Friday, May 18, 2012

Ruminations on Romney: Bullying through a Compassionate Lens

by Miki Kashtan

For most of my years in school, I was ostracized, teased, and tormented by others. More often than not I wasn’t invited to participate in anything social, be it play or, later, parties. This went on for years, with two periods that stand out in particular. Before I was eleven, I was blackmailed by a classmate for three months, and subsequently banned for some weeks by everyone in my class, at which time only one brave girl would sneak to my home to play with me. Then, when I was thirteen and lived with my family in Mexico, I was continually tormented and taunted by others and saw swastikas on the blackboard that were hastily erased when a teacher would come. At one time I was locked out by a group of girls who didn’t want me to be part of their cabin, and I was all alone all night, leaning against a tree and shivering. 

Miki at thirteen (front row, second from left) amidst her tormentors and other classmates.
The word “bully” hadn’t existed in my world at the time. I had no context for making sense of the trauma I endured. Like so many people who suffer at the hands of others, I didn’t talk to anyone about it at the time and had no hope of being understood. Today, the phenomenon is widely recognized as a major stressor in children’s lives. The Bully Project estimates that thirteen million children are going to be bullied this year. One study indicates that 88% of children have observed bullying, and 42% in one poll of those who attended health ed centers admitted to having participated in bullying others. These numbers are staggering.

Despite this growing awareness, most children still don’t talk about bullying. In a survey of US middle and high school students, “66 percent of victims of bullying believed school professionals responded poorly to the bullying problems that they observed.” Others provided other reasons for not talking about it, such as feeling shame at not being able to stand up for themselves, fearing they would not be believed, not wanting to worry their parents, having no confidence that anything would change as a result, and even thinking their parents’ or teacher’s advice would make the problem worse. 

Current Responses to Bullying

I can see why the children don’t trust the adults. So often the response to bullying is one of belittling of the issue, as can be seen in Mitt Romney’s response to the allegations about his high school bullying, and in the attitudes of many other adults, even teachers and administrators. “Kids will be kids,” they say, or they look at bullying as indistinguishable from teasing and mostly harmless. At times the suffering of those bullied gets minimized, which only contributes to the shame they already carry about their experiences. For years after my own devastating experiences, I kept thinking that other people suffered much more than me. It took years for me to understand the full extent of the trauma I had experienced. 

At other times, the response is harsh and punitive. The bully as a person is seen as a problem. Here’s one troubling example. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, organized a writing contest for school students about bullying. In an op-ed this week, he said about the essay writers who had been bullied: “You want to reach out to these kids and envelop them in a big warm hug and tell them that they are smart, sensitive human beings, a thousand times better than their tormenters.” I am troubled by this response. I want to ask, isn’t Kristof bullying the bullies by describing them this way in the nation’s leading newspaper? I would be hard pressed to believe that any change in the amount of bullying would arise from this characterization of bullies. Even more troubling is reading the winning essay, in which one girl describes her bullies as having “the self-entitlement of a celebrity heiress and the aggression of a Roman gladiator. Like vampires, they feed off the blood of the weak. They’re pubescent monsters.” This writing, to me, does not characterize a smart, sensitive person. Rather, I see in it the self-protective, separating, and angry response that can only perpetuate the atmosphere of violence.

“Zero-tolerance” policies leave no one safer. Bullies are sent home without any support for understanding their behavior and its effects. A dear friend of mine told me about his experiences as a young boy in England, years ago: “I was as highly principled as they come but had an episode of being a bully for some weeks at an earlier age, around ten, I think, punching a slow boy who didn't retaliate, until his parents saw the bruises and I was called in to the principal's office, and that scared me because I didn't understand it. I feared myself thereafter. No one knew what to do to help me understand it.” 

Alex (at left), one of the bullied children in the movie Bully, provides a powerful window into the experience of bullying: “They punch me in the jaw, strangle me, they knock things out of my hand, take things from me, sit on me. They push me so far that I want to become the bully.” A full two thirds of attackers in school shootings had previously been bullied. More recently, we have a dramatic illustration from nature that the cycle of abuse is not just a human phenomenon. A New York Times article reports research on a species of birds that are aggressive or sexual toward unrelated young. Researchers “found high correlations between the amount of aggressive behavior demonstrated by the adults and the amount of abuse they had endured as nestlings.” 

