[Note: This entry is based on two of my answers on Quora. If you want to keep up with my writing, that’s the best place to do it these days.]
So I’ve been spending some time lately thinking about the psychology of bullying, and why bullies seem unhappy when you live a good life once you’ve escaped their reach.
And I think I’m at least a bit closer to understanding.
Bullying, like many other forms of abuse, is ultimately about power and control. People who feel out of control in their lives—perhaps due to problems in their family of origin, perhaps because they don’t have a strongly developed sense of boundaries or sense of self, whatever—often see controlling other people as the only way to feel safe or to reclaim a personal sense of power.
I mean, this isn’t like, an incisive and cunning insight or anything. We’ve known this since the dawn of time. Abuse is about power and control—that’s pretty much both axiomatic and definitional whenever you talk about abuse. Basically any book on abuse or bullying will tell you that.
Hurt people hurt people.
Again, not an incisive and cunning insight. Eunice and I found this graffiti whilst doing some urban spelunking in a ruined mansion when we were in New Orleans together:
Do hurt people hurt people? Is that why bullies bully?
Yes, as far as it goes. That is, do I believe “hurt people hurt people” is true? Yes. Do I believe it’s the whole truth? No, I don’t.
On a surface level, yes, it’s obviously true. You see it often when people break up—they’ll lash out at each other. Anger is part of grief, and anger frequently causes people to do hurtful things.
But I also think the real harm is more often done not by people who are hurt, but by people who are scared.
Image: Alexandra Gorn
Fear is the mind (and relationship) killer
All the books on abuse and bullying, all the research, all the anecdotes, point in the same direction: the core of abuse is power. Whenever you see two people pointing fingers at each other and calling each other abusers, look to the arrow of control. One of them will be exerting, or attempting to exert, power and control over the other. That’s the abuser, always.
But people who exert power over others, in intimate partner relationships, rarely do so because they wake up and say “Hey, you know what? I enjoy being bossy. I think I’ll control my partner today!” (I mean yes, that can happen, but it’s not the norm.)
Most people driven to control in intimate relationships do so, I believe, because they’re acting out of fear. The control is a means to an end, not the end itself. They’re afraid of losing the relationship, or of being abandoned, or whatever, and exerting control becomes a bulwark against the fear, the only way they feel safe. “If I control who my partner socializes with, I can make sure nobody steals my partner.” “If I control where my partner goes, I can calm my fear that my partner is sneaking around behind my back.” Whatever.
The thing about fear is it drives us to extremes,. Often, like insecurity, it drives us to do the exact things that will cause what we fear to come true.
Control is rooted in fear, and a controlling person often lashes out if their fear comes true. Anyone who’s ever worked with intimate partner abuse will tell you the single most dangerous moment for an abuse victim is when they leave the abuser. A person who has lost control of their partner is extremely dangerous, and will often say or do anything to try to re-assert that control.
Fearful people are often people who were hurt in the past, especially as children. Control becomes a dysfunctional, maladaptive way to try to prevent being hurt or abandoned again.
So yes, hurt people hurt people on a surface level—anger is part of grief, and angry people lash out. But the real harm is most often done not out of hurt, but out of fear, and specifically out of fear that becomes need to control.
So. If abuse is about power and control, and abusers often exert power and control out of fear, why then do bullies hate that you live your best life later on?
Because it shows that you have escaped control. You are thriving, your life is wonderful, you are surrounded by joy and love…
They have failed to alter the trajectory of your life. They have failed to trap you in the muck with them. You’re accomplishing things, without them. You’re building joy, without them. They can no longer reach you. You are a living testament to their lack of control.
Abuse is about power and control. Your escape from the bully’s control is a personal affront that highlights whatever damage drives the bully to bully in the first place. It affirms the bully’s fear: I have been abaondoned. I am not loved. That’s intolerable.