Late in October, a complaint was filed against Aledo High School football coach Tim Buchanan for encouraging his players to “bully” their opponents. The nature of the alleged bullying? A win so decisive as to humiliate the losing team, with a final score of 91 to zero. The unhappy parent of a player on the defeated team had filed the complaint following Aledo’s lopsided victory.
An investigation by the school district soon cleared Coach Buchanan, and interviews suggest he did what he could to minimize the rout, but the feelings of that disgruntled parent aren't hard to understand, even if we don’t agree with the charges. It’s one thing to lose in competition, quite another to feel as if you’re a total loser on the field, so inept that you might as well not play. The complaining parent no doubt believed his son had been demoralized by this staggering loss, his self-esteem shattered by such a public demonstration of athletic inferiority.
But unlike Coach Buchanan and his players, the actual bully deliberately sets out to make his victim feel inferior. It helps to view the bully as a kind of competitor on the social playing field, one who strives not only to win but to triumph over the social losers and destroy their sense of self. As in competitive sport, where winners and losers exist in a binary relation to one another, the bully is yoked in identity to his victims. To a significant degree, his self-image depends upon having those losers to persecute: I am a winner because you are a loser.
Recent studies suggest that bullies may actually have normal or above-average self-esteem, at least in terms of their physical attractiveness and popularity, but they also tend to be more “shame-prone.” Clinical psychologist Mary C. Lama describes the dynamic in this way: “Shame is what a bully attempts to hide. … [T]hey are anxious about the exposure of their failures or shortcomings. [T]he bully gives away his shame by denigrating you and, as a result, a bully will make you experience shame about your own inadequacies.” In other words, the bully makes himself a winner at your expense, forcing you to become the shame-ridden loser.
In an earlier article for The Atlantic, I discussed the psychology of narcissism through a profile of Lance Armstrong, highlighting a similar winner-loser dynamic inherent in narcissistic relations. “The narcissist lives in a world populated by two classes of people, the winners and the losers. His constant aim in life is to prove he's a winner and to triumph over the losers.” I described narcissistic winning as a psychological strategy for off-loading unconscious shame, a heavily repressed sense of internal inferiority: You’re the loser, not me. The narcissist therefore needs and depends upon identified losers in order to carry his shame, thereby shoring up his defensive sense of self.
Bullies and narcissists thus follow similar psychological strategies for building and defending their identities. In fact, rather than viewing them as distinct psychological entities, it makes more sense to see their interconnection: All bullies are narcissists, with an inflated sense of self-importance and a marked lack of empathy for their victims’ suffering, while many narcissists turn out to be powerful bullies. In defending his winner-status against detractors, for example, Lance Armstrong made extensive use of the legal system and his access to media in order to bully and intimate anyone who challenged him.
In particular, he tried to destroy their reputations. He referred to former soigneur Emma O’Reilly as a “whore” and an “alcoholic” in public statements after she admitted witnessing his use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. On more than one occasion, he has publically referred to Betsy Andreu, wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu, as a “crazy bitch”; her mistake was admitting she’d overheard Armstrong tell his oncologist that he had used a long-list of PEDs. To shore up his winner status, Armstrong wanted to make his detractors appear like contemptible losers; he tried to turn public opinion against them, enlisting the support of his many fans.