Why Bullying Ourselves (& Others) Never Works To Change Behavior

We live in a culture that glorifies bullies, and we seem to think bullying will make us better people. But we are deluded. Bullying never works to make anyone a better person. Let’s look at the reality of this distorted obsession with bullying in the name of making things better.

Bullying In The Home & School

Parents bully their children into suppressing their emotions, buying into patterns of control, and trying to force them into molds that don’t fit, dampening their effervescence, throwing buckets of water on the spark inside rather than igniting it with kindling and tending the inner fire kids are born with. Parents do this in the name of discipline, rigor, maximizing intellect and talent, instilling good behavior, preventing children from being “sissies,” and protecting their children from what they perceive as harm in the world. Children learn this behavior from us, their parents. They see someone in the family—the one with the most physical or psychological power—bully others in the family or in the workplace or in the church. Because we tell them so, they come to believe we’re bullying them for their own good—to be all that you can be, to toughen them up, to make them smarter, to help them win at the game of life, to be the best, to achieve greatness, to get the grade, the girl, the award, the promotion, the deal. This becomes a love reversal. Children come to associate bullying with care and love, but it’s not. It’s control and domination, a power play, plain and simple.

Because they are bullied at home, kids bully each other on the schoolyard, recreating the power trips they witness at home. Teachers and parents and policy makers bully kids into staying inside in school when the air is crisp and the sun is shining and children want to be climbing trees, all in the name of education and raising smart children. But are these children happy? Do they have healthy bodies, healthy values, healthy friendships, healthy families and communities?

Bullying in Health Care

Then we wonder why these kids grow up to behave in ways that are self-destructive. They wind up on the doorsteps of doctors or nutritionists or health coaches, who often bully patients for being overweight or overly sedative or noncompliant or addicted to things that aren’t good for them, all in the name of good medicine. Or they wind up in a psychologist’s office or in inpatient hospitalization or rehab, where they get shamed and bullied for their eating disorders, their addictions, and their suicidal ideation, as if willpower is enough to change self-destructive behavior and their lack of it belies an inherent weakness. If only they had more self control and could just stop doing the bad thing, they’d finally be good, right?

Wrong. Bullying self-destructive parts not only fails to end the harmful behavior. It actually may amplify it.

Bullying In Religion & Spirituality

It doesn’t just exist in the home, in school, or in health care. Think about how people go to the church or the temple, where priests and ministers and rabbis preach hellfire and damnation, attempting to bully people into “doing the right thing” in the name of the scriptures, all while they bully themselves for being human and therefore imperfect and unGodly. If they’re not the religious type, they may identify with New Age spirituality, or they might choose spiritual teachers who bully them into hating and attempting to transcend their worldly egos, seeking enlightenment instead. But really the spiritual teacher is on one giant ego trip, judging himself as superior to his students and using his incisive, penetrating, boundary-violating bullying techniques to shame, belittle and humiliate his students into being better humans . . . or so he says, while attacking his vulnerable students, who line up to be bullied because they think it will wake them up. Because bullying makes us better people, right? Isn’t that what a sports coach or a military general does? Don’t they bully you into being the best sports star or soldier you can possibly be? Isn’t that good for you?

No. But we’ll get to why in a moment.

Polarizing Good Vs. Bad

Let’s look at where this mindset gets us.  We divide into “us” versus “them”—Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Jews and Palestinians, the righteous and the terrorists, the activists and the ones they hate, the white supremacists and the ones they hate, the cops and the robbers, the good guys and the bad guys, as if all we need to do is rid the world of those pesky bad guys.

But wait? Why don’t the good guys always look like the good guys when they do “good guy” things? We really looked like the good guys during World War II, didn’t we, defeating those evil Nazis and putting them in their place. But have we really landed on the side of righteousness in a war since then? The Cold War was a stalemate, and now what have we created in the world? Why did we enter into a war in the Middle East, allegedly as the good guys, and why don’t we look so good right now? Sure, we need soldiers and police to keep the peace, and we rationalize that it’s okay for soldiers and law enforcement to rough up and bully people they think are criminals. But what about the civil rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay? What about cops who make mistakes and bully or murder people who aren’t criminals? Who’s the good guy and the bad guy when a cop murders an innocent black woman in her own home?

