g a t h e r i n g s

You Asked For It! Bully and Bullied

This question is about bullying among young people. One day I will write more extensively about the topic. For now, I am focusing on one component of a great complexity.

When we look at the landscape of childhood, we see a common experience among its inhabitants: they are insulated from the larger world and they are isolated within the smaller one. They spend their time within the family or in school (and its various offshoots, such as sports teams). They have to depend on those around them for mobility, shelter, food, and guidance. Intelligence and talent (of a specific kind) are rewarded in ways that loom very large in this landscape. Residents of childhood vie for the attention (love, care, respect, validation, reflection) of those charged with bestowing it. This insulated sphere, with its ramped up sense of success and failure, is an intense field to navigate.

Thus, when relationships are difficult a child cannot move out of the realm easily, physically or even in the imagination. He or she often doesn’t reach out for support, after all there is evidence that reaching out doesn’t work. There is evidence … telling others actually makes things worse, adults don’t really understand anyway, parents will be disappointed in their bullied child, he or she deserves to be bullied, and on and on. On the other side, the bully lashes out when triggered. What is it that he or she is reacting to? No one thing. It’s a mistake to see “bully” or “bullied” as monolithic entities, they are not. They do, however, share a narrow and amplified field where vulnerability meets vulnerability whatever its details. Each becomes the reference point for the other. And those who tend to follow (most of us) detect where they will be safest and act accordingly, usually cowering in the shadow of the more powerful one. And, yes, powerful is defined in the heat of the moment, the entire reality that exists in that moment. All of the dynamics that are carried to this field are enlarged and distorted without filter or pause.

As parents and teachers and guides, I think it is essential to stand outside of what is already a sharp dichotomy between the so-called victims and the perpetrators (often made even more dramatic by bullying campaigns and strategies). Where do we have to stand in order to see both the bullies and the bullied without becoming either one? Are we able to see beyond and behind the person who holds one or the other role? Are we able to envision the geography in which victim and perpetrator energies flow through the bloodstreams and dynamics of families or communities? Are we able to imagine a larger sweep of possible resolution that addresses not only specific interactions but deeper questions of belonging?

Broadening the landscape in which the bullies and the bullied see themselves and each other is essential. If the tension around identity can be loosened, and ideas about success and failure can be diffused, perhaps the boundaries can soften. Just as in a Constellation, extending the landscape is a more effective approach than changing behavior. It is less predicated on judgment and presumption. Wider exposure allows young people to see themselves differently – more and varied ideas of beauty, intelligence, talent, meaning, relationship, resource.

If the imaginations of both the bullies and the bullied can be freed, perhaps they can unhook from each other, safe to come to themselves. The larger world – an image of expansiveness and possibility – can begin to meet whatever is being played out from the family or history so that the bully may be able to breathe more deeply, feel essentially stronger and freer, and thus be more open to his or her own vulnerability and new resources to negotiate it. And simultaneously the person who is the focus of bullying may be able to breathe more deeply, feel essentially stronger and freer, and be more open to his or her own mobility and new ways to foster it. A shift in our gaze to the wide and inclusive allows access to creativity as we accompany the young people who look to us for care. That access can help support natural movement into larger places that await all of them once they cross the boundary of this particular moment.