coral enough, she’d come around.  He didn’t want Coral to feel unloved.

Jennifer thought Tim simply avoided conflict with his daughter because she’d never be reasonable, apologize or compromise.  He gave Coral control because Jennifer was reasonable and understanding, so he could more easily ask her to give in.

Finally Coral had the leverage she wanted.  She gave birth to Tim’s only grandchild.  Then she laid down the law.  He’d have to choose: either her and his grandson or his wife.  If he chose Jennifer, he’d never see his grandson and Coral would bad-mouth him to everyone.  She’d also turn his grandson against him.

There are many other examples in which bullies below the radar try to force these difficult choices on us:

  • New husbands or wives who try to force spouses into choosing between them or the kids from a previous marriage.  It’s especially difficult on the parents if the biological kids are going through a troubled time and spreading their unhappiness around.
  • Toxic parents who want us to choose between them or our spouse.

In all these examples, a bully presents us with a difficult choice: them or someone else we love.  In all these examples, we know the truth we’ve been trying to avoid acknowledging: someone we love is bullying us.  They’re trying to beat us into submission in order to get what they want.  We also know the difficult truth: if we give in to this blackmail, it’ll never end and the price will keep increasing.

So what can we do?

In all these examples, the same process opens the door to the rich and grand future we yearn for:

  1. Accept that we’ll never get what we want if we give in to blackmail. Accept that the blackmailer wants to control our lives – they want to tell us what’s right and what we must do; or else.  Accept that we’ll never change these narcissistic predators by begging, bribery, peace-making, the Golden Rule or unconditional love.  Tim had to accept that although he loved his daughter, he didn’t like her and he dreaded any interaction with her.
  2. Decide what behavior we must have and what we will tolerate in our personal space. Forget about the name of the relationship and focus on the behavior. Set high standards for how people have to behave in order to be invited into our space.  What values are more important than which others?  What’s the life we want to live, given the givens that other people try to force on us?
  3. See the choice for what it really is.  Tim finally saw that the choice was not between his daughter or his wife; it was between being beaten and controlled by his daughter or his life. In order to have the life he yearned for, he had to choose to be a person worthy of that life.  He had to have the courage of his deepest desires.
  4. Protect our personal environment from pollution, even by those we love.  That meant that Tim had to act with courage and determination to defend his personal space from any toxic polluter, even from his daughter and from the weakest, most needy, most cowardly part of him.

By choosing the life he wanted, which he shared with Jennifer, Tim chose the possibility of a wonderful life.  He and Jennifer started doing things they’d always wanted to.  They stopped wasting their time thinking about Coral.  Tim stopped being depressed and riddled with shame and guilt.  They started being happy.

But what about Tim’s broken heart because he couldn’t see his grandson? There’s no way around that.  Tim’s daughter was adamant: she wouldn’t let him see his grandson.  However, we must remember that we can never appease predators and vampires.

But eventually, Coral and her husband divorced and her husband, who had finally seen how Coral operated but was no longer afraid of her, let Tim and Jennifer bond with his grandson.  Eventually Coral needed money and Tim had to decide if he wanted to put her on a pay-for-play plan.  Should he give her a little money each time he and Jennifer saw his grandson?

For some examples of different tactics, see, “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” available fastest from this web site.

Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Many people believe that forgiveness – complete, unconditional and true – is necessary for spiritual development and for stopping bullies. These people struggle so they can see all people as completely spiritual and good, they strive to love them unconditionally, and they aspire to rise above earthly concerns and values.  That makes them feel very spiritual and virtuous.

However, much more often, I see the trap that “ineffective forgiveness” leads people into.

There’s a better way – “effective forgiveness.”

What I see are the many women and men who I’ve coached or who have written comments about their years of trying to love and forgive bullies who haven’t changed and who continue to harass and abuse them and their children.  Ineffective forgiveness becomes a trap when:

  • We don’t stop thinking about the incidents and we generate the same repeating cycle of strong emotions.
  • We don’t take precautions so the bully repeatedly attacks us.
  • We don’t learn how to avoid the same traps or how to stop bullying by toxic, selfish, narcissistic bullies’ sneaky manipulations, control, back-stabbing, or overt violence or threats of violence.

