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Empathy versus bullying: The biggest bully in my life

[This is the first in a series on bullying and empathy.]

Listen to this podcast on Spotify (via Anchor): https://anchor.fm/lou-agosta-phd/episodes/Empathy-versus-bullying-The-biggest-bully-in-my-life-e16v57j

The biggest bully in my life

The biggest bully in my life was a member of my family, my father. Most of the time, he was a nice guy, a good neighbor with a lot of social skills. However, he had a nasty temper that would go off unpredictably. 

Dad would lose his tempter in unpredictable times and unpredictable ways about three times a year, and then there was hell to pay. I would get hit, pushed, knocked down, and called devaluing names. Over a period of ten years, between seven and seventeen years old, that adds up. A bold statement of the obvious: it was unpleasant. 

Persons (and therapists) who later heard about my struggles would ask: “Did he drink?” No, he just had a nasty temper that got triggered by what he (and apparently only he) perceived as narcissistic slights or injuries. His bad behavior satisfied the criteria of bullying in that it was verbal and physical aggression, occurring repeatedly, and in a context where the individuals were significantly unequal in power. 

I have documented the recovery process without describing my father’s behavior explicitly as bullying in an earlier book, A Rumor of Empathy (2015). As part of my recovery, I even published a book chapter on empathy and the treatment of domestic violence.[i]

The new information disclosed here is that Dad’s behavior improved significantly when, at the age of seventeen, having finally grown up physically, I hit him back. Just one punch. Well placed, it gave him a bloody lip. A technical “knock out.” It had a calming effect on him, and I never got hit again. The fight was called in my favor, by mutual agreement. However, do not make too much of it. I was heading out the door and off to college, never to look back, with my academic scholarships.

Dad only bullied members of his own family. To the neighbors and his colleagues at work he was a friendly, even wonderful guy. In years of dynamic psychotherapy beginning when I escaped to college, I explored a process of treatment that included recovery from domestic violence. 

I now believe that the triggers to Dad’s bullying outbursts were some slight provocations—real or imagined—to his narcissism. This means that he was not your typical school yard bully. The school bully may “go off” if one bumps into him in the play ground, but the school yard bully is both strategic and opportunistic in his aggression. With my Dad, he seemed to lack emotional regulation once his sense of self was knocked out of kilter—dis-equilibrated—by a real or imagined narcissistic injury. Dad was at the effect of his rage. He did not seem to be having fun. The people around him were definitely not having fun. 

Dad had a narrative about teaching me a lesson as he lashed out and described me with devaluing names. This was a self-serving narrative at best. Whatever distorted lessons might have been intended, they were not empathy lessons. His bad behavior was in the service of venting his emotions and restoring his own equilibrium. Everyone else around him was dis-equilibrated. As a boy, I was trying not to cry any more in order not to be given more of “something to cry about.” 

In those days, a college student on summer vacation could still get a relatively well paying job in a factory or working construction, and I never returned home. Dad and I patched things up years later. However, the years of misbehavior had taken their toll. There was neither a sentimental reconciliation nor a truth and reconciliation commission to frame the encounter between perpetrator and survivor. Dad never thought of asking for forgiveness and, near as I could tell, he never told the truth about how violently he had behaved. It seemed not to occur to him. 

Forgiveness is over-rated, thought I, at the time; though I eventually came to endorse Desmond Tutu’s approach and bought Tutu’s book based on its title alone—No Future Without Forgiveness. It is about a formal truth and reconciliation commission. The perpetrators have to stand up, face the survivor(s), and tell the truth about what they did to the victims (who did not survive) and to the survivors (who did) in such a way that they agree it is the truth. The perpetrators have to acknowledge what happened in such a way that the survivors recognize it. The process creates a set up—provides a clearing—to build a case for forgiveness. The survivor then gets to say whether he or she accepts the representation of what happened and whether the survivor chooses to grant forgiveness.[ii]

Self-forgiveness is an entirely different matter. Sometimes the hasty forgiving of others is a clumsy way for survivors to get to self-forgiveness, which is a worthy goal. The survivor may usefully forgive himself for incorporating the devaluing descriptions of the bully into the survivor’s low self-esteem. This is an important step, which, speaking personally, years of therapy helped me to attain. The benefit is to empower the survivor to put the past back in the past and create a clearing for positive possibilities going forward into the future.

In comparison to Dad, any school bullies that I encountered were “boy scouts” (with apologies to the Boy Scouts). Any bullies that I encountered at school were more like jumping in reverse back from the fire into the relative coolness of the frying pan. They were physically bigger, but I had other sources of power including humor, a rapier wit, a sharp tongue, and, most importantly, an ability to run amazingly fast over short distances. It worked well enough. 

I was still physically small in middle school; and I had potential as a target of bullying. However, I would speak out of turn in class, playing the class clown, so the tough kids were amused, even entertained. 

The tough guys saw that I spoke truth to power—or at least was not afraid to get an occasional punishment exercise from the teacher for trying to be funny. 

I gained a certain kind of reputation—not exactly popular, unless you consider the notorious outlaw Jesse James to have been popular. Think of “Wanted Dead or Alive” posters at the post office. So the tough kids—and there definitely were some in my pubic middle school—didn’t mess with me. By the time I got to high school proper, I was still below average in size for my age, but it was a private, all boys school. That was the main challenge.

Virtually without exception every kid at my high school was so afraid of the teachers, who were mostly Jesuits, that even the meanest of one’s fellow students seemed like an alter boy in comparison. There was no talking in the corridors between classes; and if one did talk, a teacher, who had been lurking quietly behind you out of sight, would suddenly emerge and bang your head against the lockers, which lined the hallways, making a formidable hollow sound. The locker, not the head, that is. 

