Just about everyone has had some encounter with a bully in his or her life and knows all too well how truly awful it is to be the target of someone’s intentional malice and cruelty. But regardless of whether someone was bullied or even inflicted the bullying behavior, one of the most important ways to combat bullying is to simply understand why bullies feel the need to behave that way in the first place.
According to Joel Haber, Ph.D., a counselor, bullying expert, and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life, bullying is borne out of a complex combination of nature and nurture.
“Some people are born with more aggressive sides and some with less but nurture can bring out or reduce aggressive displays,” he says. “Role-modeling of bullying behaviors especially from powerful role models plays a significant role.”
Hanalei Vierra, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The True Heart of a Man, says that if there is one personality trait that can be found in virtually all bullies, it is that they are highly insecure people and are often imitating behaviors that they themselves have witnessed or experienced.
“This means that more than likely, the environment that they were raised in as children was once where they experienced a lot of shame and humiliation about themselves,” he says. “The urge or need to bully comes from a primitive need to recover one’s self-worth and self-respect.”
Haber says that while anyone can act aggressive and behave like a bully at times, most people have enough empathy that they will regret and modify their behavior when they see it hurts others. But a small percentage of people are “genetically wired to act that way consistently and not be able to modify their aggressive tendencies.”
But what about bullying in an online world?
It’s no secret that social media and other online platforms are rampant with bullying. And the truth is, they’ve effectively undercut the empathetic responses that would be expected in the average person. According to Haber, technology allows for those acting aggressively to avoid seeing the impact of their behavior. They don’t get the immediate cues that would normally trigger a sense of empathy.
“It allows others who may not have used bullying behavior to engage because their actions don’t typically have immediate and direct feedback,” says Haber.
Vierra agrees that the anonymity of social media makes it “the perfect place for a bully,” allowing the bully to feel free from accountability or regret over their bad behavior. He says that often the online world can serve as an “onramp” for would-be bullies, making it easier to torment a stranger without the usual checks that would be imposed by face-to-face social norms.
Understanding what drives bullying behavior, whether online or IRL, the best response is usually the same: limit your emotional reaction. Bullies feed off the reactions they inspire and giving them what they want can fuel further attacks by showing the bully the power they have over you, according to Haber.
“If you feel the need to bully, stop and think about taking a break before you respond—especially online—and see if the same message can be delivered without hurt and pain,” he suggests. “Ask yourself how it would feel if someone delivered that same message to you. Use your empathy as your own barometer.”
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