Ineffective forgiveness means that we hope the other person won’t be mean or nasty next time.  We hope that our believing this bit of wishful thinking helps bullies become better.  And to show that we’ve forgiven, we must put ourselves back into the same position in hopes bullies won’t take advantage of our good nature and kindness.

Ineffective forgiveness means people have put the value of forgiveness and the value of self-protection at the same level.  This trap leads to despair, defeat, depression and, maybe, suicide.

Almost all of the women who have interviewed me on radio and television were raised to be “nice girls.”  Their mothers taught them to forgive the mean girls who tormented and terrorized them, because those girls must have had terrible home lives.  They were taught that it was wrong to fight back and to protect themselves.

This kind of ineffective forgiveness doesn’t stop relentless bullying at home, at school or at work.

What do we try to gain by replaying incidents of bullying and abuse? Replaying is a motivational strategy.  We’re trying to develop enough fear or pain, suffering or sorrow, isolation or depression, anger or rage so that we’ll finally take steps to protect ourselves.  We’re trying to develop enough energy to act effectively.

Therefore, once we know that we’ll protect ourselves, we can stop the rehashing the incidents, stop regenerating the strong emotion in order to keep us suspicious and alert.  Then we can forgive effectively.

What are the goals of effective forgiveness and what do we usually require to get there?

  • The goal of effective forgiveness is simply to stop thinking about the other person so they occupy no space in our mental or emotional worlds.
  • In order to relax our vigilance, either we have to know that the perpetrator won’t try bullying us again or that we’ll protect ourselves, naturally, automatically and easily, if they ever try again.  Because we’ll stop them automatically, we don’t need to replay and re-analyze all the terrible incidents to keep us on guard and full of energy.
  • Sometimes we’ll get bullies out of our environment, off our isle of song, but sometimes we’ll allow them to stay, although we’ll protect our personal space next time.  Effective forgiveness does not mean that we must still relate to them in the way they want.  Whoever tries to require continued interaction as evidence of “forgiveness,” is still trying to control us.
  • Usually, we test a bully’s sincerity by requiring public apologies and amends.  If they won’t do these, we correctly don’t trust them.  Even if they do these, we still can choose to get them out of our space.

What if no apologies or amends are possible? I saw a program about the Amish in America, in which a portion was devoted to a young man who invaded an Amish school, sent all the boys out and started shooting all the girls. He killed five and seriously wounded more.  Then he killed himself.

What can we say?  There are no apologies or amends that would make that okay.

I’m saying that in such cases, the task of the Amish families is not to forget, but somehow to move on with the children who are alive and with each other.  Whatever they can think and do to reduce this horror to a size that makes it only a part of life, to a size that still allows them to find joy, for the children to grow up and love and have their own children, whatever allows them to do that is effective.  If they use the work “forgiveness,” that’s fine.

How can we forgive ourselves? Follow the same approach.  Beating ourselves relentlessly; negative self-talk, self-bullying, self-doubt, self-questioning, perfectionism, blame, shame, guilt and self-flagellation are simply ways of continuing to remind ourselves to do better.  But that’s a hard way to keep the reminder in mind.  The price is pretty high – loss of confidence and self-esteem, loss of will and determination.  When we change our way of being in the world, so we know we won’t act that way again, we won’t need the self-bullying.  Or when we make ourselves into people who are so filled with the best of us that we won’t act that way next time, we won’t need the self-bullying to motivate us to stay on track.

The goal of effective forgiveness is always about behavior:

No specific process is required or is the best, as long as we get to the goal.  Whatever our explanations, psychological rationalizations, excuses or justifications are for bullies’ behavior or whatever make us feel good about forgiving them, the only criterion that really matters is that we get to the goals of effective forgiveness – we don’t waste our time and energy obsessing on the bullies and we protect ourselves.

Notice that I haven’t gone into abstract discussions about the existence of evil, or whether bullies are sinners or whether this world of pain and suffering, of joy and beauty is real or whether it’s a delusion to see through.  Those considerations might be important to some people, but they’re irrelevant to learning how to stop bullies and to protect ourselves from their attacks.

For some examples, see the case studies in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” available fastest from this web site.

Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Of course, it’s easy to sympathize with most people.  If someone has been abused, bullied or worse as a child, our hearts go out to them in sorrow for their suffering.  Or we can see someone’s beautiful spirit, the spirit of God, in them and our hearts will go out to them with compassion and empathy. But if a friend, neighbor or co-worker comes to you full of hurt, anger and outrage, does that mean that someone else actually did something wrong to them?