Most classes in my high school would begin with the Our Father (the prayer)—nothing wrong with that—but you knew that The Lord—along with big brother (those were the Jesuits who were not formally ordained as priests)—were watching. If the tactics were to put the fear of The Lord into everyone’s head, creating an atmosphere similar to boot camp in the armed forces, then it seemed to have worked. This raises the delicate question whether the teachers were actually the bullies; and I am sorry to report that, yes, some were. 

Sadly, it was not empathy but a common oppressor (the teachers) that helped to build solidarity among the student body. I hasten to add that the majority of the teachers were humane and caring, indeed many were talented educators, creative and engaging. Many had a sense of humor, which sometimes extended to sadistic hijinks. Most would simply give one a week’s worth of detention for daring to talk out of turn. 

The boot camp atmosphere had a tendency to displace the bullying from school itself onto the school bus or the athletic field. I did see a couple of kids bullied on the school bus, and I am ashamed to say, I was not enough in touch with my courage to intervene. Indeed at one point a couple of the mean boys seemed to notice me, and hurled a couple of insults in my direction. I was anticipating a rough time; but then, without explanation, the bus route was changed, and the bullies simply disappeared—to another bus. 

Thinking back, I now believe that the rambunctious kids were motivated by the draconian atmosphere in the school to express their extra adolescent energies by participating in sports (which was perhaps the intention); or going home and raiding their well-to-do parents well-stocked liquor cabinets (not an option for me—Dad did not drink, he was just a bully); or seeking solace for their lack of social skills in their studies. The last was my favored approach. I did find someone to hang out with in the cafeteria—the food was so unpalatable that I further stunted my growth by not eating lunch for four years, though I ended up being an average height. 

After reviewing the research on bullying in depth, I have reached the conclusion that if kids have enough time for interpersonal drama and conflict, the latter often as practice for out-and-out bullying, then the kids have too much time on their hands. They are not nearly busy enough. They would benefit from more homework and extra-curricular activities. Note, however, that this implies the school has the resources to offer the extra-curricular activities, which is not always the case. Unlike Hollywood films of the depression era with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, many schools do not have the resources or organizational skills to say “Hey, let’s put on a play to raise money for the orphanage!” The kids are already the “orphans.” 

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying

Empathy is the antithesis of bullying. Where empathy lives, bullying is rare. Where empathy lives, bullying has no home. 

In environments where empathy is taught and practiced, bullying does not get traction. Situations in which empathy is valued are situations in which bullying is devalued. One might say exactly the same thing about common courtesy. 

In communities—whether middle school or high school or, for that matter, the US Armed Forces—where common courtesy gives way to disrespect in relationships, bullying expands and spreads; but where common courtesy holds sway in relationships, bullies head for the exit or at least hold their (lack of) peace. 

The point? Empathy and courtesy have in common a careful treatment of boundaries in relationships. What empathy and common courtesy share is recognition and respect for the boundaries between individuals in relationships. 

Another bold statement of the obvious: every bulling remark is a breakdown of courtesy—and of empathy. Every bullying gesture is some kind of a boundary violation. We have to be careful with words like “every,” “all,” or “never,” but in this instance they fit. “Please” and “thank you” and requesting permission are discarded. Pushing, shoving, and devaluing language are front and center. 

Empathy is about moving back and forth across the boundary between self and other in relating to other persons, and doing so in such a way that the boundary is treated with integrity. In contrast, in bullying, the boundary between persons is violated, and, so are the space and integrity of the target of the bullying. In bullying, the boundary between persons is crushed, and so is the emotional integrity of the intended target. 

The response of empathy to bullying is to engage in a process of reestablishing the boundary between persons in such a way that people are left authentic and whole. As we shall see, this is different than being nice or even trying to induce empathy in the bully.

Bullying defined

Before we say any more—and there is a lot more to be said—let us define our terms. We rely on the definition provided by the pioneer of bullying research, Dan Olweus, whose ground breaking studies in his homeland, Sweden (and Norway), have provided a rich source of further research.[iii] Olweus was thorough in his research interviewing some 1,000 children as well as their teachers and parents. He administered projective imaging tests (the “ink blot” Rorschach) to those he had identified as bullies or the targets of bullying. 

Olweus defines bullying as (1) aggression (either verbal or physical abuse) towards a person; (2) that occurs towards the person more than once over time; and (3) is between persons of unequal power (whether physical or social rank or both). [iv] The special thing about bullying is that kids do it especially when the targets seem helpless. Kicking someone when they are down is precisely an identifying feature of bullying. 

According to Olweus, what is most distressing about bullying to its targets is repeated domination to inflect pain. If the aggression happens only one time, it is aggression; and that is not good; but it is not bullying. If the people are of equal power or almost equal power, then the behavior is conflict, drama, or a fight, not bullying. 

The distinction between bullying and drama (conflict) is not always easy to determine, so look at physical size (height and weight), formal rank in school or professional status, and job roles. When someone who has power, whether formal or physical, over another is treating the other in such as way as to violate their dignity, that is a strong candidate for bullying. 

Olweus found that about 5% of the boys in his studies were bullies and about 5% were the targets of bullying, “whipping boys” as Olweus called them. 

What the latter had in common was they were physically weaker and anxious. Olweus studied only boys. The discovery of the “mean girl” phenomena still lay in the future. We now know that among girls, physical strength is less of a factor, and girls  have been known to bully by indirect means. 

When relationships become weaponized

When cruelty relies on what one knows about the other person or can plausibly attribute to them, then it is as if the relationship itself becomes weaponized. Insults, injuries, slights, discourtesies, racial and ethnic slurs, are used to deliver pain and suffering to the target. 

Since the bullying is a boundary violation, the way to reestablish empathy and order (where “order” means common courtesy) is to reestablish the boundary between persons. 

