Revealing Men
Bullying: Understanding and Mitigating its Effects
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Trey Sumner is the lead facilitator of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan’s Altogether Boys program. The program works with young men in middle school to help them develop a fuller version of what it means to be a man. Sumner talks about Altogether Boys and his involvement in an earlier Revealing Men segment. With a career that includes 25 years with the US Army and US National Guard, Sumner has seen how men’s ideas of masculinity and self-worth are formed through male socialization. In this conversation with Randy Flood, psychotherapist, and Director of the Men’s Resource Center, the two men discuss how the roles of bully, bystander, and victim are perpetuated in male culture and how to better understand and mitigate bullying’s mindless trickle-down effects. Each share personal stories of bullying and redemption. And, they reflect how changing their own inner dialogue allowed them to change how they interacted with others.  Excerpts from the conversation are below (edited for length and clarity). The entire discussion is available now on the Revealing Men podcast.

This is the second in a series of four podcasts featuring men who reveal their personal experiences with abuse, violence, and bullying. The series provides insight as to how males are often socialized to accept emotional and physical abuse and pain—suck it up—and how that primes them to pass this abuse forward. Each man interviewed identifies how he has experienced abuse and how a new self-awareness allows a revisioning of masculinity where the cycle of abuse is no longer accepted or mindlessly passed down. Find the other podcasts in the series here:

  1. Counseling Changed His Life — an abusive man’s experience with counseling
  2. One Man’s Story of Surviving Domestic Abuse — a man finds new life and strength after being abused.
  3. Becoming a Pro-feminist Male in the Militaryhow the concepts of masculinity and masculine identity can include compassion and thoughtfulness while retaining courage and leadership

Creating Change Through Inner Dialogue

Flood: Trey – you had an experience. So, start there.

Sumner: I did! I had a young man I know, he actually used to be a former soldier of mine, and he had an insight. And what I took from it, was [about] paying attention to my own inner dialogue. I don’t mean thinking before I speak in the heat of the moment. That’s easy, because I’m very aware of what’s happening. I’m talking about my inner dialogue when I’m just doing mundane things.

I know as human beings; we give ourselves passes all the time. We are very harsh on ourselves; but at times, we’re also very forgiving of ourselves. I really paid attention to “was I giving myself passes?” “Was my inner dialogue rooted in my core beliefs?” What I’ve decided in my life is that I live my life based on being compassionate, kind, generous, equitable, loving, and strong. Was that what was happening in my inner dialogue? I realized that it wasn’t. And so, I just changed it. I really paid attention to it and it did something monumental inside of me.

Flood: So, what happened?

Sumner: I felt like this weight lifted off of me. Everything felt easier. It was like being in a semi-dark room and realizing it wasn’t a problem with the lights; I just needed to change the lightbulb. Or turn on one of the lights! All of a sudden, it just changed things and I felt better. It was one of the most freeing things I’ve ever done and it was so simple: Just to say “I’m going to be really honest with myself in my inner dialogue.” It’s a life-changer.

Trickle-down Bullying

Flood: If I remember correctly, that inner dialogue came from your experience in the male socialization process of tolerating bullying. Where men pass our pain or powerlessness that we felt on to other people and then that becomes internalized into an inner dialogue. Say something about how you connected it then to your experiences of being bullied, or bullying, or witnessing [bullying] as a bystander.

Sumner: I’m a huge fan of Paulo Freire. He wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is exactly what we’re talking about. In essence, it just means people who get treated horribly when they get in positions of power, treat other people horribly.

I understand that I have to acknowledge and be aware of the damage that, as far as my masculine development goes, men around me have done to me. But I also have to understand that I’ve done a lot of damage to others. I have to acknowledge that so that I can be better and hopefully repair some damage that I’ve done.

I think back to my life in the military. That’s a world of hazing and harsh behaviors, ya know, hands down, that I hated. And then, I turned around and participated in the same damn things with others— “now it’s your turn. I suffered, so now you must.”—when I got to a point where I changed that mentality of “I don’t want you to suffer.” [Flood: “Right.”]