Maybe or maybe not.

For example, Linda recently moved next-door to Carrie in their friendly, family-focused block. It was a cul-de-sac and all the families had kids approximately the same age.  They’d organized many activities, birthday parties and car pools in order to create a community feeling.

Carrie and Linda started becoming close friends.  One day, Linda came to Carrie crying and angry.  As Linda struggled to stop her tears, Carrie felt herself becoming angry on Linda’s behalf.  Who’d caused this much pain and suffering to her friend?

Linda explained that one of the other women had made cutting remarks about Linda’s husband not being as successful as many of the other husbands and that Linda’s children weren’t as athletic or smart as the others.  Carrie was furious.  How could that woman say such things and hurt Linda so much?  What kind of neighborly welcome was that?

In an act of sympathetic friendship, Carrie said she’d never liked the other woman, who was always pompous and inflating her husband and children.  Linda shouldn’t pay attention to what the other woman had said.  Linda should know all the other women liked her much more than the other woman.

None of that was true.  Carrie actually liked and admired the other woman.  She’d never been negative, insensitive, righteous or arrogant before.  She’d always gone out of her way to help everyone.  Actually, Carrie couldn’t imagine the other woman saying those things to Linda.  But, obviously Linda’s pain meant that she had, indeed, said those things.  And Carrie thought it was her responsibility to comfort Linda and make her feel better.

The tactic worked.  After Carrie’s statement, Linda seemed to feel much better.  She thanked Carrie and left.

Two days later, Carrie noticed that the other woman had snubbed her in public and was whispering with Linda and a few of the others behind Carrie’s back.  Linda seemed to be accepted as part of the group and Carrie was glad for her.  But she still felt the cold shoulder.  Over the next week, it got worse.  She felt defeated, being cut out by the other women.

Episodes like this were repeated, sometimes with Carrie as the target and sometimes with other women as targets.  Carrie realized that it was like being back in junior high or high school again.  There was the clique of “in girls,” now led by Linda, and a shifting group of “targets-of-the-day.”

Carrie later discovered that after she’d sympathized with Linda, Linda had gone to the other woman and told her what Carrie had said behind her back.  Of course, the woman had reacted and had started snubbing Carrie.

In this article, I won’t go into how Carrie learned what Linda had been doing to each of the women or how Carrie managed to combat it.  Carrie might have been Linda’s first target, but she was not a victim.

Linda’s narcissistic, sneaky, manipulative, back-stabbing behavior was her tactic for breaking in to a new group and taking control of it.  Linda was a Queen Bee.  She wanted to control the turf.  She wanted everyone to be either so worshipful or so afraid that they sucked up to her and did what she demanded.

If Carrie had let herself be ruled by her sympathy for a friend trying to break in to a new group, she’d have never been able to protect herself.  Instead, she did not accept defeat.  She took power over her actions.  She was able to bring the women together in friendship and to return the block to a friendly, activity-filled community.

Carrie and the other women found that acts of friendship did not change Linda’s behavior.  She could not be won over to acting nicely.  All their sympathy and compassion didn’t stop Linda from harassing or bullying.  She would not be a true friend.  She remained a “mean girl.

As Carrie discovered the hard way, sometimes sympathy can be a trap.  Her sympathy only aided and enabled a bully to spread her poison.

Just because someone is hurt and angry does not mean that someone else really did anything wrong to them

Carrie should have been more careful of what she did to make Linda feel better.  And she should have trusted her knowledge of the other woman’s good character.  She should not have believed Linda’s report, no matter how convincing.  She should have spoken face-to-face to the other woman in the beginning.

If a person who’s hurt, angry and complaining is a snake or go-between, who likes to pour gasoline on fires and stir up trouble between other people – who plays the game of “Uproar” – they’ll use any sympathy, opinions or information to enmesh you in a fight with someone else.

I haven’t mentioned the “Linda’s” in our extended families because we already know who those manipulative tricksters are.  We’ve already been sucked in to their manipulations so many times that we’ve learned to protect ourselves and to maintain good relations with the other people who act nice in return

A big learning for Carrie was that we may see someone’s shining, Godly spirit, but we’ll probably get to deal with their personality and the consequences they cause us.

It’s not the sympathy that’s a problem.  It’s how we express that sympathy or the dumb ways our sympathy can lead us to act in order to make someone feel better.