A word of caution upfront. Let’s say one is the adult hall prefect at a high school, and an act of bullying is perpetrated in full view in one’s presence. It is tempting to attempt to induce empathy in the bully by asking: “How would you feel if that (aggression) were done to you?” Ultimately such an intervention may be useful, however, not here. If Jack is calling Jill “Fatso!” it is precisely to make her feel bad; it is likely that he knows it; and that is exactly why he is doing it. 

One says to Jack in a loud voice: “Stop! I don’t like what you are doing.” Or “That behavior is unacceptable. Cut it out!” Jack replies: “But Jill doesn’t mind.” An obvious lie—or maybe Jill is so depressed that, in the moment, she is just numb. One clarifies: “I don’t care how Jill feels—I don’t like it. We do not talk to our fellow students that way. It is disrespectful.” Or words to that effect. 

There are numerous scenarios here. If kids are whispering in the presence of another kid such that the target is supposed to imagine devaluing things are being said, the response is similar: “It is impolite to whisper in the presence of others—stop it—it is discourteous” (said in a loud, authoritative voice). The point is to reestablish the boundary in the relatedness, so that even if people do not want to be empathic, they can at least be courteous. It may sound paradoxical, but that is the most empathic response one can provide. 

If the relationship between the bully and the intended target includes hurling insults, then the bystander establishes a “no fly zone” in one’s presence. The metaphor is telling. Stop the insults from flying around. Shoot them down. 

The bullying approach to relating is de-weaponized—at least in one’s presence. The bully may also be better off, at least indirectly, since he (or she) may be trying to use bullying to regulate his own de-regulated emotions. Think of the intervention as regulating the dis-regulated emotions that the bully is experiencing, but which, if only the bully had some interpersonal skills, he would be able to regulate for himself. While there is no silver bullet here, the intervention itself provides the regulation—in the form of a firm boundary to help the bully contain himself and regain an emotional composure without hurting anyone. 

If we use empathy as a method of data gathering about bullies, we may be surprised to learn that bullies are a diverse group of people:[v]

(1) The stereotypical bully: The stereotype really does capture features of the real world. Think of Bill Sikes (see Figure 5) from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Bill Sikes beats his dog and his girl friend. The relationships of power are one-sided and physical violence is prominent. 

Other examples of classic bullies include Carrie’s schoolmates in the revenge movie of the same name; Nelson in the Simpsons; Malfoy in Harry Potter.

One person who reports in great detail on bullying, Emily Bazelon, calls the stereotypical bullies “thugs in training.”[vi] These bullies rely on superior physical strength. They trip you in the corridor, and steal your lunch. They exemplify the descriptions that bullies do poorly academically (except perhaps for Malfoy, who is all the more sinister for being smart and psychopathic). These bullies habitually cause conflict with others, Bazelon reports, and are 4 times more likely to become criminals. 

Bill Sikes bullying his dog in Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Figure 5: Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist, bullying his dog

According to Olweus, to whom Bazelon is indebted for the definition of bullying, 60% of childhood bullies have at least one conviction from breaking the law; 35% have three or more encounters with the police. These are the kids who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorder such as cruelty to animals, damage to property, casual disrespect in addressing others—along with bullying behavior. 

Many of these kids, stereotypical bullies, feel miserable, and, are attempting to regulate their disregulated emotions by making others suffer. Yet these bullies would not necessarily agree or endorse the judgment that they are unhappy. This is because they are out of touch with their feelings. They would have to be taught how to feel their feelings prior to asking them, hypothetically, how they would feel if something similar was done to them. If they are out of touch with their own feelings, it is likely that they are unable to get in touch with the feeling of others. They are out of touch with the grain of empathy, which we generously attribute to them. 

In most bullies, the bully’s conscience developmentally lags behind his age cohort. That is especially the case with these individuals. Even if they have a capacity for empathy, empathy is not effective in appealing to their conscience. The conscience is stunted or they dismiss its influence. They may have a trace or sense of empathy, even though undeveloped, but it is often misused to increase the suffering of the targets. 

Instead of tactically trying to induce empathy, external surveillance and behavioral incentives are likely to be most effective in reducing their bullying behavior. If they could find a positive role model to admire and imitate—someone who is not a member of a street gang or “bad boy” rap star—then they could get guidance from him or her. Admiration for a role model would allow the person to acquire ideals and ambitions, contributing to their integration into the community. It just might save their lives. 

(2) The clueless bully: The aggression of this kind of bully does plenty of damage. Yet, at another level, these bullies just don’t get it. He may be socially awkward, or even fall on the autistic spectrum. One kid who fell into this group called his targets “stupid.” He hurt the feelings of many, and, made some kids cry; but in the process he became extremely unpopular. If he thought bullying was a way to get ahead with his peers, it didn’t work. His status plummeted. 

Our empathy suggests that the empty wagon makes the most noise, and this kind of bully is one of those. He is not filled with sadism and malice, but definitely lacking social skills. This is small consolation to those whose days he wrecked, yet it does give one pause. This is the kind of bullying for which the adult’s advice to “fight back” makes the most sense. This is not easy to do. Taking “assertiveness training” or “boxing lessons” assumes the target of bullying lacks skill in one of these areas, and has incentive to develop it. 

The target has been selected precisely because this is someone who does not like to fight. The problem is that prior to assertiveness training, and so on, most targets of bullying are unable to act effectively on their own behalf—or assertively. Lack of experience and skill in dealing with hostility as well as out-and-out fear rarely improve the judgment of the person who is the target of bullying. 

The target of bullying ends up being a deer in the headlights when it comes to fighting. When the power equation is out of balance and a hostile environment exists due to physical size or social conditions (e.g., apartheid (“legal” segregation), anti-Semitism, etc.), fighting back can become a suicidal gesture, literally if not emotionally. Rarely does any benefit exist in getting into a back-and-forth with the bully. 