Humanizing Everyone

A way out of either belittling or punishing bullying is to understand that bullying is a community affair, not an individual aberration. Since the problem affects everyone, let’s put in place preventive and restorative solutions that attend to everyone’s needs.

Everyone in a school community needs safety, which can be provided by changing the factors in the environment, such as increasing adult supervision, staggering recess and lunch, and implementing measures to respond swiftly and compassionately to bullying once it happens. 

A bullied child needs empathic adults and friends who can help her or him speak up and move towards finding supportive friends and inner confidence—complex abilities that few of us can develop without help. 

Compassion doesn’t mean accepting the behavior. It does mean accepting the child who engages in it. A child who bullies also needs support for a culture change to happen.  Those who bully are usually shamed and judged by others. That punitive kind of response deprives them of opportunities to understand themselves and to learn about their own needs. They need empathic friends and adults who can help them grasp why they are choosing this behavior, and what they can do instead. 

Instead of classifying bullying as a crime, as proposed in one Canadian blog site, compassionate community approaches find ways to gain a deeper understanding of what causes bullying in the first place, and what can be done to restore trust once bullying has happened. Punishment does not restore trust. More often than many of us would like to believe it plants or waters seeds of future violence, because it contributes to shame and self-loathing, fertile ground for violence to grow in. 

Since often what people who engage in harmful behavior lack is empathic understanding of the effect of their actions, restorative justice seeks to bring those who harm together with those who have been harmed. As one principal of a middle school in San Francisco said in a Greater Good article about the Romney incident, “We’re human beings, we’re going to have a sense of compassion for this person that we harmed, once we have a chance to see how our actions made them feel.”  [Photo: A listening adult ear: Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth director, Fania Davis, with 10th Grader Jihad Seymour, in a still from a forthcoming film by Cassidy Friedman, Stories Matter Media.]

I want to emphasize again that letting go of a punitive response does not mean accepting the behavior. We can all respond to incidents of violence in ways that restore trust and respect, rather than create further hurt by demonizing and punishing those who bully.

The success of programs such as Roots of Empathy and the extensive research about the cycle of abuse and the deep links between shame and violence lead me to a deep faith that the failure of our times is a failure in empathy rather than a loosening of strict control. We are bombarded by images which glorify violence even as we are admonished against it. We are provided with fewer and fewer avenues for loving connection with others. It is not cool to express affection, whether for teens in school or for all of us at work, for example. What can we do to increase the overall kindness of our culture? How can we provide children, whether bullied, witnesses, or current and former bullies, with avenues to explore their true human needs and develop strategies to meet them that are embedded in human relationships? I so deeply want to strengthen the fabric of our interrelatedness so we can nurture all children.

A last word about Romney: Given his visibility as the presumptive Republican candidate for the Presidency, the community affected by his long-ago actions now appears to be the entire population of the US. What can Romney do that would restore trust? I wish he could recognize the momentous opportunity he has to engage in a restorative process, even after the person he is alleged to have tormented is now dead. He could visibly and publicly open his heart to the horror in which he participated and take ownership of it instead of dismissing it as a prank that went too far. He could, conceivably, provide a window into what the inner experience of participating in such an act feels like, so others who bully could possibly understand themselves better. Such an act could humanize him, others, and ultimately all of us. 


  1. I love that you are bringing attention to the needs and troubles of the bully, particularly for empathy, and not just the needs of the victim. It can be really really hard to see through such destructive behavior when the conditioned reaction is to want to shame them and make them stop. Clearly, shame and punishment only aggravate the problem. Part of the dilemma I believe, based on my own reactions is that we don't know what else to do and watching bulling happen is such a helpless place to be.

    Having been the target of bullies, having watched my eldest son deal with bullying (corporal punishment) by a teacher in his private school, (we pulled him out of school) and now watching another child of mine (to my horror) engage in bullying behavior, I am paying close attention to everything I can find on this topic. Knowing the difference between right and wrong is simply not useful.

    Gordon Neufeld, (yup, him again), the attachment theorist, describes a comprehensive theory on bullying in the DVD "the making and unmaking of a bully." I highly recommend it. He convinced me by the end that a bully could, indeed, be "unmade."