For some examples, see the case studies in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” available fastest from this web site.

Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Sometimes toxic parents think they have us over a barrel even after we’ve grown up, gotten physically and financially independent, and started our own family.  They count on our loyalty to some ideal of “family” no matter how badly they treated and still treat us.  They count on our self-bullying and guilt.  They count on us still trying to jump through their hoops to win their love and approval...  They count on our fear that they’ll manipulate the rest of the family into thinking we’re ungrateful and bad.  And they often count on our enduring the verbal and emotional abuse so we can inherit our share of their fortune. Of course, I’m talking about those toxic parents who are still blaming everything on us and abusing us because “It’s your fault” or “You are selfish, ungrateful and don’t deserve any better” or “It’s your duty to do what they want in their old age.”  They’re the toxic parents who know our every weakness and sensitivity, and still poke them hard when they want too; still find fault with every little thing we do; still compare us unfavorably to someone else or to their standards; still criticize, belittle and harass us and our spouse and our children in public or they’re the sneaky ones who criticize, demean and denigrate us in private but pretend they love us in public so everyone thinks they’re wonderful, loving parents.

Of course, we’ve tried everything we can think of, but the negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame, bullying and abuse haven’t stopped.  We’ve tried to do exactly what they want, but it’s never enough.  We’ve apologized and pleaded with them to stop, but that just makes them act nastier.  We’ve gotten angry and threatened not to see them, but they broke down in such tears of distress we felt guilty or they blamed on us even more or they acted nice for a few minutes but, when we relaxed, they attacked us more about something different they didn’t like.

So what can we do now?

  1. For the sake of peace and quiet in the whole family, we could keep trying to endure the abuse while begging them to stop.  After all, we never know; if we only kept trying, if we only did enough, they might change.  Also, they might leave us in the will.  And it’d be our fault if we quit too soon.  Many people fly low until they have children and see their toxic parents either criticizing and emotionally abusing their children or belittling and criticizing them while being sweet to the grandchildren.
  2. We might continue objecting and arguing; enduring our frustration and anger.  Usually this tactic repeats endlessly and often spirals out of control.  Relentlessly toxic parents won’t admit they’re wrong and give up.  Eventually they’ll escalate and cut us out of the will.
  3. We might try withdrawing for a while; not seeing them, telling them we won’t return emails and calls, and then carrying through.  People usually shift from the first two tactics to this one when they see the effect of their toxic parents on their own children.  This tactic sometimes convinces nasty, mean, bullying parents that they’d better change their ways or they’ll lose contact with their grandchildren.  But the relentlessly toxic parents don’t care.  They’re sure they’re fine and they’re sure they’ll win if they push hard enough, like they’ve always won in the past.  So they don’t change and we go back to arguing or we give up or we finally respond more firmly.
  4. The next step is to withdraw for a long time, maybe forever – no contact.  It’s sad but we have to protect the family we’re creating from our own predatory parents.  It’s usually both scary and very exciting.  Most people, despite any guilt they feel, also feel a huge surge of relief, as if a giant weight or a fire-breathing dragon has been removed from their shoulders.  Our spouse and children may celebrate.  Get out of town, go on a vacation, turn the phones and email off.

What to expect and how to respond?