Flood: As I understand it, hazing is kind of like a rite of passage, but it’s also a toughening up process where you become part of our team or part of our gang or tribe if you suffer, or you have pain, or you cause pain to others. And then, once you arrive, somehow you get to have the privilege or power to do that. Say something about that process or practice.

Sumner: So, there’s a group called the Guardian Angels. [Flood: “Okay.”] I don’t know if they still exist but, back in the 90s, when I lived in Chicago, it’s a group of guys that basically said we’re tough guys but we’re gonna patrol the subways so that people don’t get assaulted. That’s a great thing, ya know. It’s a really cool organization. But getting into it, one of the rituals was you had to sit around, and you weren’t allowed to hit back and you got into a circle and you got beat up. And it wasn’t real bad. It’s not like you lost teeth or anything. But you took a beating and you couldn’t hit back. Basically, you got jumped in. And then we did it to other people when they came around.

Flood: Okay. So that’s like a positive form of protecting? Or bystanding?

Sumner: I love the Guardian Angels concept. I didn’t like the “jumping in.” I don’t see the purpose in it. Ya know, take a beating just to take a beating? That’s probably a bad example. [Both: Laugh]

Wresting with the Belief that Real Men Like Violence

Flood: Here’s a story I wrote about when I first experienced the beginning of a bullying culture, which typically starts in middle school. It’s my first experience with [bullying] as an innocent bystander. You can help me analyze it.

 The recess bell rings and I stand in line waiting to get back to my middle school, hoping to perhaps learn something other than confusing lessons from my science teacher. I can see him through the window dragging on a cigarette similar to the human “dummy” used in his science class earlier in the day to teach us about the health hazards of smoking. 

As I wait for my fellow students to figure out their order in line before racing into the building, I see Bobby push Jerry.  Bobby is, like me, a sixth grader, a bully type who can easily scare and overpower Jerry, a small, quiet fifth grader. I like Jerry; he’s in my Sunday School class at church. I don’t dislike Bobby, but I’m scared of what he might do to Jerry and I’m compelled to stand up for him, so I step out of line and walk up to Bobby. I grab him by the shoulder and tell him, “Knock it off! Leave Jerry alone.”

Bobby pushes me, and I push him back. Then, he swings at my head and I grab him by his oversized winter jacket and successfully wrestle him to the ground. His coat ends up pulled over his head and I lay on top of him hearing his muffled cries: “Get off me. Get off me. Leave me alone!”

I continue to hold him down afraid of what might happen if I let him get up. Finally, I feel a tug on the furry hood of my Eskimo parka and hear Mrs. Johnson saying, “It’s all right Randy, you can let him up now.” Apparently, Mrs. Johnson had seen all of it as she ran across the playground to intervene.

Bobby and I are both escorted into the school, in front of the rest of the students. Bobby is sent to the principal’s office and Mrs. Johnson tells me to hang up my coat and proceeds to escort me to the class. As I walk with her, I begin to cry. She asks me, “Did he hurt you, Randy?” I’m still crying. I don’t know why. Between my sobs, I say, “I don’t know.” “I don’t think so.”

She asks, “Then why do you think you’re crying? You did the right thing; you stuck up for Jerry.” “I don’t know,” I say, looking down at the floor.

The other students now begin filling the classroom. I’m embarrassed and I try to stop crying. One of my friends, Paul, comes up to me and asks, “Are you all right? Are you in trouble?” “Yeah, I’m alright,” I manage to say. “And, nuh-no, I’m not in trouble. Mrs. Johnson only sent Bobby to the principal’s office.”

Paul looks at me and, seeing my tears, asks, “Then, why are you crying?” Again, I’m still confused. “I don’t know Paul.”

So, my sense of that was my experience with violence and standing up for him was exhilarating on one hand but it scary on another. It was like, I didn’t know why I was crying. I thought I should be a hero and be proud of myself and the teacher was proud of me. It was just this confusing thing. I wasn’t able to articulate what was going on with me. I just think that bullying is a way—or the use of violence for men is often a way—that we have to learn how to be violent and suck it up and perform it. At that point in time, I just didn’t know how to.

