Bullying From the Inside Out

06/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Here, "from the inside out" means starting with us and keeping our attention on the causes and cures that are deeper than either the quick fixes or strict rules of society. This is not about easy blame but rather investigating our own roles--and that of our culture--in the violence hitting our headlines about teen and child suicide due to bullying.

Our neighborhoods are not the only places in the world where numbers of people become depressed or prone to group or isolated violence. However, in a population geared to having and producing "everything," the spree still shocks many of us -- certainly any of us located in the kinds of towns and cities we are reading about.

The New York Times recently offered the thread of court documentation of the events that led 15-year old Phoebe Prince to commit suicide by hanging in Massachusetts. The details read like the gang wars and racist and ethnic jealousies we have associated with (and detached from) the back streets of our ghettoes. An Irish girl, Ms. Prince supposedly offended some of others for daring to date their "own."

Yes, Phoebe told friends and authorities what was happening to her. Many are rushing to judgment, saying the school failed in yet another standard policy of alleged "zero tolerance." However there is no such thing as dictating zero tolerance. One cannot legalize tolerance or even teach it for that matter.

Our mandate, I feel, is that we listen to our own intolerance and prejudice and to the hatred that kills through taunting. We won't learn anything about any of it unless we understand why we hate and from where it comes.

The late great comedian, George Carlin, used the concept of context in some of his most exquisite satire on political correctness. And although nothing about these shameful events evokes laughter, the emphasis on context is universally important. We cannot solve or even begin to penetrate the widespread sadistic bullying in our schools without knowing about our parenting, our schools, and yes, the context of national and international as well as local climates in which we live and are raising our children.

I don't want to be singing a hymn about this. I would much rather wake some people up to what most of us already know. We know, if we care to pay attention, that a teenager's behavior cannot be monitored merely by verbal warnings or continued punishment. What is crucial is some trust in peers and adults.

And what might begin to make a difference is to realize that bullies need understanding as much as the rule of law. We have long known that those who abuse are victims of abuse. There are many kids who can be reached if they are heard. And we need to say out loud that bullies are not merely cool or "in" or bad or mean, they are troubled.

As long as fragility is associated only with the victims, we will perpetuate our idea of bullying as the act of the strong. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have to do the most inconvenient thing of our time, which is to look at the bullying we do in our own lives, the bullying many of us accommodate or even actively or passively perpetuate.

I will tell you from long experience in counseling troubled children and families that if we merely blame the bullies' parents (who are already bullied by society and judged based on their capacity to "achieve" a child who proves them to be decent people), then they will only go further into hiding and fear. Or they will go further down a path of punishing their children who instead need to be listened to and known. Likewise, if we simply blame the schools, then we will do the same thing to school counselors, teachers and principals. As a result, there will be no one will be left to listen to the pain and hatred of the kids because the adults will be too afraid of getting into trouble.

April is the month of Earth Day, our annual reminder of planet ecology. For some time, to me, this it also justifies looking at our family ecology; the connection to our children and ourselves. It is pertinent to remind ourselves of the shadow that we all have. A term coined by Carl Jung, the Shadow signifies the internal compartments where we hide our own feelings, those which frighten or disgust us. Jung wrote in the 1950s, a time when it was becoming clear that demonizing each other could signify the destruction of our planet through nuclear weapons. He had not yet seen the furtherance of terrorism and the de-humanization of people, though his work included those possibilities. Even so, his prescience cannot be denied.

We may have to face our own internal wars to determine how much we can tolerate destruction, and our willingness or commitment to stop demonizing each other by owning up to the parts of ourselves that we don't like. When it becomes safer to admit to all of the shades of feeling, we might just begin to stem the tide of the human tendency to seek revenge and to arbitrarily divide people into "good" or "bad."

For those who need to cling to their reputations for innocence or moral superiority, the challenge to admit personal defeats and flaws has little appeal. And for the extremists--even at home--who believe that life after death is all that matters, the work it takes to own up to conflict and responsibility may hardly seem worth it.

However, if we decide to listen to all the children who hate and fear, they will surely tell us their feelings of alienation. The risk is that they are bound to hold us accountable to change the context of constant cultural competition, which can be suffocating. Sure, we might say we love them, but we won't be able to stand listening to them if we dare not face changing and giving up our own righteousness.

Jung, in his striking wisdom on the subject of the Shadow, reminded us that it is only through imperfection that we can learn to care and love, since imperfection reminds us that we need another. Those who delude themselves about being perfect would remain distant from want and need and from vulnerability.

As a modern society, are we strong enough to let in our vulnerability to having all manner of feeling and to caring for ourselves and each other, no matter what? Let's start the conversation.