    You offer an important part of the picture here. The part I don't see here that is clear in Neufeld's video is actually three things. The first is that the bully is someone who has experienced a vulnerability too much to bear and cannot tolerate any signs of vulnerability in another. Thus the preying on the weak. Another's weakness reminds him way to much of his own vulnerability and the pain is excruciating. The second is that the bully has an enormous hunger for attachment. Apparently bullying can be cured when a caring adult (parent, neighbor, doesn't matter who.) takes responsibility for creating an attachment bond with the bully and sort of takes him under his wing. The third is that when the bully is given the safety needed to express his tears of sadness over the upsets of life and experiences his own vulnerability in the process, he no longer has the impulse to bully others. A bully, therefore, is someone who's tears are stuck inside.

    With this perspective, clearly addressing the needs of the bully would be the most effective way to deal with the problem.

    I would so love for this to be as much of a no-brainer for people in general as it was for me once I got it. We could save a lot of heart-ache and a lot of lives.

    1. Miki, you can watch it here:

  2. Hi miki,
    Your article brings so many things to 'life' in me that am staying with the depth of it.

    I share Nvc at a school and an orphanage that is connected to it. I have seen 'bullying' happens not only between children, but have seen it happen between adutls as well. So if I take away the lable of 'bullying', for me it's a cycle of violence that just continues if there is no emarhic support that can heal and restore the pieces in us that fall apart- in whatever roll we play in the act.

    I connect deeply to the depth of shame and self-loathing that can come up. When I'm at the receiving end of an act I pecieve as 'violet', I connect to the part in me that gets paralyzed and shameful about not being able to defend or protect and another part that goes into deep rage and I feel the 'violence' taking root in me and that scares me and adds to the shame for me. When I can receive my own shame, fear and rage tenderly....I can connect to the depth of pain, fear and desperation behind the act and see the human being, who did not, at that moment, know any other way.....and i can see his

    My inner experience helps to connect with both the 'bully' and one 'bullied'. And I see the importance of compassion towards both.

    Am grateful to you for sharing your personal experience at a kid. Your life's journey inspires me and connectes with me a very deep way.


  3. So happy to see this addressed! To me this is another place where we get caught up submit/rebel or passive/aggressive. Similar to how people who take action in the name of peace or justice often seem quite aggressive and not at all peaceful to me. The strategies for addressing war are different from the strategies for addressing bullying, and yet if we put nonviolence at the heart (and the heart in the nonviolence), creative solutions can appear that move out of the dualistic paradigm. I'm appreciating the awareness of how taking away the labels can open up our perspective. I appreciate learning from you and from the comments above. To bolster the idea that people can change: (1) the parts of the brain relating to attachment are the most "plastic" and (2)NVC practices change our brains, developing the capacity for empathy even if there have been deficits in that area. See Sarah Peyton's offerings on NVC and interpersonal neurobiology at

    I also want to acknowledge the trauma in your own life. I feel sad that you experienced this, and that anyone experiences this b/c I want love and safety and kindness for all of us! And I feel awe at seeing that you found your path toward love and nonviolence. My awe deepens even more when I think of the "backstory" of so many others who work to embody nonviolence. I want to honor how these experiences can deepen resolve to find another way and can lead to great healing and growth. Without in any way sugarcoating it and saying we need to suffer in order to grow, b/c I'm not into glorifying suffering in any way.

    I notice many schools have anti-bullying campaigns, and I think of "Ask for what you want, not what you don't want." That's why I feel more uplift with programs like "Roots of Empathy" than with anti-bullying slogans. It's not about what we want to have "zero tolerance" for; it's what we want to see more of!

    This became more conceptual than I meant it to -- so I'll add that I feel profound hope in seeing this "third way" articulated. Articulating it helps make it possible!!! Esp. when we can share info about specific strategies to get from vision to the ground. Thanks!

  4. What a fabulous article. One of, if not the best, articles on bullying I have ever read. The line about a "self-protective, separating and angry response". Wow. I can relate to that... No wonder they say defence is the first act of war.

    I would love to hear more from you, Miki, on this; on how you processed what happened to you to get to the place you obviously are today, where you remain open, vulnerable, un"self-protective"... and on how to encourage children to "stand up for themselves" or "defend themselves" (see how deep rooted this thinking is in me) without (a) trampling over someone else (b) laying themselves open to more abuse.