  1. They’ll attack when we withdraw.  Expect them to make angry calls and send hostile emails.  Save these on an external drive or a cheap recorder before deleting them.  They want to engage us, so do not engage endlessly and fruitlessly; no return calls or emails, no hateful or vindictive responses.  We’ve only gotten to this point because they haven’t changed after many approaches and warnings.  We might have to change our phone numbers to unlisted ones and change our email addresses.
  2. They’ll rally the extended family.  Prepare by making cue cards of what to say; no excuses or justifications.  Just tell the family what you said and did, and what you plan.  Ask them not to intervene.  Tell them we’d like to see them but only if our toxic parents are not present.  We’re sorry they’re caught in the middle but that’s life.  They do have to choose who to believe and what behavior to support.  Be prepared to withdraw from anyone who attacks or interferes.
  3. They’ll disinherit us.  When they can’t manipulate us through love, blame, shame and guilt, they’ll try greed.  If we don’t do what our toxic parents want right now, they’ll cut us out of the will.  Don’t be a slave to greed; it’s a deadly sin.  If we want to have a bully-free family life, we’ll have to make it on our own.  The real benefit is not merely ending the brutality, it’s the strength of character and the skills we gain when we make decisions for ourselves and chart our own course in the world.  We’ll end the negativity, stress, anxiety and depression usually caused by toxic parents.  We’ll develop the strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience we all need to make wonderful lives.  We’ll be able to express our passion and joy without cringing, waiting for the next blow to fall.
  4. We’ll have an empty space in our lives.  Even more than the empty physical space we’ll now have at the times when we used to get together with our toxic parents, we’ll have a huge mental and emotional space.  How many hours have we wasted thinking about our parents, worrying about the next episode, dreading what might happen next, agonizing over what to do.  We don’t have to do that any more.  Of course, being weaned from an old habit takes a little time.  We must be gentle with ourselves.  Focus on the freedom we now have.  Now we can think about the things we want to think about; not about pain and suffering, not about past failures.  Now we have space to bring into our lives people who will be part of the tribe of our heart and spirit.
  5. Our children will wonder why.  Tell the kids in a way that’s age appropriate.  Are we protecting them from the verbal abuse of their toxic grandparents or from lies that paint us as bad people?  They’ll want to know what’s going to stay the same.  Will they have fun, celebrate holidays, get presents, have extended family?

The most important lessons we offer our children are not through books and lectures.  Those are important, but the most important ones are the ones they see in our behavior when we’re models of behavior we want them to learn.

Be a model for them of someone who protects himself and them from anyone who would target them, even someone who’s close by blood.  Being close by behavior counts more than blood.  Show them not to be victimized even by blood relations.

Show them to how to be the hero of their lives.

With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.  We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying.  We can overcome childhood rules to endure whatever bullying and abuse our toxic parents dish out simply because they’re our parents.  We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives. “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of children and adults getting over their early training and freeing themselves from toxic relationships.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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When is guilt bad; when is guilt good?  When is it a normal, healthy emotion and when is it harmful?  Most people try to answer these questions the wrong way.  And they forgot to consider how bullies try to use our guilt to harass and abuse us.  Most people analyze whether the guilt we feel in a particular situation is right, is what we should feel because we’re behaving or behaved badly, is normal because the average person should or would feel guilty for acting the same way. But let’s stand the approach on its head.

Let’s not judge the actions and situation by some external standards of right or wrong.  Instead, let’s look at guilt as if it’s a force for motivation, as if the purpose of guilt is to get us to do differently or better, as if we keep replaying the guilty feelings until we act to make things better, until we live up to our own standards.

When I think this way, the picture is much clearer.

  • For most people, “bad, unhealthy, useless” guilt then becomes a major form of “self-bullying” that’s a waste of time.  We’re not proud of ourselves.  We run ourselves down, beat ourselves up, feel ashamed and harm ourselves.  Or we cover up the guilt, declare ourselves innocent and blame the other person.  We become righteous and indignant; it’s not our fault.  Or we wallow publicly in guilt, looking for sympathy.  But we don’t do better.  We keep repeating the actions we feel guilty about.  Wallowing in guilt, perfectionism and continued self-bullying increases stress and leads to loss of confidence, low self-esteem and depression.  And, eventually, we may even get a thrill from self flagellation.  We’ll resent people who take the fun out of our misery.
  • “Good, healthy, effective” guilt leads us to do something productive.  We stop procrastinating, get over addictions, act better toward people, set boundaries we need, live up to our highest standards and make amends.  Some examples: we apologize for being nasty to our kids, spouse or partner and don’t do it again; we do the difficult chores at home or work that we’ve been avoiding; we give more generously to those in need; we pay our share; we return the stuff we’ve borrowed; we stop making sarcastic and catty remarks about our friends’ clothes, habits children and struggles to lose weight.  We know many specific situations in our own lives.
  • What if people don’t feel guilt when they should?  Looking with this perspective, we can see them as not motivated to change and as being aboveboard at it.  I can trust that they don’t have the standards I do.  Good.  Now I know that I have to protect myself against them.  Many bullies act ashamed and contrite.  They promise to change and they bring candy, flowers and sweet words.  I look at the behavior.  If they don’t change, I wish them well in their therapy and rehabilitation, but I won’t go on that roller coaster ride with them.  The pain is too much.  From them, I have to protect the island my kids and I live on.  I vote them off our island, no matter what the relationship and their suffering, promises and claims that I owe them so much that I should allow them to abuse and brutalize me.
  • How do bullies use our guilt?  Predators are always on the attack.  They try to get us to question the purity of our motives and past behavior.  Stealth bullies are especially effective at this.  Once we start questioning ourselves, our imperfections, self-doubt, negative self-talk, self-hatred and self-loathing will keep us stuck; weak and easy prey.  We won’t have the strength, courage and perseverance to stop them.  Before bullies would admit they need to change, they want us to waste our time trying to be perfect according to their standards.  For example, see the case studies of Carrie, Kathy and Ralph responding to guilt-tripping bullies in different situations in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks.”
  • Guilt is over-rated as a motivating force.  When we’re kids, we all try guilt to get us to do what we don’t want to.  Then we become afraid that if we stop whipping ourselves, we’ll become lazy, immoral and unfeeling slugs and failures.  But as adults, we can transition to motivation strategies that depend on the desire to do what’s good and right, and makes us joyful.

