In clinical practice, I often had to deal with bullying, though mainly the more “mature” variety as seen with teen-agers. Younger children, however, would occasionally present to a counselor in her office, plaintively asking, “Why don’t they like me?” The counselor would first offer some reassurance and then begin to offer coaching on basic social deportment, how to behave in a less obnoxious manner, not rudely and intrusively. The young bully who actually sought help of this sort, who could ask the question, “Why don’t they like me?” was demonstrating that he had the maturity to be aware of the problem and therefore was probably amenable to being helped. The real problem lay with those children who could not imagine the possibility that there was anything wrong with their behavior and then lash out at those who appeared to not like him.
Self-awareness is an essential dimension to the bullying issue. Most children who get to the playground age in public schools already have social antennae so that they are amenable to feedback from the social context in which they find themselves. They even will feel a sense of shame if they breach the unwritten rules of the social contract and then amend their ways in an effort to fit in. Some, however, will not have internalized a sense of healthy shame and will brazenly stomp on social convention and find themselves frequently in trouble with the principal and eventually in a residential treatment facility. Some will not be amenable to the rules even then and will grow into adulthood and begin to “rock n roll” with their anti-social attitude and behavior until they find some conflict-habituated place in the social structure. Some, perhaps, will even become successful businessmen and/or politicians and maybe even find themselves as the leader of their country.
This “self-awareness” is the gift of the neuro-cortex which gives us the Shakespearean, “pauser reason,” a filter with which we check our impulses. For example, if one encounters a belligerent bully as an adult he will usually know that he cannot respond with bullying behavior without risking severe conflict. This makes me think of an old Jim Croce tune from the 1970’s, “You don’t tug on superman’s cape/ You don’t spit into the wind/You don’t pull the mask of the old lone ranger,/And you don’t mess around with Jim.” If you remember the famous tune, you recall that a man wandered into town who did not regard the admonishment, “You don’t mess around with Jim.”
Yes, I’m curious what is gonna happen this Tuesday in Singapore.