If we look at bullying through systemic glasses, then we see that bullying behavior serves a purpose for the entire system: this behavior is an indicator that something is “out of order” in the larger system. Bullying behavior may serve the function of making a system complete once again or it may be an attempt to bring a debt in the system into balance. Maybe we should actually be grateful to the bullies for what they are trying to show us…
It is not easy to place this way of regarding bullying into our current paradigm. “What do you mean ‘be grateful’? What about the suffering of the person who has been bullied? Do we simply let them continue to bully?” No, yet there are ways to deal with bullying other than just trying to make it stop. At least while you are reading this article, I’d like to challenge you to try out a different approach- a systemic approach to viewing bullying. A systemic approach asks the viewer to look without prejudgments at an individual as a member of a larger living system.
Bert Hellinger, who developed systemic work with constellations, observed that the functioning of systems is influenced by three principles:
*Systems want to be complete; every member has an equal right to a place in the system
*Systems have an order
*Systems seek a balance in taking and giving.
By looking through systemic glasses, we gain insight into possible underlying forces in a system, such as a family system. These underlying forces unconsciously influence our behavior. As herd animals, we humans have primal instincts that serve the greater good. One of those instincts is to continually unconsciously “scan” to see if we still belong to a system and if everyone still belongs. From a herd animal’s perspective, not belonging is life threatening: a predator, such as a lion, can easily catch you if you do not have the protection of your herd. A herd “knows” that each member has a right to a place in the system and each member “knows” his/her function within the system. This secures the safety of the system as a whole.
Knowing by being a part of a system
At a very young age, we begin to recognize the signals about what kind of behavior gains approval and what kind of behavior puts us at risk of no longer belonging to a system. As soon as you hear yourself say “we” you know that you are a part of that system. You know -without ever having been told- how “we” do things and that that is different than how “they” do things. For children, belonging to their parents and their family system is a matter of life and death. A child internalizes the family patterns and is loyal to the social norms and values of the family. This secures the child’s place in the family system and gives a child a sense of innocence and security. Any disloyal behavior makes the child feel guilty and insecure.
During your lifetime, you belong to more and more systems. In addition to the primary system of the family, a child enters daycare or school and becomes a member of a different “we”, a different system. This new system has its own set of social norms and rules, which guide you to feel a sense of belonging here in your new system. The family remains the primary system and you are loyal first and foremost to your own family. This is mainly an unconscious loyalty. Many forms of behavior are driven in one way or another by the underlying power of the loyalty to the family system.
Systems want to be complete
Sometimes, events occur that are so painful that we’d rather not think or talk about them. Sorrow, pain or shame can make life so difficult that “not thinking about it” makes daily existence bearable. This can cause painful experiences, such as losing a loved one, to be repressed. Yet, in the end, this is an illusion. The facts of the event remain the same but it is difficult to handle the conflicting emotions and opinions at that moment. Systems are only complete when every event and every member of the system are (re)integrated.
Seeing behavior as a compass
The family system ensures that later, sometimes generations later, those members who have been left out are represented and reflected in the behavior of a younger family member. For children, it is of utmost importance (here is that herd animal instinct again!) that the system is safe and, therefore, complete. It seems as though children have radar that picks up on interruptions in the system. As soon as someone or something in the system is missing or if someone in the system is not taking his or her own place, children react unconsciously by showing “strange” behavior.
Other systems, such as a school, also want to be complete. Unlike a family system, a school system is made up of temporary members. Even still, members or events can be left out. Some examples of this are: a teacher who was fired and the reasons for firing him were never discussed, or the unspoken shame of losing a child during a school field trip, or maybe there are events that the teachers and students are unaware of because the school board has kept them a secret. In any of these cases, it is possible that teachers or students are “hired” by the system to represent what has been left out of the system.
The unconscious behavior of children shows adults where they need to look for solutions. Unfortunately, children do that in an awkward way in the form of behavior that draws attention. That is why the tendency is to “correct” the behavior of the child instead of looking at what is out of order in the bigger picture. A system constellation* can bring to light the issue to which the “difficult” behavior points.
Then, it becomes clear that the bullying behavior is not about two children, but that these children are unconsciously pointing to someone who is missing or an interruption in the order of the system. Often, the behavior is a repeating pattern, a pattern with roots in the family system or the school system.
*The “System Constellation” is a method used to expose underlying forces and connections in a system (i.e. a family system, an educational system or an organization). In this method, people are used as representatives who, when they are placed in the space, “know” information about the system that is being looked at in the constellation. This “knowing” occurs without anyone giving them information. Apparently, our bodies have sensors with which we can receive information about systems. Albrecht Mahr calls this The Knowing Field. Rupert Sheldrake describes this as Morphic Resonance.