Joining our highest standards to our passion creates a different one of us, gives us a different motivating force and creates a different world for us.  Yes, that’s a big change.  But it’s a change we’ve hungered for.

How different our worlds would be if we stood up for ourselves, our families and what’s right because we are passionate in service to our best and strongest, not ashamed and guilty of what we did wrong?

Should you tell your children about your toxic parents, their toxic grandparents?  What should you tell them and how? Imagine that your parents no longer abuse you physically or sexually, but they still demean you, scapegoat you, ignore or scorn you, make nasty, hostile, sarcastic remarks and put-downs, and let you know that you’re not good enough.  No matter what you do or don’t do, you’re wrong.  They take charge of your life when you see them and break appointments whenever they feel like it.  Their wants and feelings are the center of the world and you don’t count.

Imagine also that you used to think that if you told them, in just the right way and at the right time, how hurtful their treatment was and is, they’d stop.  Or that you used to think your job was to rise above that treatment because they’re your parents, they’re getting old, they’re suffering, they deserve a little peace and happiness, and you owe them.

When can you stop trying to build bridges?  When can you cut off communication?  When can you tell your children why?

Harassment, bullying and verbal, physical and sexual abuse is usually multi-generational.  Families help perpetuate the abusive behavior by keeping secrets and telling lies.  If you give them a chance, your parents will likely do to your children what they did to you.  The old wounds still throb even if your parents are nice sometimes.  They still bleed when your parents repeat the same old treatment even now.

When you grow up, you may vow to break the cycle and treat your children better, but how can you protect them from the example they see of their grandparents still bullying you or them now?  And how can you stop obsessing on your childhood trauma or yesterday’s verbal battering?

Once you’ve tried everything you can think of, every approach, every sweet way of suggesting or speaking truthfully (say, a thousand times) and your parents (or step-parents) still protect each other, perpetuate the lies and tell you that you’re nasty and crazy, I think that’s enough.

Protect yourself and your children, turn your back to them, and create a safe and wonderful island of life for your family.  That means that your parents don’t get on it.

See the case studies of Carrie, Jake and Doug in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” for some tactics that were successful.

Some suggestions:

  • Always remember the effects on your life and how they tried to crush your spirit.  Don’t let a running, internal debate about them suck all your energy down a black hole.  Stop negative self-talk; it’ll only discourage and depress you, increase self-doubt, destroy self-confidence and self-esteem, keep you fixated and stuck, and take your eyes off the great future you want for yourself and your family.
  • You don’t need more understanding of them.  You don’t need to save them from themselves or each other.  Don’t be their therapist.  Let them fix themselves on their own time and their own bodies; not yours.
  • Spirit counts more than biology.  Start calling them by their first names.  Don’t give them titles they don’t deserve, like “Grandma” or “Grandpa.”
  • Don’t argue or debate with your parents.  You’ll never convince them that you’re doing the right thing.  Bullies always want what they want – to feast on your feelings and flesh.  Simply tell them that they’re off your island.  Take steps to cut off communication.  Change your phone numbers and e-mails.  Move if you have to.
  • Tell your children what’s age appropriate.  They don’t need the gory details when they’re six, but they do when they’re sixteen.  Gather them together and make it a serious occasion.  The framework is that they need to know how to protect themselves and to set standards for their own behavior.  Don’t go into psychoanalytical reasons why your parents did it or why they, and maybe the rest of the family, collude to protect them.  That’s obvious.  You’ll probably have to re-visit the conversation.
  • Be invulnerable.  That’s the term coined by Victor and Mildred Goertzel in their study of the lives of more than 300 famous 20th-century men and women (“Cradles of Eminence,” 1962).  Instead of finding that these highly successful people had wonderful parents, they found that many had agonizing childhoods spent in bleak, troubled homes, including domineering, alcoholic, rage-aholic or neglectful parents. They described the children who succeeded, despite a psychologically damaging childhood, as resilient or invulnerable.
  • Be a model for your children.  Show them that abusive behavior drives people away.  Show them how to stand up to abuse, which sometimes means creating distance instead of being sucked into a battle that ties up your life.
  • Create a new family including new elders; a family of your heart and spirit.  Have so much fun, bring so much joy that there’s not a hole anymore that would be filled with thoughts of biological grandparents.
  • Get an expert coach to increase your determination, perseverance, courage and resilience, and to create tactics for your individual situation.