  5. Hi Miki,
    I am deeply moved by your article as I have experienced bullying during my whole childhood. It took many years to recover from the deep despair and the impression of inner death I felt holding such beliefs as “connexion and care with humans was impossible” and “I do not and do not want to belong to this world” for the first 15 years for my life. I am now tackling this issue at my son's school where he is now getting a taste of bullying. I am shocked and saddened to see that there are still racial separation and very black and white sexual archetypes among children in 2012.
    I celebrate that my son has a very strong bond with me and was able to open up to me and express his hopelessness about the world he lives in, so we can work together.
    Here is what I have been pondering about
    1) I chose this school because it has a empathy and emotional-literacy program for children as well as a mediation program between children. Children have a weekly class but there is NO integration because it is not applied nor modeled by adults in the school.
    2) The school personnel do not have a common understanding of what violence and bullying are and how to intervene effectively as a community. The result is that some confuse conflict with bullying and some tell themselves that “boys will be boys”. So when my son went to speak to adults at school about what he was undergoing, he was told that this was just a conflict that he 'should' resolve it on his own. He has lost faith in most adults and experienced total despair about his world: "adults" never care about what children feel or express.
    3) Most parents I spoke to, feel helpless about bullying because they have a very very strong belief that if their children speaks up, they will suffer reprisal. So they tell their children not to speak up!
    4) Most children do not want to speak up to their parents because they experience bullying as a personal failure. Or an inability to deal with life.
    5) When I stepped in to talk to personnel, their first reaction was to hear blame and criticism (that they were not do their job well)- no matter how clear, NVC and open I was to dialogue. They needed to trust me first. It took 4 months of noticing I was “trustworthy” for them to actually open up and dialogue with me. Somebody less persistent and more vulnerable to criticism might not have the energy to walk towards dialogue!
    6) We live in a society where the feeling of separation is very strong. My sense is that we really need to cultivate our sense of community in order to tackle bullying. If people do not see the value of talking about it or stepping in, bullying will persist. Adults living around the school witness a lot of violence and yet have not thought of calling the principal to let them know what was going on.
    We need to act on 4 levels:
    1) creating trust and bonding in the family so children feel loved and appreciated as Gordon Neufeld says.
    2) creating a shared understanding of what is violence and making restorative intervention plans in a school
    3) creating a shared understating in the community and making an intervention plan for community members
    4) INTEGRATING emotional intelligence and empathy programs for the WHOLE school: teachers, personnel AND children.

    Wondering how you react to my impressions, Miki?

    With deep appreciation and love,

    1. Dear Mitsiko

      Would love to see Miki's response to this.

      Mine is that I just want to (again) (it is the Olivia you know) acknowledge your bravery and work and empowerment. I wonder how it must feel to see a son experience what you yourself experienced and feel so much for you.

      I notice the need for myself, as a parent, to "hold the space", to protect my child, even when this feels deeply uncomfortable for me and conflicts with my tendency to seek approval or whatever.



    2. p.s. Also I celebrate that you are safe enough with yourself after all these experiences to be so safe for your child

    3. Hi Olivia!
      I hear how scary it is when you think of facing bullying with your children: how you might react inside, with your children and with the school personnel. I'd like to offer additional information to reassure you: I believe because I experienced bullying, I was able to guess how painful it was for my son. Because my son trusts me so much and because we value empathy, he trusted that he can vent, cry his terrible pain and mourn wiht my support and presence. Yes, it was painful and difficult for me, yet he has grown so much out of this experience. He learned self-defense techniques. He has more sense of who he is and what he values, he is extremely proud to be "different", is now able to stay centered when teased. He has gained amazing inner freedom through this experience. Is that helpful to hear?

  6. Hey Miki,

    I haven't done much more than skim the blog yet and I'm already touched... My daughter was the target of bullying when she left the US and started attending school in a small, rural village in Sweden. She had already lived in three different countries by the time she was 10 and so she had a broad view of herself and the world. The kids her age in the village had rarely if ever been outside Sweden. It was a hard time in her life and she became the subject of a newspaper article about bullying and her mother began to speak out openly about the need to handle bullying in Sweden and about the value for home-schooling when institutionalized schooling isn't protecting the children.

    I'm looking forward to digging into what more is alive for me around this...

    Love, jas...

  7. feeling so grateful, hopeful, thankful for your fearless heart and sharing with all of us!!!! Beverly