We go to the court to figure it out—who is the good guy here? Who is the bad guy? The DA bullies the one on the witness stand. The defense attorney bullies the witnesses. The jury makes the call, and then we throw people in prison where they bully each other and get bullied by prison guards, all in the name of justice, right? Now we feel good. We’ve parceled out the good guys from the bad guys and locked up the monsters, freeing society from the burden of all those bad guys. But what about all those people we prove decades later were actually innocent? Who’s the bad guy now?

Bullying The World

This bullying, polarizing, good guy vs. bad guy way of perceiving the world has so infiltrated our consciousness that white Europeans thought they had a right to bully the world, turning the entire planet into an empire and colonizing land they didn’t own, murdering entire races in the name of ridding the world of savages and replacing their peaceful, earth-based, indigenous ways with white people religions and “democracy.” We celebrate the holidays of our famous colonizers and do little to express remorse or regret for the people and the land we stole from, enslaved, and murdered. No wonder the ones we’ve been bullying are angry. Don’t they have a right to be livid, when we haven’t even expressed remorse or regret, much less made attempts to make amends for something we can never make right?

Now I am a citizen of a country whose foreign policy bullies the world, thinking it’s entitled to push around every other country, so it makes sense we elected a global bully into our most powerful political office. We feel shocked that our president tweets bullying messages to women, immigrants, the media, other political leaders, celebrities, whistleblowers, and pretty much anyone who says something he doesn’t like, with little respect for the gravity of the office. We have so normalized bullying that half the country thought it was a good idea to put a bully in office, probably hoping that he would bully the presiding “business as usual” progressives into better behavior, since nobody can disagree that the military-industrial-pharmaceutical-educational-health care complex is bullying the world with its financial and political interests. There are no real good guys in Washington, it seems. Anyone who might start out with pure motives realizes you get nowhere in Washington unless you’re willing to make compromises that equate to selling your soul for reelection.

If we believe that bullying makes the world a better place, it makes sense that the majority of people in the US would believe that the most powerful bully we can elect into office would help us get out of the mess the righteous progressives have made of the lives of many Americans. After all, if bullying makes things better, then we should be living in utopia by now, right? May the most powerful bully win, right?

And we call this normal . . .

Bullying Starts Within

Keep in mind that I’m not trying to bully the bullying.  I’m trying to turn our attention back to where it starts. The bullying begins inside ourselves. Think about it. We so internalize the bully program we’re spoon fed from the time we’re infants that we wind up anchoring an inner bully, bullying ourselves with dieting and “self-help” (i.e. the war on the self), berating and shaming ourselves when we fail to keep our New Years Resolutions or become instantly cured, enlightened, thin, gorgeous, brilliant, and, like the fiction of Mary Poppins “practically perfect in every way.”

As Internal Family Systems (IFS) founder and family therapist Dick Schwartz teaches, we are all a multiplicity of parts, and the truth of the matter is that some of our parts engage in what we judge as self-destructive or other-destructive behaviors. (In IFS lingo, these parts are “firefighters.” Learn more about what that means here.) We have other parts that don’t like the firefighters. They’re usually “managers,” who try to ward off danger, and some of those managers are bullies, like the inner critic or the drill sergeant general. The managers are usually the parts that make New Years Resolutions. The firefighters are the parts that break them. Thus the inner war, as parts polarize against each other inside of us. But does it work? Does bullying yourself make you transform your behavior? If so, it doesn’t usually work permanently. Just think of how you might have bullied yourself into starving yourself with dieting or abstaining from an addiction or going to the gym or meditating daily or dutifully ticking everything off your to do list. But did the good behaviors stick? Usually they don’t . . . not unless you heal the parts those bullying or misbehaving managers and firefighters are doing their darnedest to protect.

