Shame is often at the heart of bullying

Help kids develop resiliency to bullying and shame, creating a safer environment for all.

If you’re looking for ways to help kids and adults address issues of bullying, don’t overlook the importance of developing emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence includes developing self-awareness and an increased ability to notice and navigate our thoughts and emotions. And according to researcher, educator and author Brené Brown, a core emotion that is linked to issues of bullying is shame.

Shame is universal and it’s something we all experience but rarely, if ever, talk about. The silence around shame helps it flourish and allows it to be used as a weapon to hurt ourselves and others. When young people, and adults, are targets of hurtful, cruel, bullying behaviors it often triggers feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy and shame. Interestingly, it’s not just the targets or victims of bullying who experience these painful feelings. The person doing the bullying is likely to be acting aggressively to cover up similar feelings that they harbor within themselves.

Shame is connected to the intensely painful experience of believing that we are flawed and unworthy of love, acceptance and belonging. These feelings often lead to fear, blame, disconnection and isolation.  When we unconsciously feel shame, we may respond by shutting down, acting out or attacking others.

Shame diminishes our capacity to feel empathy – and it is empathy that opens our minds and hearts to the kind of courage, connection and compassion required to address issues of bullying in meaningful ways. Here are additional tips and tools that link Brené Brown’s work to issues of bullying, bias and harassment:

  • Feelings of shame may lead youth, and adults, who are targets of bullying to believe that it’s their fault or that they deserve to be treated badly. They may decide not to tell anyone or ask for support because shame often breeds silence and secrecy. We can reach out to young people and provide safe, warm, non-judgmental spaces for them to talk about their feelings and experiences.
  • The person engaging in bullying behaviors may also feel so much emotional pain and shame that they “protect themselves” by fighting or acting aggressively toward others. While it’s important to hold kids accountable for their hurtful behaviors, resist the temptation to label them as “bullies.”  Reach out with love, understanding and compassion and try to understand the deeper issues impacting them.
  • When we witness someone else being bullied and we do nothing, we may feel shame.  Shame often leads to feelings of fear and insecurity which present barriers to responding from our core values and beliefs. Consequently, we may feel that we are letting ourselves and others down. The first step is to notice and name these feelings of shame so that we can tap the compassion and courage required to stand up and speak out on behalf of ourselves and others. Provide opportunities for young people to talk about when they’ve been able to step in and speak out and when they have not. Give young people opportunities to practice using their voices so that they can move from being silent bystanders to empowered allies.
  • Issues of bullying, bias and harassment are often linked to human differences. Our shame may be triggered when we feel uncomfortable or can’t relate to someone who is different than us.  We may also begin to believe the messages that say we are “less than” because of a difference we have. Talk about human differences and help young people learn about differences in healthy ways. Help them learn to respect and appreciate their own identities as well as the identities and realities of people different than themselves.
  • Our feelings of shame are fueled by a steady media diet of toxic cultural messages that dictate expectations about who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to look and act. Adults have a responsibility to interrupt what Brown calls a “cruelty crisis” and model healthier, more respectful behaviors.  Help young people and adults develop critical awareness about media and other messages that are designed to trigger shame and make us feel inadequate, fearful, insecure and “not enough.”

Bullying is a serious issue that requires us to look deep into our hearts and work in partnership with youth and adults to create environments that are safe, affirming and fair for all young people and adults. And as Brown says, “We are safer in a world where people aren’t mired in shame.”

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