Still, this is precisely the scenario where the possibility of the would-be victim fighting back in self defense makes the most sense. In many bullying scenarios one may need to beat a tactical retreat or call for backup prior to engaging, since the power equation is so unfavorable. However, in this case, the idea of attempting to set one’s own boundaries by pushing back and confronting the clueless bully is potentially useful and self-empowering. No guarantees, but it might work. 

(3) The bully who is also a target: These bullies are vulnerable to peer pressure. They succumb to peer pressure to abuse others. Nor are they good at protecting themselves from bullying. Unlike the first group, who may satisfy criteria for conduct disorders (which used to be called “juvenile delinquency”), these kids do not feel okay about themselves. They do not subscribe to the philosopher Socrates’ maxim that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. These kids experience the worst of both worlds, but it feels less bad to bully than to be bullied. 

These bullies are relatively more in touch with their feelings than the first two groups, and here is a chance that an “empathy induction” might bear fruit. “How would you feel if this were done to you?” These kids are depressed or anxious or both. They experience a conflict between the fear of being bullied and the “easy way out” of succumbing to peer pressure and becoming a bully. 

Instead of intervening with a suspension from school for the bully, punishment has to be supplemented with treatment, rehabilitation, or guidance. With treatment such as counseling or therapy a possibility exists of improving the behavior once the student returns to the school community after the suspension. A continuum of interventions from online training to individual counseling to working with parents can produce positive outcomes. 

(4) The bully who is a “popular” kid: These individuals score high on social skills. They are good at reading the emotions of others. They have empathy skills, though often they lack the basic foundation of authenticity and integrity needed to use the skills to benefit others or build community. They find relating to other people is relatively easy, and they know how to say just the right things to make friends or placate the grown ups. If the reader is expecting me to say that they are secretly insecure or wracked by self-doubt, that is simply not so. On the contrary, these kids are popular and mostly happy with their lives. Often their parents are well off. The kids get gear and stuff. Yet something is amiss and missing. 

Here bullying occurs as a play for power and social status. A pecking hierarchy exists in which the most popular kid gets a minion to perpetrate the “dirty work,” the bullying. This is the Machiavellian moment. It is best for the Prince—I mean, bully—to be loved; but it is essential to be feared. Likewise for the Princess. When perpetrating wrong doing, one should nevertheless be perceived as being gracious and generous. What is the point of having power or status unless one is able to exercise it? 

Boys provide numerous examples of popular kids who can be mean—see McFly in the Back to the Future series of films—but this is where “mean girls” come into their own.[vii]

When relationships get “weaponized,” the discussion cuts across gender lines, though girls have provided the “poster child” for meanness in the popular press. While boys bully both boys and girls, girls mostly bully girls, bringing a sublimated aggression to the act. 

Up until the age of four, girls grab toys, hit, push, play rough, and shout as much as boys do. At some point, social expectations from parents, extended family, biological programming, school teachers, and so on, drive such behavior underground. 

Conforming to community standards, whether helpful or hurtful, about “sugar and spice and everything nice” requires that girls become stealthy in their aggression. Fisticuffs are out. Queen Bees are in. One definition of a “Queen Bee” is a popular girl, who collects various “minions” around her. The minions, in turn, conform to her expectations in behavior, dress, language, and bullying. 

Girls use threats, blackmail, gossip, rumors, attacking reputations, whispering in provocative ways, the silent treatment, or non-verbal gesturing. Opening up in relationships can leave one vulnerable to aggression from those one has trusted. Following the bad example of the grown ups, cliques of kids will “vote someone off the island.” Nor is it progress that, in some subcultures, girls are becoming almost as ready to throw a punch as the boys. 

This is where empathy may be misused to increase the misery of the target of bullying. Social skills enable the would-be bully to “get inside the heads” of their intended targets to inflict the maximum upset. 

One can find many, diverse examples in which the bully takes the perspective of the intended target, thinks about what would be most shaming or hurtful, and goes about implementing it. The bully has a sense of what the target is experiencing through a refined empathic receptivity. 

What one cannot find is an example in which calling someone devaluing names or giving them “the silent treatment” is an example of empathic responsiveness. While the point is controversial, I am calling this out as a breakdown, indeed a “pathology,” of empathic responsiveness. 

The description of empathy is crucial here. For advocates of empathy as a fundamentally “pro social” attitude, simply “getting” someone else’s feelings and perspective and then using this verbally to bully them isn’t really empathy. An empathic individual would recognize and anticipate the potential hurt, and, therefore, would not respond to the other person in a devaluing way.

The empathy lessons developed in this work takes account of the possibility that empathic receptivity, empathic understanding, and empathic interpretation can be misused to hurt people. But empathy without empathic responsiveness falls short of the definition of full functioning empathy. Such an approach fails and breaks down when empathic responsiveness is tested. One does not give back to the other person that person’s own experience in such a way that he recognizes it as his own. Instead one bullies the other. So empathy must be informed by one’s good upbringing and ethics not to misuse empathic responsiveness to hurt others. 

In conclusion, the recommendation and response of empathy to bullying – and in every case – is to set limits, establish boundaries, and get one’s power back in declining to take the bait of provocative gestures. Self-defense is always appropriate is one is the target of aggression, and so is retreating in the face of disproportionate unfavorable odds.

The challenges is to contain and disarming bullying without becoming an even bigger bully than the bully against whom one is struggling. The proposal is NOT to use empathy to get in touch with the bully’s suffering. Many bullies enjoy misbehaving and they get off on the conflict and making others suffer. Rather the recommendation is to use top down, cognitive empathy to put oneself in the place of there other person (the bully) in order to understand what might be motivating him so that one can deflect, defuse, or deescalate (including implementing a tactical retreat). 

