Avoid becoming a Bully, yourself!

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December 5th, ‘06

A letter to Al

Hi Al,

I really enjoyed the Think Tank on Nov. 29th.  (This is a weekly discussion seminar between Imago Relationship Therapists. Click here to download and listen in mp3. )  about bullying.  I wanted to ask you a question about what happens to me with a particular couple I have that comes in –  actually, it is two couples with the same dynamic. The husband is a bully, extremely critical, can’t even do high energy play without criticizing her. So, in my attempt to create safety for the two of them, I realize I become a bully, which of course triggers him. I don’t like the role of being a bully and realize when I step into it that I need to get out of it. I am wondering if you have any thoughts about that?

Dear Catherine,

Yep. yep. I have experienced that, too. That feeling of meeting a client’s Bully-behavior by responding by becoming a Bully myself — now that really stinks!  I don’t know if you have read my paper on Master/Slave. For my answer, I will refer to it and the new figure below.


To me there are three vertical (power) positions:

  • Level A) tyrant, bully, power over, or Master;
  • Level C) victim, slave, WUS;
  • Level B) friend, equal, dialogical partner.

Anyone can slip into the top position (A) or (C) the bottom position, but it takes some skills of Dialogical Resilience to remain in the Friend (B) position.

When a person acts as a Bully (A), that bully energy that invites me to slip into victim (C).  I call this tendency, the WUS factor.  E.g. The bully says something MasterTalk or dogmatic (“George Bush is a poor president.”), and I respond with silence.

When a person acts as Victim(C), that victim energy invites me to slip into the bully position (A).  I call this tendency, the Tyrant factor. E.g. The victim/slave asks me how to fix their problem and I respond by MasterTalk, telling them what to do – as if my idea was the right one.

Of course, when a person acts as a Bully (A), that energy can also stirr us into responding like a bigger bully.  This I call an argument, in its worst sense.  Two Bullies going at each other!  And as a therapist, our position sometimes invites us into that Bigger Bully position.

The goal for me (which I call Dialogical Resilience) is to resist WUS and Tyrant factors, and remain (claim the position of) a Dialogical partner – a Friend.  I stay their friend even when their actions try to pull me into those other positions. This takes training and practice to make it easy. Until then it can be exhausting and seems difficult.  And much of the training is learning about Boundaries and becoming skillful with them.

Thus in my office, I will teach the “bully” and his partner about Master/Slave, then I will meet bully efforts with Friend – never give in.  I mirror, validate the Bully converting their MasterTalk to the relative Dialogical form.  I am thus modeling the behavior for the bully’s partner to learn, and teaching the Bully that their intimidating behavior will not work. I am also teaching the “victim,” the typical position of the partner of someone who acts like a bully, about how they operate and what are better choices.  I do this with all couples who argue – in my experience about 80% of all couples.

This seems very, very normal to me, and comes pretty easily at this point. Strong tyrants are a bit of a trial, but then I am getting paid for something, arn’t I.

By the way, I fear that one factor that attracts people to being psychologists or counselors or psychiatrists is a hidden need for power, and we ourselves can easily slip into the Bully position with our clients.  I think we have to be very watchful.  God bless us for the tangles we can get into!

Postscript: The 2nd in this series of seminars took place on Feb 14th and can be also downloaded.  Download and listen in mp3 to this audio program.


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