Sumner: Right. I love that story. I think that was probably a big moment [Flood: “Yeah.”]. That got you to where you are today. When I was young, I didn’t break five feet tall until my junior year of high school. I was teeny! I mean, my first day in junior high I got shoved in my gym locker for the entire gym period and then I got sent to the principal’s office for not being in class.

I got beat up daily because I was the littlest guy. And, I hated it obviously. And, I was terrified. I lived in this fear. And then, I grew eight inches in a year. Enough where I could at least not be standing at stomach level to everybody! And I put on a little muscle mass and that’s when I started; all I knew was violence. I became very violent as a result of that. Because that’s what I thought I had to do to not feel the shame, the embarrassment, the pain that I went through on a regular basis.

Bullying to Get or Hold on to Power

Flood: Did you experience pain in your home and from peers as well? It felt exhilarating in some way to pass that on?

Sumner: Oh yeah. My father was not an emotionally available or physically kind person. In fact, much of who I am today is a result of me literally thinking “What would my dad do here?” and I’m going to do this instead. Because of him, I actually came to the decision a long time ago that I would not punch walls when I’m angry. Because, when he would do that, ya know, guys would always say “Well, at least I didn’t hit you.” But what I remember was how, when he would do that, how it terrorized me, it made me feel weak, and small, and ashamed. I didn’t want to do that to other people.

Flood: Terry Real talks about where, if men experience pain or trauma, one of the ways to medicate it is to act it out, is to pass it on. I think there’s something somewhat ritualized in the practice of bullying. [It] can be a way for guys to participate and call it a self-medication or externalization process of “I’ve experienced pain and powerlessness and this is one way that I rise above it or overcome it is by passing that pain on to another person.”

Sumner: Right. And I think that masculinity is, we’ve gotten to the point where it’s so hyper-accentuated. That used to exist in probably what was (suppose you could argue whether it was healthy or not) just regular banter around the campfire. Busting each other’s chops. But now that’s turned into where I can’t just jab at you. I’ve got to own you. I’ve got to destroy you. I’ve got to crush you. That mentality is counterintuitive to us cohabitating. [Flood: “Right.”]

Flood: Yeah. I think that there are certain things that, traditionally, have given men status or power. Paul Kivel talks about groups that are inherently powerful in society that are granted some sort of superiority or privilege and, on the other side of that, groups that historically or traditionally are in a position of powerlessness. Think men and women, people of color and white people, Christian versus non-Christian, teacher/student, coach/player. There are these positions of power that are not inherently bad. But if you’re white, heterosexual, male, historically you had a lot of power, and that—you’re educated, you’re athletic, you’re smart—gives you power over someone that you can misuse.

Showing Strength Through Vulnerability

Sumner: It’s amazing to me what we’ll do to feel powerful in a way that is unhealthy, when it’s just so easy to do it in a better way but we’re so terrified of it. As a man growing up, I learned there is one path, this is it. And veering off of that path is really scary. But once you do it, you realize it’s better. I see so many guys afraid that if they do something outside of that framework they’re going to be perceived as weak. I’ll just speak to my own experience. I have never opened myself up, been vulnerable and in turn had people, as an adult, turn that on me. It has always been accepted and applauded.

Flood: So, you must have some safe circles.

Sumner: I do. I should rephrase that because that’s not entirely true. When I intentionally do that, I have those places where I can, and that empowers me to be that everywhere else.

The last time I went to get wings to-go at my favorite place, I went up to the bar to pick up my order and somebody recognized me. They commented, “Are you still teaching those classes to junior high boys?” And I said, “yes, I am!” And there was a group of guys—they were all construction guys—and they looked at me and looked at how I presented and said, “That’s right! We need someone to toughen up these kids.” I’m like, “alright, I guess I’m eating these here!” I sat down and had a really great talk. And the funny part was there was clearly an older man, either a father or uncle or something, and two young men that were related, and they wanted so badly to challenge him but they couldn’t do it.

