Sunday, February 12, 2012

The bully victim dynamic.

I was recently asked by a journalist to make a comment on bullying which I have and have decided to include it here as well.

The bully victim dynamic is a particular relationship style. Two or more people relate in a particular way such that bullying can be seen to occur between these people. The relationship is primarily based on power. From a psychological point of view the central feature of the bully victim relationship is power.

The bully and victim are actually quite similar in their psychological makeup in this way. They are both people who have a pervasive sense of powerlessness. This is something that humans find quite repugnant - feeling powerless. Humans have a strong, even very strong need to feel powerful or have a sense that they have some power in their life. They will at times go to great lengths to regain a sense of power. This is a core psychological need in the human psyche - feeling powerful.

Man & monkey

Some children are raised in such a way that they have a sense of feeling powerless or not having any power in their life. Both the bully and victim are the same here. As children they both felt powerless. However they differ in how they dealt with that sense of powerlessness as children. Some children learn they can find a sense of power if they make others look bad. They discover they can feel powerful by making someone else feel powerless. The child who discovers this way of coping is a bully in the making.

To explain the psychology of how this work on finds an answer in the theory of seven life positions - here.

The theory of four life positions has been shown to have significant theoretical inaccuracies and that seven life positions more accurately describes human psychology in this way. With the four life position theory the bully would be seen as adopting the position of I+, U- (I’m OK, You’re not OK). The seven life position theory describes the bully as I-, U-- (I’m not OK, but you’re worse). This acknowledges that the bully has a basic sense of not okness (powerlessness) and deals with it by making others feel less powerful than him. This then allows him to have (at least a temporarily) a sense of feeling powerful. The victim gets caught in the relationship because it supports their life position and a sense of feeling not ok about self. The relationship psychologically fits for both parties. It allows them to reconfirm what they have always known about self and life. It feels ‘right’ in this sense.

panda man

I used to see this when I worked in prison. It was called ‘stand over’. The ‘stand over man’ would bully and usually extort items from the victim. Prominent stand over men would often have a group of younger men who hung around with him. None of them liked the bully but would associate with him and flatter him for some other reason. It may be because they felt it was better to be a sycophant to the bully than to be a victim to him. Or some may associate with him to increase their reputation in the prison.

But no one likes a bully. One of the main problems for the bully is he has no friends, the bully does not know how to have a friendship relationship. In the psychological sense a friendship is a relationship where there is no big power difference between the two parties. The bully finds this a very difficult thing to do as he needs others to feel powerless such that he can feel powerful. This need to bully others rarely only stays with the few victims the bully knows but pervades into other relationships in his life such as at home or at work. Often the bully is also being bullied by some other person in his life.

Slave girls

As to the question of cyber bullying. This raises an interesting gender difference in bullying. Male bullies usually at some point will physically assault the victim in varying degrees. They may use psychological bullying and taunts but they also have a ‘need’ to express the bullying physically. With females this tends to be less so. Psychological abuse and bullying allows them to achieve that sense of “You are worse than me so I am powerful” more so than with the male. Males tend to also need physical bulling to achieve the same psychological result. In this sense one could say cyber bullying is a feminized way of bullying as physical assaults are not possible. Males can certainly engage in cyber bullying but they also need the face to face physical contact at some point as well.



  1. Hi Tony,
    maybe on some deep psychological level we might find that the situation fits both parties but I feel that in the more practical perspective no-one wants to be bullied :)
    So what if a victim wants to get out of this setup? Our adult environment seems to be quite easy but what advice would you give to teenagers?

  2. Hi Zbig,
    Thanx for your comment. I didn't actually say anyone wanted to be bullied nor did I say anyone wanted to be a bully. What I did say was that when any two people form a relationship of any duration both parties will use that relationship to reconfirm time and again the original life position they decided on as a young child. That's just what people do.

    Your question about what can the victim do is a vexed one. I have my thoughts on it but not the time to express them right now and besides that some people tend to disagree with me. I will try and get to it soon.


  3. Hi Tony,
    sorry for the vexed question if you meant "annoying" :) (a new word for me)
    I think the most valuable ideas are those that people would not agree on easily - at least for me, what's the point in repeating the same old stuff? not very creative.

    on the other hand some of your blog entries like on drugs, on desensitizing etc. seemed counterintuitive at first and turned out as great food for thought eventually :)

    No emergency for me but will be interested in your vexed expansions on bullying :)

  4. Hello Zbig,
    The way I was using the term vexed did not mean annoying. A vexed question means that it is a question that causes considerable debate and discussion.


  5. So what is the life position of the victim? Is it I--,U-?
    I don't see it as I-,U+