Even if the bully is the boss at work or members of the local police force who have a monopoly on violence, the recommendation is still the same: set boundaries, establish limits, and try to defuse the situation. Note well: this is not a suicide mission – one may have to retreat, call for backup, and find other methods of restoring boundaries and integrity such as civil disobedience, finding powerful allies, documenting and escalating to sympathetic authorities in the establishment (if there are any), or seeking a personal solution in another context. The devil – and the empathy – is in the details and in further podcasts in this series on empathy and bullying, additional guidance will be provided. 


Notes

[i] Lou Agosta. (2015). A Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative, and Recovery in Psycho analysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge: 141–194.

[ii] “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” requires telling the truth about what happened and what one made it mean. In asking forgiveness one is required to say for what one is asking forgiveness. I ask: If the perpetrator does not think to ask forgiveness is one obligated to make an unsolicited offer? Forgiveness is a possibility and a recommendation, not an entitlement? 

[iii] Dan Olweus. (1973/1993). Bullying in School: What We Know and What We Can Do. London: Wiley/Blackwell. 

[iv] Ibid. 

[v] Emily Bazelon. (2012). Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. New York: Random House. This chapter relies significantly on Bazelon’s journalistic synthesis of the literature and her incisive interviews; see also James Garbarino and Ellen deLara, (2002), And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence. New York: the Free Press (Simon and Shuster).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Rachel Simmons. (2002). Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. New York: Harvest (Harcourt). 

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project

Narcissism gets a bad rap: On empathy and narcissism

Narcissism has gotten a bad name. “Narcissism” has become a euphemism – a polite description – for a variety of integrity outages and bad behaviors. These extend from antisocial, psychopathic actions through bullying and domestic violence all the way to bipolar spectrum disorders or moral insanity. “Narcissism” has become the label of choice when an individual is behaving like a jerk. 

In the face of narcissism’s bad name, I am not here to give narcissism a good name,  but rather I suggest the matter is more nuanced than that presented in the popular psychology press today. Like Mark Anthony commenting on Julius Caesar in his funeral oration after Caesar’s assassination, I come not to praise narcissism but to bury it – and to differentiate narcissism from more serious forms of bad behavior with which it is confused. This article suggests that if a person behaves in an anti-social, bullying, boundary violating or other problematic way described above, then narcissism is the least of the worries. 

Whip-sawed as the narcissist is between arrogant grandiosity and vulnerable idealization, the authentic narcissist will reliably provide a positive developmental response to empathy. However, if repeatedly providing empathy to the alleged narcissist just gets you more manipulations, bullying, integrity outages, and broken agreements, then you may really be dealing with an anti-social person and personality, moral insanity, psychopathy, or undefined lack of integrity, in which case, empathy will not work. Neither will compassion. Limit setting is the order of the day. Fill out the police report and get the order of protection. 

The truth of narcissism is that people need and use other people to regulate their emotions. When Elvis sang “I wanna be – your teddy bear” (Elvis Presley, that is), he was bearing witness to the truth that we use other people to sooth our distressed selves, provide emotional calming when we are upset, and give us the empathy we need to fell good about ourselves. 

“I wanna be your teddy bear” means “I wanna give you the empathy, recognition, acknowledge that you need to feel good about yourself.” If the other person subsequently does not respond to you as a whole person, then that is surely a disappointment but the shortcoming is not necessarily in anything you did. The other person did not keep their commitment. 

People want people who respond to them as a whole person. People want people who appreciate who they are as a possibility. People need that sort of thing. People are vulnerable to the promise of such satisfaction because it feels good when it actually shows up.  

Of course, the big ifs contained in such a proposal are that the other person is capable of providing such empathy; the other person is reciprocally acknowledged as being someone from whom empathy is worth receiving, and then the other actually behaves in a way that is understanding and receptive. 

If the other person expresses hostility, withholds acknowledgement, does not honor his or her word, perpetrates micro aggressions (“narcissistic slights”), manipulates in subtle and overt ways, or behaves in a controlling or dominating way, behaves like a bully, then is that narcissism? It might be – but it might also be a lack of integrity (dishonesty), anti-social personality behavior, criminality, boundary violations, and abuse. It might or might not be narcissism – but it is definitely behaving like a jerk [just to use a neutral, non vulgar term].

The person who survives such an encounter or relationship with the alleged psychopath in narcissistic sheep’s clothing then has two problems. The first problem is that the individual has been deceived, manipulated, or cheated. The second problem is that he or she blames himself. 

Narcissists are supposed to be excessively self-involved, self-centered, self indulgent. To succeed in life, most people need to have a dose of healthy self confidence. By a show of hands, who reading this article lacks a strong sense of self-interest? Get some help with that. Okay – that’s narcissism, but not pathological narcissism.

When I read the latest denunciation of narcissism in the pop psychology magazine, I wonder where are all of these people who are not self-involved, self-centered, self-interested, looking out for “number one”? 

I go to social media where self-expression is trending. My take-away? Freedom of speech and self expression are flourishing – no one is listening! Is such lack of listening narcissism? Perhaps. But more likely is not lack of listening rather just lack of listening? Lack of commitment of expanding listening skills, inclusiveness, and lack of community?

So suppose the popular press is all mixed up about narcissism. What does the disentangling of this mess look like? 

People who are described as narcissists have [some] people skills. Even if one’s empathy is incomplete and defective at times, most people crave an empathic response and are able to provide one, at least on a good day. The challenge is that the narcissist’s empathy breaks down in emotional contagion, conformity, lack of perspective taking, and messages getting lost in translation. 

