Black and white photo of the shadow of a man

A strange facet of contentment: Bullying

In my post on contentment, I wrote about how shame and contentment work together to help you uphold your ethics and values.

Your sense of self and self-esteem come from the healthy interplay between contentment and shame, which are two vital social emotions.

Interestingly, too much self-esteem and contentment can be a very bad thing, and can actually be a factor in bullying.

When contentment goes rogue: Bullying

(Excerpt from The Art of Empathy):

Bullying is a huge issue in schools, online, and in the workplace, and it’s a situation in which people feel free to pick on, harass, isolate, shame, and intimidate others.

Bullying can start quite early – it’s been observed in children as young as three years old (these children were often exposed to a lot of aggressive behavior, including violent movies and TV shows). Luckily, many bullying prevention programs ( is one of the most empathically grounded) have sprung up to address the problem of bullying. Bullying is no longer considered an acceptable way to behave.

There are a lot of troubled emotions involved in bullying; and certainly, you can see the anger dysfunction and the lack of appropriate shame, but there’s a surprising emotional condition that also occurs in bullying: in many cases, contentment has gone completely off the rails.

Bullies have problems with anger and shame, but strangely …

We can clearly see that abusers and bullies have problems with anger and shame. Their anger gets unleashed constantly without any moderation from shame – which means that they don’t have healthy brakes on their anger; and subsequently, they behave in dishonorable and dishonoring ways.

But strangely, many bullies also score high on tests of self-esteem, which means that their contentment is in high gear even though their behavior is the exact opposite of worthwhile or commendable.

In the bullies I’ve observed, shame becomes unhinged somehow, and it no longer works to help the person manage his or her behavior or boundaries. The rules of normal behavior get erased, and the person finds a way to feel twisted contentment that doesn’t track to anything worth celebrating.

Bullying is not strength and it’s not based on true or appropriate contentment; it’s a hellish, unhinged, inflated form of contentment. 

The contentment inside a bully seems to be saying, “Yeah, my anger is so righteous! I don’t ever need to feel ashamed of anything I do, so yay for me, and screw everyone else!” So you might be fooled by this and think, hey, bullies love anger and contentment!

Yet if you look at the way bullies work, you’ll notice that they primarily force shame onto others and attempt to break down the self-image and boundaries of their victims.

Bullies might crow about the glories of anger, yet they don’t actually make any room for the boundaries of anger or the natural contentment to exist in others. So even though they seem to be very comfortable with anger and wildly full of contentment (and essentially shameless) – bullies spend an awful lot of time deactivating the contentment, the anger, and the boundaries of their targets with huge helpings of toxic shaming massages.

This tells me that their anger posturing, their lack of shame, and their artificially inflated contentment are all a show.

No one who is good with anger, shame, or contentment would ever try to deactivate these emotions in others. Nope.

Bullies aren’t showing us strength; they’re showing us their emotional dysfunction.

Bringing bullies back to community

Audio and book covers for The Art of EmpathyMany people think that the cure for bullying is to use shame, punishment, and social shunning to bring the bully back into line – but this is the precisely wrong tack to use with a person who already has a severely destabilizing problem with shame (and a deeply broken connection to anger and contentment).

A punished bully might publicly apologize and show contrition, but applying more shame to a person with a severe shame dysfunction will backfire – and in some cases, it will essentially harden and weaponize the bully.

If you have read the emotion channeling exercise I posted (where our friend shockingly insulted us in front of others), you’ll remember that a person who attacks others already has very poor boundaries. If you attack back, you can easily injure and enrage them. That’s not smart.

People have a lot of bully-lore about fighting back, but bullies expect a fight, and they’re ready for it. They’re stuck in a feedback loop with anger, and if you engage clumsily, you’ll make things worse. Bullies need to learn how to feel shame properly, and as we all know, workable shame can’t come from the outside; it has to be authentic to the individual.

Empathy training in a safe space, mediation, and active engagement in reparations (see for ideas) can help bullies re-enter the community and become able to relate in honorable ways again. Certainly, their misdeeds and abuses need to be stopped, but bullying is a sign of emotional dysfunction, unhealthy contentment inflation, and an empathy deficit (caused by a shame deficit); bullies need to be retrained in how to function socially, emotionally, and empathically. It can be done.

When I look at bullies, I see a hall of mirrors that reaches back in history to show us just how little understanding we have of emotions, and especially of anger. Yes, a bully needs to take responsibility for what they have done, but considering the emotional training we all receive, I’m not surprised by bullying and social violence at all.

It’s just one more example of the very poor Emotion Regulation skills most people have.

If you can look at it that way – as a skills issue – it’s easier to view a bully as a person in need, and not as a fiend or a monster.

Learning a form of aggression that’s not messed up

Something that can really help bullies is to engage them in a form of aggression that includes rules, boundaries, and honor. Aikido and other marital arts, fencing, kick-boxing – even some video game communities – can help teach people how to channel aggression in safe, intentional, and ethical ways.

The problem isn’t that anger exists or that the bullies express anger – it’s that the bully has no respect for boundaries, no practice for anger, and little connection to the vital emotion of shame.

If you can address the actual emotional dysfunction that’s occurring, you can help bullies restore their shame to its rightful position, learn how to manage their anger honorably, and learn how to feel appropriate contentment once again.

Thank you for bringing your empathic intelligence to our waiting world.


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