Your task is to create a fabulous life.  Don’t let toxic parents or grandparents – or siblings or friends – ruin it.  Shine a light on bullies.  Your children need you to show them how to thrive in the face of abuse, cover-ups and lies.

Here’s a new slant on the cluster of suicides of four teenage girls from Schenectady High School, New York, that was stimulated by abuse and bullying in school and a war-zone environment outside school. Instead of working together to transform the school and the neighborhood environment, Rev. Veron House, pastor of the Life Changes World Ministries in Schenectady, and school superintendent, Eric Ely, are arguing over who was to blame and who should be responsible for fixing the problem.

Rev. House has been quoted as saying, “This is not a community problem, this is not a church problem, this is a school problem, and this is becoming a school epidemic because everyone that has done this is from Schenectady High."

On the defensive, Superintendent Ely responded, "We're not the parents of these children.  We have them a third of the time, parents have them two thirds of the time. We're going to do everything we can to keep it from happening. But ultimately, when a child goes home and takes their life, there's not a whole lot a school employee can do about that."

Who’s right?  Of course both of them are right.  But facing each other with finger-pointing makes both of them wrong.

The useful question is not who’s to blame and who should be punished, the people in the neighborhood or the principal and teachers in school.  The better question is how to bring people together after numerous and tremendously painful deaths, in order to create a community that simply won’t tolerate hate and violence in the school or on the streets.  Here in Denver, after the massacre at Columbine High School, it has taken 10 years for that healing spirit to become evident.

This question is not new.  The difficulty of establishing a safe and functional communal life after multiple, horrible deaths has been part of human struggles since the beginning of time.  For example, we see the same struggle in the families of Romeo and Juliet.

Even further back, the same subject and a wise solution are described in graphic detail in the three tragedies called the Oresteia, written by Aeschylus in 458 BC.  In the Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides, the murders are for different reasons than in Schenectady and Columbine High School, but the end effect is the same.  Violent death rips apart the fabric of a community and people struggle with what to do.

Why do I bring up literature that’s 2,500 years old?  Because the violence of today has also been faced by people in all cultures, times and places, and we have recorded the approaches that only lead to more pain and also the wisdom that points the way to solutions.

Aeschylus shows that the age-old solution – pointing fingers, apportioning blame, imposing punishment, retribution and vengeance – only drives people into separate, warring camps and perpetuates the cycle of violence.  He also shows that only after the people involved have come together, having been transformed by the intense pain and suffering that everyone feels underneath their defensive and hostile poses, can they dedicate themselves to change the environment together.  One line from the tragedy is, “We must suffer, suffer into [wisdom].”

As community leaders, Rev. House and Superintendent Ely are failing in their responsibility.  Instead of analyzing and parsing out the blame, they must lead the community to come together to create a new spirit that will neither tolerate harassment, bullying and abuse at school nor the street violence that requires police and metal detectors at school doors.

Until Rev. House and Superintendent Ely rally a core of outraged students and parents to rid the area of violence, there are no tactics, plans and skills that will help them.  I’d expect Rev. House to know how rituals for painful grieving can transform the hearts of his parishioners into wisdom and determined action.  Only after they have united resolutely to clean up the school and the neighborhood, will expert tactical advice and guidance be productive.