First we heard about Amanda Todd and now of Rehteah Parsons -- two teenagers who took their own lives in response to acts of bullying and public humiliation. These and similar stories evoke questions about how we can prevent such tragedies. From my perspective as a clinical psychologist and researcher, it is important to understand that a cruel irony of bullying is that victims often isolate themselves rather than seek help. Thus, just when they need help the most, victims of bullying may be least likely to seek it out.
But why? Part of the answer lies in understanding that bullying can evoke intense feelings of shame. Shame is a powerful negative emotion in which one feels worthless. Not only does shame leave people feeling worthless, but it also leads to the belief that everyone else in their circle shares this same opinion of them. This leads to intense feelings of self-consciousness and a wish to avoid being with others.
Not surprisingly, research on shame has found it to be linked to clinical depression and to suicidal thoughts and behaviour. Indeed, suicide is the final and ultimate step in the process of social withdrawal and isolation. Signs of social withdrawal and isolation are important red flags that we all need to pay attention to in young persons.
Because persons immersed in shame will expect to be judged harshly by others, they will be reluctant to share their experience without feeling reassured and safe. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are additional obstacles, which make victims of social bullying question whether it is worth the risk of exposing their secret if nothing can be done about it.
Sadly, in many cases these beliefs are borne out by the impotence or indifference of the justice or educational system to deal with bullying.
What then can family members and friends do when we notice signs of social withdrawal typical of feelings of shame in persons we are close to?
First, do not ignore these signs. It is vital to either speak about it directly with the individual, or take the matter to a parent or counselor who can address it. When speaking to someone you suspect is feeling shame, it is important to let her know that you have noticed a change in her behaviour and that you care about her well-being. Ask if there is anything that has happened that is troubling her and let her know that you are there to listen and care for her not to judge her. This will help reduce her fear of negative evaluation and may help her share what is distressing.
At the core of a helpful response to shame is the expression of compassion. Compassion means to "suffer with" someone -- to share in her or his suffering. It means being kind and accepting rather than judging, connecting rather than isolating, and helping the person gain perspective and understanding.
For those who are prone to feeling shame chronically, psychotherapy and other compassionate relationships can help achieve these benefits. There is also promising research suggesting that shame-prone persons benefit from self-help guidance on how to be compassionate toward themselves.
In sum, compassion to others and compassion to oneself are promising avenues for reducing shame, social isolation and suicide among victims of bullying and abuse. A social ethic of compassion might just help reduce bullying in the first place.
Ed Johnson is an associate professor of psychology, University of Manitoba.