Most people want to look good and avoid looking bad, and narcissists are especially prone to doing that. Most people are committed to being right and, while we theoretically acknowledge we might be wrong, few people actually behave that way. Most behave like “know it alls,” especially in areas about which they literally know nothing. Narcissists are especially prone to that too. So we are all narcissists now? 

The differentiator is that the narcissist ends up feeling like a fake, experiencing an empty (not melancholic) depression, even in the face of authentic accomplishments.

Even when the narcissist actually performs and wins the gold ring, he (or she) still feels like a fake. There is a kind of empty depression, lack of energy, lack of vitality. This lack of aliveness may cause the narcissist arrogant, cold, haughty withdrawal or acting out using substances of abuse or sexual misadventures. In spite of actual accomplishments, the narcissist may feel that life is passing him by. A pervasive sense of lack of aliveness, vitality, or apathy dominates the narcissist’s emotional life. 

The one thing that narcissism is not confused with is autism spectrum disorders. The narcissistic has access to empathy, values it, “gets” it, craves it, even if the narcissist’s empathy is distorted and incomplete. I speculate that the psychopath is good at faking empathy, like an empathy parrot, prior to his perpetrations, whereas the narcissist is just not very good at it. He may seem to be faking empathy, but that is his clumsy effort to get it right, which is not working. 

It seems as though the narcissist has an exaggerated self worth and, if in a position of authority, has the power to enforce his or her distorted view on others. The narcissist shares his suffering in a bad way by causing pain and suffering to the people in his environment. When such a person has authority, the result indeed can be dysfunction behavior, which is hard to distinguish from bullying. 

As with most forms of bad behavior, the optimal first response is to set a limit to the bad behavior by pushing back, calling it out, expressing concern, or using humor to deflect: such behavior (bullying, bad language, physical or financial abuse,  etc.) is unacceptable. “That doesn’t work for me.” “Stop it.” Without establishing a context of safety and security, we do not have a set up for success in which empathy can make a difference. Few people are in a position to up and quit their job. No easy answers here. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, then document, call for backup, and escalate to the authorities, including a call to 911 or a police report as applicable. 

At this point, the narcissist may get the idea, “Hey maybe I need someone to talk to – professionally.” 

While every case is different, no one size fits all, and all the usual disclaimers apply, the intervention with the narcissist often consists in a conversation for possibility. Talk to the person. Give him or her a good listening, and she what shows up. The person’s experiences as a child of tender age show deficiencies in the areas of empathic response, opportunities for emotional regulation, or distress tolerance. This is no excuse for bad behavior; never will be; however, it can point to transformation if the person is open and willing. 

The narcissistic encapsulates his true self into a cocoon, hiding behind a fake self, in order to preserve the hope of aliveness and vitality if an empathic environment were ever to show up. If, in a context of safety for all, the narcissist is encouraged to lay back and to take a look at the precursors, triggers, and behaviors that he experiences as narcissistic insults and injuries causing him to break down or act out, then something starts to shift. They did not get enough empathy, did not get feedback on their own empathic responses (or lack thereof), got empathy but the responses were distorted or flat out crazy (causing the above-cited retreat into the emotional cocoon). 

If the intervention gets off to a good start and the narcissist has a therapeutic response – that is, he feels better and stabilizes – then the work consists of trying to provide empathy, restoring understanding when empathy breaks down, restoring communication when communications break down, and restarting the development of positive personality traits such as empathy, humor, creativity that got lost in the narcissist’s deficient environment coming up. 

The bottom line? Like most human beings, those with significant narcissistic tendencies and behaviors are susceptible of improvement. Sometimes there is no way to know for sure except to attempt the intervention in a context of safety and security. Unlike more serious forms of bad behavior exemplified by anti-social personality disorder, significant bullying, or boundary violating behaviors in which people get hurt, many narcissists are sufficiently in touch with their feelings and cravings for empathy that they will respond positively to an intervention in a context of safety and empathy. 

Bibliography

Heinz Kohut, (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press. 

Lou Agosta and Alex Zonis (Illustrator), (2020). Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide. Chicago: Two Pears Press.

Go to all A Rumor of Empathy podcast(s) by Lou Agosta on Audible by clicking here: [https://www.audible.com/pd/A-Rumor-of-Empathy-Podcast/B08K58LM19]

Okay, I have read enough. I want to get Empathy: A Lazy Person’s Guide, a light-hearted look at empathy, containing some two dozen illustrations by artist Alex Zonis and including the one minute empathy training plus numerous tips and techniques for taking your empathy to the next level: click here (https://tinyurl.com/y8mof57f)

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Spike in Domestic Violence (DV) Accompanies Pandemic Shelter-at-Home

The conversation on Spotify (above) is different content – a conversation, not the book review in line below – so to get the complete picture, the reader/listener will want to plan on engaging with both contributions. However, both are significant contributions to what to do about the confronting matter of intimate partner violence (domestic violence) in our communities. 

This is a republishing with light editing of a book review from May 19, 2019 on Rachel Louise Snyder’s important work on domestic violence (DV). Difficult situations are further breaking down and becoming intolerable under the stresses of the pandemic. 

The short version? Actionable recommendations include the Danger Assessment and the Fatality Review Board (FRB). Police and DV interveners are now being trained to perform a Danger Assessment (Jacquelyn Campbell’s innovation). For example, when the perpetrator strangles the would-be survivor that indicates an increasing risk of homicide. Strangulation often is the next to last abuse by a perpetrator before a homicide. The correlation is strong, very strong. Strangulation is a much more significant marker than, say, a punch or kick that the abuser will escalate to lethal violence. Strangulation dramatically increases the chances of domestic violence homicide (p. 66). No easy answers here, but the details follow on how to interrupt the unfolding tragedy. 