You should’ve seen it. Even as I was talking to them, they were just leaning into me. And to give those younger men, to show an example of “look, I’m obviously accepted as a man in this tough guy’s world.” I mean, he instantly accepted me, but that didn’t mean I had to subscribe to his narrow scope of what it means to be a man. I could push back and do it without fear and without shame, because there’s nothing scary about it. And what I find is that if you do what you know is right and you do it with intentionality and if you’re genuine, people may or may not follow you, but they’ll appreciate you.

Flood: Right. I did some anti-bullying training and consultation in schools and teaching the kids that there’s three different roles in the bullying climate. Twenty-percent are engaged in bullying or being victimized, and eighty-percent are innocent bystanders. So much about male socialization is to innocently stand by and observe and say nothing. And then that allows that other 20% to develop this man culture and [Sumner: “That’s how the problem continues.”] I think what we’re trying to do is stand up and say something.

Sumner: The whole “not my business, that’s that man’s business;” the problem with no name. That is something that is so deeply embedded into our society, into our culture. [Flood: “Right.”] I mean, men more than women, I believe, will get so territorially protective of you challenging anything that happens in their world. Even amongst close friends and family.

The Shifting of Power Dynamics—When the Victim Becomes the Bully

Flood: Yeah. I think of stories of being bullied, and I remember this kid who was two grades older than me. His name was Dan, and he would just terrorize me on the bus, in the hallway. Just had it out for me. I’m not sure why. But I was scared of him. We had this ice-skating rink in the winter, and I was a good skater. Dan shows up and he sucked at skating. He was just learning. I would just skate by him, push him, grab his hat, throw it. I had power on the ice-skating rink because he couldn’t skate. So again, the differential of power. I was able to finally have it, and then I mis-used it to just harass him.

But guess what? We got off the rink and, the next day, he got on the school bus and he had his way with me because then he had stable ground and he was bigger and stronger than me. So, I suffered. It’s just one of those examples where I suddenly had power and then I used it to terrorize him for an hour-and-a-half in the evening. And so that was my experience. [Sumner: “And that was your go-to response.”] Yeah, automatically, “this is what I’ve got to do.”

Men Exhibiting the Freedom to be Human Without Fear of Appearing Un-Manly

Sumner: It reminds me of my youngest son, he was maybe 10 or 11 at the time. We were at the movies and there was a sad part in the movie, and I sniffed, I was tearing up a bit. And there was a man sitting a couple of rows behind me with his kid and he first tried to bully me. He actually said to me, “Are you crying?” He was so offended that another man had exhibited a quality that he didn’t approve of that he actually reached out to a stranger in a movie theater to challenge [him]. And the best thing was my son turned around and looked at him and goes, “Yeah, that’s really sad.” [Both: Laugh.] Like, this is the appropriate response for what’s happening right now. [Flood: “Sadness, tears.”] What’s your problem? Yeah, there it is, man. He just turned around.

The fact that this guy is going to bully me? But even more importantly, you take my son, who was so comfortable with himself as a human, that he could say, “Yeah, duh, look what’s happening.” “Why aren’t you?” “What’s wrong with you?” And that I absolutely love. I wish that is something that I had had growing up. I think I would be a healthier human being today. That’s really the goal. To give boys the permission, the tools, and the freedom to exhibit a complete masculinity without shame and fear.

Flood: Right. I had a friend who was in the movie theater when he was little. He told me his dad took him with a bunch of his friends, and they were watching some scary movie and his friend screamed and his dad said to him, “Is your friend Paul gay or something?” Because he screamed.

Sumner: “Right. So therefore, he must not be straight.”

Flood: I thought it was an interesting follow up from what your son experienced, but he [your son] normalized it. “No, he’s supposed to be sad!” My son was walking to school in middle school. It was in the fall and the leaves were turning and he commented on this red tree, “isn’t this tree just beautiful?” to his friend and his friend said, “Beautiful? Dude, it’s cool.” [Laughs.] Again, as a male, to not use too much artistic language. That training happens.