We can also look at the underlying causes of this behavior systemically without doing a constellation. That, in and of itself, has an effect. What would happen if we looked at the behavior without prejudging and without knowing ahead of time what to do?
Bullying as a way of “re-membering” someone
Everyone has a Right to a Place in the System
“I’d rather be bullied than not belong….” This quote is from a girl who was interviewed for an article about bullying amongst girls (“Queens and Bitches”, Volkskrant newspaper, October 6, 2006). This statement shows how important it is for a child to feel like she belongs to the group. Considering the bare facts, if you are a victim, then you have a role in the system and a feeling of belonging. Without perpetrators, there would be no victims and without victims, there are no perpetrators.
The comment made by this girl focuses our attention on the bullying. In addition, it is also interesting to ask ourselves why this girl feels she does not belong. She is probably also working very hard to make her system complete. By “not belonging”, she is unconsciously reintegrating (“re-membering”) someone who is or was denied a place in the system. Maybe it was her mother who was also teased as a young girl? Maybe it was an aunt who fell in love with a German and was punished after the war by being covered in tar and feathers? It is possible that the bullying is a way to challenge this girl to be in the here and now? This may be a way to allow her to take her own place in the system.
Bullying is a way of excluding someone. By repeating a pattern, the bullying allows someone or something that was excluded to re-enter the scene. By alienating someone, bullying is actually an attempt to re-member those who were once excluded from the system. The English word “remember” is so very fitting; allowing someone to be a member of the system again.
Is the Bullying a Way to Help Someone to Take His Own Place in the System?
Restoring order to a System
An experienced teacher does a constellation about a class that “really gets under her skin”. She feels helpless and dreads working with this class. The teacher chooses someone to represent the girls in the class. She also chooses a representative for the boys. She places the representatives in the constellation. Then, she takes a place in the constellation as herself.
In the constellation, it appears that the boys hold the power in this class. The teacher is asked if she feels supported by the school principal. She replies that she does not feel supported and adds: “The man (principal) is not competent at his job.” The representative of the boys begins to laugh loudly when he hears this. Now, someone is chosen to represent the school principal. This representative is also placed in the constellation. The representative of the boys turns away from the teacher. The teacher feels tired and turns away from the principal.
Then, the facilitator of the constellation asks the teacher to look at the principal and say “I want you to support me. I can not handle this class without your support.” The teacher has a very hard time saying these words. She takes her time and is finally able to say the sentences. Now, the representative of the boys moves to stand next to the representative of the girls. Together, they look with intensity at the back of the teacher. When the teacher turns around, the girls and boys look her in the eye and say that they are ready to get to work.
This constellation shows how bullying can “point” to a place in a system where order needs to be restored. The teacher had negative opinions about the principal. As a result, she took a position above the principal. By asking support from the principal, she took her own position in the system.
Is Bullying a Way to balance out a Debt?
Creating Balance in Taking and Giving
All relationships, whether they are work relationships or friendships, are kept alive by a continual exchange. One person gives and the other receives. It is noticeable (through feelings of guilt or innocence) if you have taken more than the other person has. That often stimulates giving.
Sometimes, there is a remaining debt. That is all right as long as it is acknowledged. Yet, sometimes a person does not take responsibility for the debt. It remains unacknowledged as a fact and is covered up instead by excuses. Some people wonder why they always feel guilty even though there is no apparent reason to feel that way. In constellations, we often see that this is linked to a debt that needs to be recognized. For example, there may have been a grandfather in the family who bargained away his brother’s portion of the inheritance. Many forms of behavior, such as excessive gift giving or always seeing oneself as the underdog, may be expressions of an unconscious compelling need to balance a debt from the past.
Unconsciously, a person may continually end up in the role of the victim. If we see a child (or adult) who is repeatedly bullied, we may catch ourselves thinking “Yea, well she’s asking for it!” then this may be a signal that this is a balancing of a debt in the system. Even acknowledging that possibility eases the situation…
If someone pays off a debt in the system by being the victim of bullying, then that person is interfering with the past. Therefore, this person is not taking his or her own place in the system. Every attempt to fix something from the past is an illusion that disrupts the order in the system. Those who came before us and the things that happened in the past were there first. Those who are born later also come later in the order of the system. That is why I call systemic thinking “paradox thinking”. There are forces in a system that “hire” a member to complete what was missing or to pay back a debt in the system. Yet, at the same time, the very same system does not allow the order to be disturbed. The past can’t be repaired. The patterns are only strengthened by each attempt.