The title of Rachel Louise Snyder’s eye-opening, powerful, page-turner of a book, No Visible Bruises, refers to strangulation [No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019: 309 pp, $28(US)].

Some sixty percent of domestic violence (DV) victims are strangled at some point during an abusive relationship (p. 65).  Turns out that only some 15% of the victims

Cover Art: No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder - a picture of cracked plaster - not only of an enraged fist but of a damaged, fragmented self (?)

Cover Art: No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder – a picture of cracked plaster – not only of an enraged fist but of a damaged, fragmented self

in one study had injuries visible enough to photograph for the police report (p. 66).

Most strangulation injuries are internal – hence, the title. 

Since 2012 when I completed the 40-hour training in Understanding Domestic Violence (DV) at the community organization ApnaGhar, several important innovations have occurred. Snyder presents the reader with these, including the distinctions of (1) a Fatality Review Board for Domestic Violence; (2) initiatives to provide treatment for the abusers; (3) the Danger Assessment (which leads back to the role of strangulation).

Lack of oxygen to the brain can cause micro-strokes, vision and hearing problems, seizures, ringing ears, memory loss, headaches, blacking out, traumatic brain injury (TBI) (p. 69). As the victim in near death due to strangulation – but so far there would only be red marks around the neck – the nerves in the brain stem lose control over sphincter muscles. So the urination and defecation were not mere signs of fear. They were evidence that the victim was near death (p. 67).  

Such victims have poor recall of the event. They may not even be aware that they lost consciousness. In being incoherent in her talk, the victim is not being difficult or drunk. The victim is fighting the consequences of a life-threatening event and may not know it at the moment. Here police training will make a difference. 

Even medical professionals may overlook the signs of serious injury by strangulation unless they are altered to the circumstance of the visit to the emergency room. Fact: DV victims are NOT routinely screened for strangulation or brain injury in the emergency room. They are discharged without CT scans or MRIs. The assaults and injuries are not formalized and abusers are prosecuted under lesser charges, say, misdemeanors rather than felonies.

“What researchers have learned from combat soldiers and football players and car accident victims is only now making its way into the domestic violence community: that the poor recall, the recanting, the changing details, along with other markers, like anxiety, hypervigilance, and headaches, can all be signs of TBI” (p. 70).

Now the ultimate confronting fact: Strangulation often is the next to last abuse by a perpetrator before a homicide. The correlation is strong, very strong. Strangulation is a much more significant marker than, say, a punch or kick that the abuser will escalate to lethal violence. Strangulation dramatically increases the chances of domestic violence homicide (p. 66).

This leads directly to an important innovation in the struggle against DV, the Danger Assessment. Jacquelyn Campbell has quantified the Danger Assessment, which is especially effective when combined with a timeline of incident. In addition, to strangulation high risk factors in any combination that portend a potential homicide include: gun ownership, substance abuse, extreme jealousy, threats to kill, forced sex, isolation from friends and family, a child from a different biological parent in the home, an abuser’s threat of suicide or violence during pregnancy, threats to children, destruction of property, and a victim’s attempt to leave anytime within the prior year. Chronic unemployment was the sole economic factor (p. 65). None of these cause DV; but they make a bad situation worse – much worse – and add to the risk of a fatal outcome.

You can see where this is going. First responders, police, medical professionals, family, friends need to ask the tough questions – perform the assessment and have a safety plan ready to implement to get the potential victim out of immediate danger. Hence, the need for Snyder’s important book and its hard-hitting writing and reporting to be better known at all levels of the community.

Snyder reports on a second important innovation in the struggle against DV: the Fatality Review Board (FRB) for DV Homicide. Air travel has become significantly safer thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration commitment to investigate independently every airplane crash. The idea is to find out what sequence of things went wrong without finger pointing. No blame, no shame. The idea is to perform an evidence-based assessment of all aspects of the system – human, administrative, mechanical, procedural.

In a breakdown big enough to cause loss of life, multiple errors, anomalies, and exceptions are likely to have occurred in the system. Rarely is there is single cause of a disaster big enough to cause loss of life. “If systems were more efficient, people less siloed in their offices and tasks, maybe we could reduce the intimate partner homicide rate in the same way the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] had made aviation so much safer” (p. 85). The Fatality Review Board is born.

For example, the authorities knew the perpetrator. They had visited the home multiple times. The abuser was released from detention without notifying the potential victim. An order of protection was denied due to a paperwork error, or, if granted, the police could not read the raggedy document that the woman was required to have on her person at all times. The prosecutor was unaware of a parallel complaint by the victim’s mother because it was filed in the same docket and dismissed when the victim recanted in the hope of placating the abuser and saving her own life.

For example, multiple touch points occur at which victims and perpetrators interact with social services, healthcare facilities, community organizations, the veteran’s administration, law enforcement, and the clergy. The FRB is tasked with determining how the fatal outcome could have been avoided.

Chase down all the accidental judgments, missed cues, and blind spots. Talk to everyone able to talk. Gather all the data. Someone knew something, had actionable information that was not acted upon. Formulate recommendations to avoid repeating the mistakes.

That means building formal lines of permissioned communication between administrative siloes. For example, there as a restraining order against the abuser but it was in another state and the local authorities did not know about it.

In the age of the Internet there needs to be a central clearing database that preserves such data. Or, for instance, the shooter had no criminal record, but the victim had expressed fear for her life to the local pastor at church based on his statements. Who can he (or she) call? Who can intervene with a safety plan?

No one single factor can be singled out as causing the fatality; instead a series of relatively small mistakes, missed opportunities, and failed communications. The FRB looks for points where system actors could have intervened and didn’t or could have intervened differently (p. 86). Today more than forty states now have fatality review teams. Though the violence continues, this is progress.

