The Shame behind Bullying
With all the hoo-ha around Donald Trump in the media and within our collective psyche I’ve just had to dig deeper within myself to find greater perspective. It’s felt like having something in my eye – as a persistent irritant. What is it about this man and this theme? What’s in my “I” that calls my attention to a deeper, more useful claiming and healing?
I was 6 years old the day I fell in love with Pierre Guerche, a new boy in my 1st grade class, from France! Little did I know that this innocent, natural, attraction and instant connection would (or could) become twisted into personal shame, humiliation and then my ugliest bullying behavior, but in fact it did.
As I sat down to dinner that night I was floating on air about my great, good fortune at meeting Pierre. He and I fell in immediately on this, his first day of school in my hometown. We played at school and rode our bikes back home together. It was enchanting…we were “in love.”
That night my Dad was at home for dinner – yeah! This was a rarity. So there we were, my 2 brothers, my sister, Mom and Dad, having dinner. What tended to transpire when Dad was home was that everyone would compete for his attention and approval. Making Dad laugh was the pinnacle of achievement.
At some point early in dinner, the attention shifted to me, the youngest, “…and Sarah, how was your day?” to which I gushed, “I’m in love with Pierre Guerche!”
Everything stopped. I don’t think anyone knew WHAT to do with this unabashed outpouring of FEELING that I was experiencing and expressing.
Then the humiliation-games began. Everyone began to joke about it. One of my brothers made up a song – on the spot – …”fly me to gay Paris (Pa-ree) with my darling Pierre” or some such. This got my Dad laughing. Then I disappeared.
No one noticed my collapse. The one-two punch of surprise and shame took me out; out of my body, out of belonging, out of safety and for sure out of love with Pierre Guerche. I never talked to him again.
No one noticed how checked-out I was as I had my bath and went to bed and proceeded with routine life. No one noticed the symptoms of shame and the seed of self-hate that took root in me.
Fast forward three days. I gather up all my girlfriends on the playground. I teach them a song (I made up on-the-spot). I urge them to follow me as we surround, Laurie, a girl in our class.
Everyone knows this child. She’s the one with the hollow look. She flinches easily. Her clothes are ill fitting and sometimes she smells bad. Laurie was the least liked, most ostracized girl in class. She was unsupported, more likely criticized, shamed and abused at home.
Some part of me identified her as the perfect target as another part identified with her as the consummate victim. Unable to digest my own pain and shame from my dinner-table experience a few days prior, I turned the bile and venom onto Laurie.
A bully, mean-girl, super-shamer was born.
With me in the lead, my enlisted troop of girlfriends followed Laurie, now singing a song. I still remember it – a parody I created from a Bye-Bye Birdie tune that was popular at the time. We sang, “We hate you Laurie, oh yes we do. We don’t hate anyone, as much as you. When you are near us, P.U. Oh Laurie, we hate you.”
She cried, we teased on, no one noticed or intervened. My bullying cycle had played forward, further compounded and entrenched by my own shame-based behavior. Within me, one experience of shame was now two. And my bravado, a toxic-mimic of my pain, was now a heat-seeking missile bent on destroying someone more defenseless than me.
What do we do with our shame? For me the things I feel most ashamed about are the ones I’m least likely to share with anyone.
And in the dark, shame festers. With no light of consciousness, no tender witnessing, it goes un-owned. And un-owned it drives us.
Shame drives us, and we throw it around like a hot potato.
God only knows what happened to Donald Trump. While part of me is enraged by his ugliness and displays, another part can hold mercy and prays that he be healed. With his penchant for paying people to attend his rallies and his inability to engage discussion or tolerate any disagreement, his offense is clearly a defense. Donald is an unmitigated bully.
Perhaps his “comb-over” is the perfect metaphor for his thinly veiled fear, his pain and shame. There seems to be an angry, terrified boy in there who just keeps hurling Molotov cocktails to keep everyone, anyone from hurting him or seeing his terror.
And what about his “followers”? Sure, some of them get paid to show up, waive flags and insinuate credibility into his campaign. With the money he’s got to throw around, the 24 hour media hum and perhaps even his numbers at the polls are bought and paid for.
But what of his true followers? The “othering” hate-mongers who seem to agree with The Donald’s vitriol? I say it’s his un-owned shame they resonate with. The victim now bully who seems to be getting away with it.
But it’s all crumbling. As the light shines in and even his paid staff begins to peel off and distance themselves with disdain, Trump’s upside-down candidacy will likely end with a whimper not a bang.
Whether The Donald and his followers ever own or heal their wounds, I feel it is incumbent upon me to see and own and heal what has driven some of my ugliest moments of aggression and bullying.
As author and shame researcher, Brené Brown says, If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.
Here’s my take away from the Trump campaign…or perhaps it is a prayer.
- May I gently listen for and heal the shame in me
- May I end my use of shaming tactics toward myself or any “other”
- May I interrupt and question shaming behavior when it shows up around me (including “shaming” those with whom I/we disagree)
- May I provide a safe and loving space in which shame can be spoken, tenderly acknowledged and healed, and
- May the vulnerability in owning and healing our personal/collective shame become a celebrated virtue in our human culture, now and forevermore.