Psychotherapist Joseph Burgo writes in The Atlantic about research linking bullying to narcissism. (For some reason this is news.) Looking back at the near-constant bullying to which I was subjected in school, the description of this connection rings true:
[T]he actual bully deliberately sets out to make his victim feel inferior. It helps to view the bully as a kind of competitor on the social playing field, one who strives not only to win but to triumph over the social losers and destroy their sense of self. As in competitive sport, where winners and losers exist in a binary relation to one another, the bully is yoked in identity to his victims. To a significant degree, his self-image depends upon having those losers to persecute: I am a winner because you are a loser.
I absolutely recognize this from my tormentors. Often when one talks of bullying one may have experienced in school, it’s presumed that the threat, or the source of the anxiety, was over one’s physical safety, as in, oh no I’m afraid these guys are going to beat me up. While that was certainly a factor, the real threat was to one’s sense of self, and it was always clear that this was the bully’s intended target. If he took your lunch money, or if he socked you in the gut, it wasn’t really to get your money or mete out a punishment. It was to make you feel like a shitty, worthless person. And on me, it really worked.
I also recognize this, a hint of it anyway, in myself. I wrote about this earlier this year, so let me just blockquote myself:
As the lowest kid on the totem pole, I at times managed to befriend some less-reviled kids in middle and high school. But I also remember feeling so terrified of being socially demoted back to the bottom, that I’d single out those few kids who I perceived to be a notch under me, even if they had at one point been my friends, and haplessly find ways to lift myself up by singling them out. I never “bullied” per se, but I did make a handful of bungled attempts at teasing, which always backfired and wound up making me look worst of all. Which, in those cases, was just.
I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, but I perceived that one’s status was always relative to other people’s, and that I couldn’t join the “normals” unless I made clear that there were other kids beneath me. I failed at this, of course, and still beat myself up for the one or two occasions I made some laughable attempt at the aforementioned teasing, which at least tells me that my narcissism isn’t all that severe.
Anyway, this passage from the article seemed a little contradictory to me:
Recent studies suggest that bullies may actually have normal or above-average self-esteem, at least in terms of their physical attractiveness and popularity, but they also tend to be more “shame-prone.” Clinical psychologist Mary C. Lama describes the dynamic in this way: “Shame is what a bully attempts to hide. … [T]hey are anxious about the exposure of their failures or shortcomings. [T]he bully gives away his shame by denigrating you and, as a result, a bully will make you experience shame about your own inadequacies.” In other words, the bully makes himself a winner at your expense, forcing you to become the shame-ridden loser.
That sounds to me like self-esteem is a problem, at least as far as the research finds. I think to better word it, I might say that despite recognizing attributes of themselves that are clearly highly-valued in middle and high school social climbing (athleticism, looks, wealth), the narcissistic bullies nonetheless feel a deeper hole in themselves, something below the surface of mere day-to-day schoolyard acceptance. They can be fully aware of what makes them “better” than, well, a kid like me, but also be subconsciously driven by the more meaningful things in their lives that they lack.
Maybe that’s what I could have tried when I was being harassed and humiliated. “Hey man, your attempts to destroy my will to live won’t make your father love you.” Nah, probably not.