Snyder makes an important contribution in clarifying why the victim does not run leave the abuser and the abusive relationship. Why does she return to the abuser, or recant her testimony in the police report, frustrating the attempt of the prosecution to get a conviction?

Though every situation is unique, Snyder builds a compelling narrative that often the victim is trying to save her own life. The system works much slower than a determined abuser, and the victim knows it. In short, the abuser knows how to work the system; and all-too-often the victim cannot rely on the system to protect her when she most needs protection. In addition, her judgment may be impaired due to being called every name in the book and slapped, punched, or strangled.  

As the abuser senses he is losing power and the victim is getting ready to leave, the risk of violence to regain control escalates. The abuser is strangling her, escalating to deadly violence, and yet he is charged with a misdemeanor. He will be out on $500 bail in 24 hours – buying a gun and gasoline to burn down the house after killing her and the children. In fear for her life, the victim is makes up a story about love to try to placate the abuser – she is recanting to try to buy time – while she accumulates enough cash or school credits to escape and have a life. The victim recants her narrative in the police report and says she loves him because she wants to live.

A third major strong point of Snyder’s work is her report on interventions available for abusers. Incarcerating an abuser to protect the community is necessary. But that does not mean the abuser does not need treatment. He does. Absent treatment, jail just makes the abuser worse. The entire middle section of the book is devoted to the dynamics of perpetrator treatment.

At another level I found Snyder’s deep insight to be an extension of Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion circa 1959 that woman is not a mere womb. The enlightened man adds to de Beauvoir’s statement (which is notquoted by Snyder): man is not mere testosterone. In both cases, biology is important, but biology is not destiny. I repeat: biology is not destiny. Some men have not been properly socialized and need to get in touch with and transform their inner uncivilized cave man.

The recovery programs in jails on which Snyder reports sound rather like “boot camp” to me. The emphasis is on “tough love.” This is a function of the close association, if not identification, of masculinity with violence.

 In some communities, violence is how masculinity gets expressed. This extends from “big boys don’t cry” and if he hits you, hit him back all the way to a misogynistic gangster mentality that uses devaluing language to describe woman as basically existing for the sadistic sexual satisfaction of men. It may also be common (and justified!?) in a military context. As near as I can figure – and this is an oversimplification – the treatment groups are given lessons in cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapy: skills in emotional regulation, distress tolerance, self-soothing, and interpersonal negotiations.   

For those perpetrators, not incarcerated or suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (along with their victims), but rather brought up in relative privilege or affluence, Snyder has less to say. While the poverty, crime, and substance abuse of the inner city can intensify DV, DV is an equal opportunity plague, occurring in affluent neighborhoods too. Only here we are dealing with “snakes in suits” – think: Harvey Weinstein or Bill Crosby (“date rape” drugs) [granted, these individuals were sexual predators, not necessarily DV perpetrators]; perpetrators who are quite sophisticated in using the system to isolate and disempower their victims financially, legally, emotionally as well as physically (violently). This is an incompleteness rather than a flaw in an otherwise compressive study. Another chapter – or book – may usefully be written about DV scenarios among the rich and famous – or at least affluent. DV lives there too.

On a personal note, when I started reading this book, I knew it was not for the faint of heart. I said to myself: “Ouch! This is like the ‘ketchup scene’ in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” At the end of Hamlet, the entire family gets killed. To deal with something as disturbing (and hope inspiring) as Snyder’s book, I had to go to Shakespeare. 

Indeed Hamlet begins with domestic violence. Hamlet’s uncle kills his own brother, Hamlet’s father, to seize the throne by marrying Hamlet’s mother. The latter is not technically DV, but a boundary violation. (This is the original Game of Thrones if there ever was one.) In turn, Hamlet perpetuates verbal and emotional abuse, whether fake insanity or genuine narcissistic rage, against his fiancé, Ophelia. Hurt people, hurt people. Sensitive soul that Ophelia is, she commits suicide. Ophelia’s brother then seeks revenge. Hamlet kills her brother as the brother simultaneously kills Hamlet with a rapier tipped with a deadly poison. The mother drinks the poisoned goblet, intended for Hamlet, and the uncle is run through by Hamlet – also with the poisoned rapier.  The point? 

Horatio’s provides a summary at the backend of Hamlet which also forms a review of Snyder’s work: “So shall you hear – Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts – Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, – Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, – And, in this upshot, purposes mistook, – Fall’n on the inventor’s heads. All this can I truly deliver.” Just so.

All too often the events seemed to me to unfold like a Greek tragedy – or in this case a Shakespearian one. You already know the outcome. The suspense is enormous. You want to jump up on the stage and shout, “Don’t open the door – therein lies perdition!” But everything the actors do to try to avoid the tragic outcome seems to advance the action step-by-step in the direction of its fulfillment.

Snyder provides a compelling narrative – and actionable interventions – on how to interrupt the seeming inevitability of a tragic final scene and create the possibility of survival and even, dare one hope, flourishing.

Further Reading

Wilson, K. J. (1996 [2006]). When Violence Begins at Home: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Ending Domestic Abuse, 2ndEdition. Alameda, CA: Hunter House (Publishers Group West).

Websdale, Neil. (1999). Understanding Domestic Homicide. Northeastern University Press.

Campbell, Jacquelyn et al. (2003). “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multisite Case Control Study. American Journal of Public Health93, no. 7 (July 2003).

Agosta, Lou. (2012). A Rumor of Empathy at Apna Ghar, the Videohttps://tinyurl.com/y4yolree [on camera interview with Serena Low, former executive director of Apna Ghar about the struggle against DV]

Agosta, Lou. (2015). Chapter Four: Treatment of Domestic Violence inA Rumor of Empathy: Resistance, Narrative and Recovery in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project