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.
Schoolyard bullies employ identical tactics, spreading vicious rumors and recruiting followers in order to persecute their victims. Earlier this year, two teens allegedly organized a group of other girls to terrorize a Florida 12-year-old, who eventually committed suicide by jumping off a tower in an abandoned concrete plant. In this highly-publicized case of cyber-bullying, one girl sent the victim repeated text messages, telling her she was ugly and that she ought to drink bleach in order to kill herself.
This type of bullying first becomes a serious issue when young people emerge from the relatively sheltered environment of elementary school into a much larger world rife with insecurities about social status. Middle-schoolers need badly to feel that they belong, that they have value and respect within this new social hierarchy. In order to establish their own power and importance, bullies identify and then harass their victims (the losers), thereby elevating themselves as social winners. Through physical and psychological persecution, the bully off-loads her own shame and fear of not belonging. In the process, she deprives her target of social membership, making the victim feel that she has no standing within their world.
Hazing employs similar tactics but presents them as the price of admission into a winners club. Fraternity and sorority pledges, rookies in the armed services, and new recruits in professional sports must often undergo shaming or humiliating rituals, but submission gains them entry into an elite world. They also earn the right to shame and humiliate those who will follow. Those who defend hazing as a rite of passage insist it toughens character and builds camaraderie; critics argue that it promotes mistrust between current and new members who may feel angry or resentful about being hazed.
The recent suspension of Richie Incognito from the Miami Dolphins highlights the complicated relationship between hazing and bullying. Locker-room hazing is an NFL tradition; but among other abuses, Incognito allegedly called Martin a “half-n**ger,” proposed defecating into his mouth, and threatened to track down and harm his family members. On Sunday, Incognito defended himself, arguing that his relationship with Martin had been misconstrued, but it’s hard to see how such treatment would make Martin feel that he belonged. His abrupt departure from the team on October 26 suggests just the opposite.
Incognito has a long-history of disturbing and aggressive behavior dating back to his college years at Nebraska, where he was suspended from the Cornhuskers for recurrent violations of team rules. As an NFL player, he has repeatedly been flagged for unsportsmanlike behavior and was voted the dirtiest player in the league. Only last week, not long after the Martin story broke, he was charged with molesting a female volunteer at a charity golf tournament.
Incognito was bullied himself as a child. The mother of one of the Florida girl's alleged bullies was arrested and charged with child abuse not long after her story broke. Lance Armstrong was abandoned by his biological father and regularly “paddled” as punishment by his stepfather. Bullies, like narcissists, don’t emerge from happy childhoods, secure in their parents’ love and imbued with a sense of their own worth. As they grow, they find ways to compensate: they shed fear, shame, and self-doubts, forcing them onto the losers they persecute.
In other words, we can best understand what unconsciously drives bullies by understanding the ways they make their victims feel. For the bully, the victim is what he fears that he himself might be: a loser.