Understand Bullying: The Role of Shame

John Bailey
7 min readJun 15, 2021

Shame is the centerpiece of the emotional system that drives bullying. It is the most common, and most powerful of the related emotions. It flows from, and also reinforces the greatest number of other emotions driving the three actions of bullying behavior:

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

Shame places people at risk for being targeted and also for bullying.

It is important to understand what we mean by shame — something far past embarrassment or guilt. Shame is beyond DOING a wrong thing; it is the state of BEING wrong. For our purposes, shame means a sense or belief of unworthiness or worthlessness.

It is also important to understand the profound power that such a feeling can have. “The emotion of shame is the primary or ultimate cause of all violence, whether toward others or toward the self.” — James Gilligan (Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic)

The first recorded homicide was driven by the emotion of shame — when God hadn’t the same regard for Cain’s offering that he had for Abel’s. “Cain was furious, and he was downcast.” (Note “downcast” is the nonverbal communication of shame.)

Shame can be compounded by being turned upon itself — being ashamed of feeling shame. The more trivial the cause, the more shameful it is to feel shame about it — and the more intense the feelings. This construct was identified by Psychiatrist James Gilligan as the motivation behind some profoundly and disturbingly violent acts. So, if we are concerned about cycles of violence in particular — and about building resilient youth who can move away from violence —it’s important to understand this emotion, and how it functions in this context.

Name Calling and other Shaming as Bullying:

Some of the most common name-calling slurs involve bullies labeling their targets with various names for genitals, male or female. Our language commonly refers to genitals as “privates” — to be hidden or concealed like anything we might be ashamed of. And, this isn’t new. In early translations of the Bible, the word “shame” was used interchangeably to refer to the genitals and the emotion: pudenda, or “parts of shame”. More primitive yet, our primate cousins sometimes demonstrate social dominance by forcing others to display their genitals in a vulnerable way. So, the dominance-shame-genitals association appears to predate our descent from the trees.

The modern, “civilized” human version of this when older stronger adolescent boys throw smaller, younger boys outside the locker room — to be seen naked, too weak to conquer a simple doorway. Various other hazing or bullying involving display or disrespect of genitals or ritual rape-like behaviors are more common than we want to admit. Modern and sophisticated humans are puzzled or embarrassed by these things. But, primatologists would probably find them ordinary.

The point is shame and shaming are central and inherent parts of social sorting by despotic means. This connection is in our language of the most recent 2,000 years. And, even the most primitive and shocking ritual versions of it still arise spontaneously in highly-stratified and aggressive human environments such as adolescent locker rooms, and prisons. To really understand and cope with bullying we must face these aspects of humanity.

Pathways TO Shame / Pathways OF Shame:

In the bullying context, we navigate in and out of Shame — coming from Fear, Frustration, Anger, or Surrender — and back again. We often believe that just experiencing the emotion of fear makes a person “a coward” — and that belief leads to shame. Likewise with surrender — which we might imagine an irredeemably cowardly act. Frustration can be seem to mean incompetence — and therefore unworthiness — leading to shame. And, anger, acted-out in a way that violates personal values or social mores — or even just causes an unexpectedly poor outcome — can also lead down the dark path of shame.

Whether shame leads a person to be more vulnerable to accepting mistreatment, to abusing power, or to acting in aggression depends on various factors — including opportunity. But, we must appreciate how the psychological need to conceal shame by any means can be truly overpowering.

The Shame Vortex: Targets of Bullying

It doesn’t matter whether they’re vulnerable due to frustration, fear, shame, or sadness. These emotional states make a person more vulnerable to choosing surrender as a way to deal with abuses of power, or aggression. Once a person chooses to surrender, they must deal with the social and personal interpretations of that.

Surrender suggests physical and/and psychological weakness. It marks a person as “safe to attack”, and a safe target draws abuse. Inwardly as well as outwardly, the choice to surrender, and the abuse that follows appear as “evidence” reinforcing a sense of unworthiness — shame.

Feeling unworthy, and having that sense of self reinforced from without by bullying children is bad enough, but adults often witlessly compound the shame.

In schools, children are drilled on pretty language from the Declaration of Independence — the “self-evident truths” of basic human rights to which “all men” are worthy. There, it is ironic to have zero tolerance policies prohibiting self-defense. Such polices are an official proclamation that bullied children are unworthy of basic human rights, dignity, or even physical safety and health.

It is profoundly and harmfully shaming for a child to recognize their dignity and safety are worthless compared to the convenience of an adult.

If a child manages to break through such damaging shame to communicate with a parent or other adult, they likely fare no better because adult intervention is usually structured in ways that anger the bullies without changing culture or circumstances for the child. In the end, the desperate exercise often only generates further proof of their unworthiness.

The Shame Vortex: Bullies

It doesn’t matter whether they’re coming from frustration, fear, shame, or sadness. These emotional states often lead into anger — and to acting out through abuse of social power or other aggression. Once a person chooses to express anger through action, they must deal with the social and personal interpretations of that.

Socially, aggressively acting-out violates various rules, written and unwritten. The social response to this is often isolation, labeling, condemnation, or other punishment. Often, this carries a lasting stigma of “bad guy” reputation.

Acting-out aggressively against a weaker person violates most ethical frameworks across culture and time. So, this behavior is often a violation of the personal values of the actor themselves. This often involves a public loss of control. Thus, both the social and internal responses lead to feeling unworthy or “bad” — shame. Punitive action and labeling become evidence to reinforce that conclusion.

If the first response to the fear, frustration, shame, or sadness was to act out aggressively, compounding the experience through social isolation may increase the sense of shame — returning the child to the strategy they know — acting out aggressively.

Reactions to shame may seem “obsessive” — from ritual-like behaviors desperate to create a sense of calm or security, to angry outbursts desperate to conceal fear or incompetence.

Most of our current systems for coping with bullying seem to be more about “cure” than “prevention”. The “cure” we most often attempt is punishment. Besides the fact that punishment comes after damage is done — and that it does not prevent future or more creative acting-out — punishment may make the situation worse.

In our society, punishments are usually calculated to increase shame (the bully-making emotion). Often, they’re designed to remove other means of protecting or restoring self esteem. However, restoration and protection of self esteem are basic human emotions. If the only strategy available or understood is the domination or injury of others, they’ll use it.

The Crime of Punishment:

Another way to visualize and understand a shame-bullying system, and the adult participation in maintaining it is this flow chart: The Crime of Punishment.

Notice how standard punishments tend to be isolating, aggravating insecure social status. Understand that removes other means of protecting or restoring self esteem. Notice the opportunity for education and training to change the course of events. And, we know from many studies that education is the most effective means of reducing both violence and recidivism in prison systems. I wonder why we expect differently from children?

Notice also that “negative attention” is still attention — and attention is a basic human emotional need. If the most reliable pathway to significance is through acting-out, and if the best quality “significance” a child is receiving is punishment, the behavior will continue or even increase. Harsher punishments may suggest the “adult” fears failure or is at the end of their wits. This may be a victory of sorts when the bully realizes: “They’re just like me.”

Next time, I’m going to reveal how you can protect your children against the most destructive dangers of shame and how to challenge shame that may exist. I’m also going to roll the entire series of posts on emotions into a single picture that you can understand — and act on easily.