Understand Bullying: Overcoming Shame

John Bailey
7 min readJun 22, 2021


Shame is the most potent and concerning emotion related to bullying and the centerpiece of the emotional system that drives the three actions of bullying:

• taking Advantage of power
• using Aggression
• and Accepting mistreatment

Shame places people at risk both for being targeted and for engaging in bullying. And according to psychiatrist James Gilligan: “Shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence”. According to Gilligan: “What is most needed is a non-violent means to protect or restore self-esteem.”

Institutional environments like prison (and public schools) are massively shaming. They crush individual identity, creativity and self expression in the name of “order” (convenience of the management).

The least tolerated trait is not laziness or poor performance, but non-conformity. And, the most valued human trait is neither innovation nor excellence, but conformity.

The depersonalization caused by massive and enforced conformity is eroding to self esteem and a healthy sense of personal identity. In schools, we teach children about the Constitution — the high principles that they are not worthy of because their rights and human dignity are secondary to the “need” for conformity and compliance. They don’t have rights to free expression, or privacy, or security in their persons or possessions, or due process, or to refrain from incriminating themselves.

They are forced to memorize and repeat the list of rights and ideals by which our society counts itself better than others. Then, we both tell and show them they are unworthy of those protections — in most cases, merely because we find it convenient — and we have the power.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned the harmfulness of bullying by social exclusion. However, we force youngsters to live outside the fold of social protections and dignity. Then, we wonder why they don’t “respect” the social norms they’ve not been allowed to share.

The meaning a person gives to their experience may not be the meaning you expect them to take from it. Our challenge is to have empathy with the meanings people are actually forming — especially if those meanings are different from our intentions. Empathy, as you will see below, is one of the key skills to understand bullies so you can stop bullying.

The Simple Picture:

Following are four steps in graphic format. Have a look at all four, and read the text. Then, you’ll only need to remember the last one.

All conflict appears on this continuum somewhere:

  • from homicide to running for your life
  • from pushing into line to giving-way
  • from a bold step forward to a timid step back
  • from making an offer to making a compromising counter-offer

Bullying behaviors fall toward the extremes of the continuum:

This is an interesting reflection of how those most at risk for bullying behaviors also fall toward the extremes of their social metrics.

Near the middle of the continuum of social conflict, we find business negotiations, informal partnerships, and the like. The parties come to the situation with empathy and openness as well as confidence and resolve. Often this leaves all parties happy:

We won’t resolve every single conflict in such a way, but we can certainly find out what influences the system to bring more people to resolve more often. The area of resolve requires us to bring our own sense of confidence and worthiness — as well as empathy and openness to new information and perspective. Healthy self esteem empowers those emotional responses — just as fear and shame dis-empower them:

This is the diagram you need to remember.

When we understand that the forces of self-esteem and empathy move us toward resolve — and the forces of fear and shame move us away from it everything becomes more clear. Luckily for us that shame and self esteem are exact opposites — a belief of unworthiness versus a belief of worthiness. Whatever builds one will erode the other.

The “Curse” of Shame:

A person who believes themselves cursed will become hyper-aware of every mistake, misfortune, and missed opportunity. And, as they become stressed-out about that, they make more mistakes — and so forth. An internet search reveals “the top ten signs of being cursed”:

  1. Nightmares
  2. Loss of energy
  3. Misfortune of loved ones
  4. Financial or property loss
  5. Relationship trouble
  6. Deterioration of health
  7. Legal trouble
  8. Direct perceptions of being cursed
  9. Sudden and serious illness
  10. Death

Almost any drug addict, accident victim, or severely ill person can qualify.

The things we think we know are the greatest barriers to our progress.

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to notice, accept, and reference information that confirms what they already believe — and to ignore or dismiss information that conflicts with what they already believe.

Confirmation bias makes shame into a catch-22:

Once a person believes themselves unworthy, they begin to interpret the world as if that were a true fact — and to look for things that confirm it. Every inflection and gesture takes on meanings of rejection, contempt or exclusion. To believe ourselves unworthy is painful, but we can at least feel sane and “right” about what we “know”. So, most people feel quietly sane and “right” about being unworthy — rather than risk “being a fool”, weak, wrong, or “crazy”. Every mistake, misfortune, or missed phone call becomes more “evidence” to support our belief of unworthiness.

This is the vortex of shame. And, if we throw in some actual targeted exclusion or mistreatment, we may have a whole committee helping us hold onto the belief.

Challenging Shame:

As far as I can tell, we all fear unworthiness. Those with shame have convicted themselves of it.

“Secrets intensify shame.” according to Brene Brown, one of the most prominent researchers in the field. Luckily, she also tells us that “Shame cannot survive being spoken”.

Protect children from bullying behaviors by protecting them from shame.

Speaking about shame — a fear or belief of unworthiness — exposes a secret vulnerability, and so requires great courage. But, acknowledging vulnerability is only acknowledging reality. We are all vulnerable to something. And, as far as I can tell, we all have some fear of unworthiness. We all believe things about ourselves that if said out loud — or about someone else — would be recognized as ridiculous.

Name it and tame it:

Whatever unworthiness you fear, say it out loud, only say it about someone you care for. Include the reason or evidence you would use against yourself. In other words, if that person you care for did, or failed to do, the same thing, would it prove them unworthy?

Reality check it another step further: Is there anyone in the world, who would be made unworthy if they thought, felt, said, or did the same thing?

Ask if someone committed the same act, and was unworthy because of it, could there be anything they could have done before — or after — that would restore their worthiness?

This is the beginning of unraveling a sense of unworthiness in yourself or someone you are very close to. Don’t get into playing amateur therapist with your kid if there’s some extreme issue. That’s what professionals are for.

Develop a family culture where fears — including the fear of unworthiness — are normal to communicate about. Make it normal to openly interrogate any unworthiness ideas that shows up.

Detailed conversations around these sorts of feelings tend to dispel them. And, a family culture where you do that tends to have a protective effect against little ones becoming big ones— even if the mean girls committee is prosecuting the case.

Model the behavior — and lead kids through it: What you make normal will be normal. If you have fear (squeamishness) around doing this sort of thing, this is your crucible of character — urges versus values. When that character is revealed, what will it be?

Building Self Esteem (the anti-shame):

I did a post earlier in this series on building self esteem. I hope you check it out again in context with the above, and find new perspective and value in it. Use the information there to inoculate your children against shame — by filling them with self esteem, the anti-shame!