THE BLOG
10/25/2011 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2011

The Bully and the Brain Freeze

I have suggested recently that the more we know our inner zombie, i.e. the parts we tend to fear -- our shadows, our inner demons, the inner bully inside of us -- the more we can protect ourselves from outside bullying. In other words, the less congested we are emotionally, the less clogged our intution is, the more we can pick up clues, not only by listing facts or traits but by a more intuitive sense of things as well. By knowing our own anger we can sense anger when it is present in others; by knowing fear as a signal rather than as a constant companion, we are freer to protect ourselves, at least when there is a safe exit point or room to affirm our own boundary.

In my work as a psychotherapist, I am frequently picking up on a client's depression, despair, or strong anger, not only by verbal cues or descriptions to be sure. Often it's a vibe, one I feel after which I follow it also internally to wonder about a possible cause of my own reactivity. When my own emotional system is pretty clear, it's easier to focus on the client's story or feeling state. It's easier to have real curiosity without the intensity of enmeshment.

You may have already noticed as I have that when I am going about my own life on more private levels, the scenarios play out oh so differently. Over the past years, I have become increasingly aware of the tendency of many intelligent high functioning people (on some days I dare to include myself), to freeze in the sense of a real incapacity to process emotions or thoughts in the midst of a situation that is at all conflictual. In loaded situations where our vulnerability, esteem, anger and pain are triggered, we can become actually paralyzed to the point of resorting to catastrophic responses or ones that mean we become numb and withdrawn. How many times have we seen someone we know who gets into the same set of relationship problems only to hear us lament, "Why does he/she keep doing that?"


The bully for the moment in which there is freezing of emotion, is frequently someone hiding his/her own "stuff" behind an intellectually superior facade, a demeaning or snide attitude, or one of expert/guru/medicine man/woman. And the person who is triggered without awareness may well stay in an argument way too long, feel as many of us do that "if only" we did the right thing, he/she would listen to us. It must, in other words, be our fault.

However since life more often than not is made up of duets there is rarely a coupling situation that doesn't get turned on its head to see the victim become guilt provoking and blaming which may provoke the heretofore bully into a state of convinced and convincing victimization. This is one of the "yuckiest" (a term which should be used way more often, I think) arenas many of us know, the feeling of being afflicted by mixtures of helplessness and more helplessness, with temperatures rising but not giving way to more effective coping.

Since most professional, parenting, and how-to general advice, puts a "positive" easy does it spin on most subjects, most of us in turn become forever too ashamed to reveal we are stuck, and just how stuck we may be. And most of us become so unaccustomed to questioning the sanity of the rules by which we abide at least on the surface, that we dare not consider how our culture doesn't "do" emotions or emotional literacy to its fullest extent. If we can't question the rules, and the power of those who seem so certain, we can easily tend to feel we are inadequate if we can't follow the prescribed advice, affirmations -- stuff that seemed so easy in the office. This in turn leads to further isolation, self-criticism and at times out and out depression.

When we talk about bullying in children, it is crucial that we get in touch with whether we are frozen in guilt or shame or anger, or whether the advice our child is getting is inducing that kind of state. Of course this can happen also to any and all supporting staff, including teachers, administrative personnel, and before we know it there is a cycle of blame and of being scared of being blamed. And then, once one group leaves the bully status, the victim of the moment can turn everything around in self-righteous accusation and the cycle never ends.

This is no small problem. It may account for why we are so slow to realize the hypocrisy of so many of our politicians, and why we seem immune from the plethora of situations in which we are in general both bullied and the bully. Whenever we have extra guilt running through our veins we are prone, dangerously at times, to becoming susceptible to exaggerated blame and also equally as susceptible to exaggerated promises given by people we deem, inadvertently or not, superior to us. It's important that we keep in mind that bullying implies a power differential, even if it is not an obvious one to bystanders or sometimes even to us.

If we want to attempt to limit the brutality and frequency of bullying, we will have to look under the surfaces of our lives, to how much we may be embedded in relationships which call for us giving up clarity of thought and decision. Often enough it is not an entire relationship that is as such, making it all the more difficult to sort out when bullying is going on. If the waters are muddy, it's even harder to help our children become clear, to tell us of their anger or their pain. And as we know many of the kids most prone to suicidal ideation and suicide itself can tend to both blame themselves and see no end in sight.

If we want to put an end to bullying we will have to study how much a part it is of adult life as well. We will also need to admit when we feel bullied by the astounding responsibility -- the impossible responsibility we feel on individual levels to keep the peace in our homes and when we aren't present.

We all need support, and we also need support to be able to say this out loud. To be continued.