Why isn’t willpower alone enough to change behavior? Because both the managers and the firefighters are trying to protect you from intense feelings and beliefs carried by tender, vulnerable inner children that IFS calls “exiles.” Only when we engage in a kind of soul retrieval, unburdening these intolerable feelings of unworthiness, shame, worthlessness, unlovability, hopelessness, and despair, can permanent transformation take hold. When we witness the pain those exiles feel and allow our Inner Pilot Lights (or Self) to take over as the caregivers of these tender little ones, the extreme behaviors of the firefighters can finally relax, and the bullies can take a break from their exhausting attempts to make us better people. With the managers and firefighters laying down their inner swords, inner peace can replace the inner war. Only then can real change happen. Only then is outer peace a possibility.

What Works Better Than Bullying?

How do we do this? It’s simple—and it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Start by getting curious about the parts that bully yourself and others, and get curious about the firefighters they bully. Put your attention on them and get to know them. See if you can find out why they’re doing what they’re doing. How do they think they’re trying to help you? What are they afraid would happen if they stopped doing their jobs? How old were they when they got their jobs? How old do they think you are? How do they feel about the jobs? If they didn’t have to do these extreme jobs, what jobs would they rather have? If it’s possible for YOU (your Self, your inner Divine, your perfect inner parents/healer/therapist/doctor/spiritual teacher) to heal the parts they protect, would they be willing to back down and let you take over? What if they actually believed that YOU could do a better job taking care of those tender inner children than they could? What if you weren’t afraid of the feelings and beliefs those children carry? What might be possible then?

Once they reveal to you why they engage in their extreme roles, see if any upswelling of tenderness or compassion arises. Notice how you feel towards these parts. How do they respond to your genuine curiosity, compassion, and tenderness? Is there a softening?

You might think having compassion for parts that do extreme things is too soft. Isn’t it better to be a warrior when it comes to naughty parts? Thinking so would be to misunderstand the qualities of the Divine within. The part that’s not a part is not only soft, tender, gentle, compassionate, and calm. It can have a fierce face that can cut through everything that is not love with the precision, clarity, courage, and incisiveness of the scalpel of truth, and this loving ferocity can stand up for your own wounded inner children like a Mama Bear protects her children. In doing so, your inner family learns to trust that YOU, rather than your managers and firefighters, have got their back. Your Self has all the warrior you might need to permanently transform behavior and make you ripe for maximizing your true potential—free of bullying.

A New Consciousness Is Arising

The time for bullying has ended. I know it might trigger your New Age bullshit meter, but what if it’s possible that an age of radical but also fierce compassion for our own and each other’s parts is dawning? Only when we open our hearts and grow in compassion for ourselves and others can we lay down our inner and outer arms.  I know it sounds cliché, but it’s true. All you need is love—in both its tender and fierce forms. As the students of IFS founder Dick Schwartz say, “TSW.” (This shit works.) Who knew that the best way to optimize our greatest potential and relax the parts that engage in destructive behaviors was to love them? Love heals. Self-compassion and self-acceptance are the medicine that not only heals ourselves; it leads to inner peace, which allows us to stop bullying others, which leads to outer peace. May there finally, finally be peace in our hearts and on our planet.

If you’d like to hang out in a Healing Soul Tribe of people who are loving our own and each other’s parts, we are gathering, first online and then in circles of healing. We realize that this program is currently a luxury good, and we’re in the midst of trying to make this mission scalable and affordable to marginalized communities.  We have two philanthropists funding our efforts and several celebrity backers as well, but we’re still in the midst of filing for non-profit status and getting the legalities ready—so stay tuned. For now, if you are on a journey to heal illness, injury or trauma, or if you’re a healer hoping to offer your gifts, if you can afford to join us and be part of this movement to bring healing, self-compassion, and Sacred Medicine to the mainstream:

Join The Healing Soul Tribe here.

While we wait the two years until Sacred Medicine is released, I’m previewing what I’ve learned with this online community and preparing to train group leaders to scale this healing effort. This month, we’re focusing on Internal Family Systems (IFS) and next month we’ll be learning the hands on healing method a laboratory researcher has been using to reliably cure cancer in mice (and anecdotally to cure cancer in humans). If you want to make sure you get access to what we’re previewing, join us.

Loving all of our parts,

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