Acknowledging that it is as it is
Applying systemic thinking also feels paradoxal. It is only possible to change something by first acknowledging that it is as it is. Seeing the facts and acknowledging that the situation is the way it is has a healing effect for the system as a whole and a freeing impact on all the members of that system.
It may feel forced to view horrible bullying behavior as something “positive”. As professionals, we are also committed to our own system and we are loyal to “our” way of thinking. The systemic perspective is often so different from what we are used to in our western way of thinking. Often, we prefer to say “Yes, but…” and remain loyal to our usual way of thinking.
Even if it is simply for one experiment, I’d like to invite you to look without prejudgment and without saying “Yes, but…”. I invite you to see the bully and the victim and acknowledge what he or she may be doing for the larger system. Then, while still coming from a non-judgmental place, simply wait and see what happens. For example, you could visualize the bully and the victim in front of you and imagine saying to them “Thank you for noticing something in the system that is not in order. Even though I don’t know what it is, I see that you are both working very hard to bring it to our attention.”
You don’t need to actually say this to the bully or the victim in real life (in fact, it is better not to!). It is important that you, within yourself, open up to the larger picture. Just this simple step can create movement within the system.
This does not mean that we are to do nothing. It also does not mean that we must simply stand helplessly watching from the sidelines. This is a method for taking action. It’s just that we are not focused on a small part of the system or a symptom. When we acknowledge an issue in the system that asks to be seen, we are already taking action. Let us observe the effects we see in ourselves, in the bullying behavior, in everyone involved and in the whole system if we do this. After all, up until now, we’ve often taken steps that seem not to have had any effect in the end. So why not, for once, try an experiment that may possibly have an effect?
It is our job, as professionals, to offer a safe place in which a child can grow and develop. By being aware of our inner attitude, we are contributing to the creation of this safe environment. We can regularly check in with ourselves by asking ourselves these questions: Am I allowing the system to be complete? Am I taking my own place in the system? Am I judging a member of the system and, therefore, putting myself above him or her? As long as a system is not complete or, for example, a child feels that his parents or ethnicity are being judged, then the child will be forced to put all of his energy into defending his background or making the system complete. Then, the energy the child is using is no longer available for learning or for maintaining friendships.
We can train ourselves to take a systemic approach by continually asking ourselves if “difficult” behavior is a result of forces within the system.
If there is a conflict or there is tension in a system (it could also be your own system!), it may be helpful to also ask yourself the following questions. Again, ask yourself these questions without prejudgment and even without the need to answer them: To whom is he or she being loyal? Who or what has been excluded (by his or her family or by me) that he or she is now trying to re-member through this behavior? Am I allowing everyone and everything in the system to have a place? Can I acknowledge that everything that has happened is just as it is? Is there behavior or are there events that I judge in a way that denies that they are as they are? Toward whom do I have prejudices (even if I try not to show them)? Can I accept the parents of this child as they are?
Tension in the classroom is often related to tension elsewhere in the school organization. For example, there may be a conflict in the board of the school that has been kept quiet, someone may be talking disrespectfully about the school board, there may be team members who can’t get along with one another, etc. Whatever is kept silent is excluded. The children feel unsafe in an incomplete system and do their best (through “difficult” behavior) to bring what is missing back into the picture. Even if we have no idea what is going on in the system, we can still open ourselves up to the possibility that undesirable behavior is an attempt to serve the system.
This approach does not mean that we accept bullying. Yet, when we immediately try to stop the bullying, we often skip an important step: to first acknowledge the presence of this behavior. By immediately trying to change the behavior without first clearly acknowledging it, we exclude the fact that this behavior is as it is. And voilà: we are caught in the same dynamics and are following the pattern of excluding things from the system.
The art (and our task!) is to allow ourselves, as professionals, to adopt a systemic perspective and not to contribute to the continuation of patterns. Instead, we can listen with an open and non-judgmental attitude to what the system has to tell us through this difficult behavior or bullying.
In the training Systemic Pedagogy, Bibi teaches professionals how to adopt a systemic approach and apply it to everyday pedagogical situations.
Bibi worked in the fields of pedagogy and education for more than 25 years before she and her husband founded The Bert Hellinger Institute in the Netherlands. The Bert Hellinger Institute offers workshops and training programs about systemic work and constellations.
This article was translated by Rivke van der Lugt.