Sumner: I used to manage a pretty greasy bar here in Grand Rapids with a collection of colorful characters. There was a motorcycle club that was a regular there. They all hung out there. A common friend of all these people had died. I think it was a motorcycle accident so they were having just like a memorial at the bar.

I remember how much it struck me because hands down, the two toughest men in the room, were sitting quietly at the bar, by themselves, separated, drinking their drink, and shedding tears. Nobody went near them, nobody bothered them, nobody mocked them. Everybody else was mourning, but they were performing it. They were smashing glasses. It was therapeutic I’m sure, but it was a performance. I just remember thinking these two guys, they at least have the courage and the confidence to shed tears, because that’s appropriate and that made me sad for all the people that just didn’t have that.

Mindless Bullying Based on Stereotypes – Rejecting all things Gay and Girly

Flood: So much about the role that bullying plays, the name calling—sissy, fag, gay—ya know, they’re all about saying stop being a woman, stop being a gay man, be a real man, get back in the box. And then, if that doesn’t work, you get bullied and harassed if those names don’t shame you to start behaving and performing masculinity. When I did those consultations, I would come in as this pro-feminist guy. I would ask the students after I trained them on the three roles (the bystander, the bully, the victim), “So, which one do you think I played in school?” And they would either say “you were a victim” or “you were a bystander,” but they never would say that I was a bully. And I was!

I think all of us have had times where we bullied. For me growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was just a standard procedure, especially bullying kids that were gay in a rural setting in northern Michigan, or who talked or looked gay.

I’m going to share another story about that experience of being a bully. It’s a shameful story, but I want to give other people permission to acknowledge the pain that we cause, acknowledge the pain that we received, and that the more that we change the inner dialogue, as you said, helps, right?

I’m sitting at a table of six in the library at my high school. I’m supposed to be doing research for my economics term paper, a class requiring serious study unlike the shop classes I took to avoid my anxiety and self-doubt of being able to perform academically.

I’m overwhelmed by the task of research: writing note cards from periodicals on my topic, “The Government Bailout of Chrysler.”  I’m sitting with my varsity baseball teammates and Tim. Tim, a thespian, is what my manpack thought of as girly. He talked with a lisp, seemingly from a different tribe. He stands out at a table full of my guys, my tribe. I’ve picked on Tim before, and now he seems like a nice distraction from the chore of research.

He’s sitting next to me, and I lean over and whisper, “Hi, Thimmy. How’s the rethearch going?” He glares at me angrily then resumes reading his periodical. I continue to mock him verbally while my teammates begin snickering, egging me on. I jab him in the ribs with my elbow. He glares at me and hisses, “Knock it off, Randy.”

We all laugh, and I say, “Oh-h, Thimmy he’s getting tho thurios.”

Tim clenches his fists while his muscles pulsate in his jaw. I don’t let up.  All of a sudden, he hurls his arm up and hits me in the mouth with the back of his clenched fist. I’m furious! He’s always taken it before. He’s never hit me. And now, he’s embarrassed me in front of my friends. I punch him back, hitting him in the side of the head. 

At that moment, the male librarian looks at us and orders us both to his desk. He tells us to go to the principal’s office. Tim complies, walking slowly away. I stay, trying to make my case. I convince the librarian that I was only defending myself, saying, “Tim hit me first.” I also remind him that if I get sent to the principal’s office, I won’t be able to play in the baseball game after school. He momentarily looks down at the magazine on his desk, likely assessing the consequences of his choices.  He sighs and says, “Go sit down and get to work on your research and stop horsing around.”

“I’ll get right to work. Thanks!” I said. I go back to my teammates. We laugh it up a bit; particularly pleased at how “Thimmy” got in trouble, and I didn’t. I am relieved somewhat, but now feel a heaviness in my chest. 

I think of earlier when I was in touch with the pain of the bullying and the violence and such. And here I am, a senior in high school, and I’m kinda coarse and disconnected somewhat and performing that bullying. But still, recognizing that it didn’t feel right. But, of course, not talking about it with my male friends and not my athletic friends. I look back at that and I feel terrible. I’m Facebook friends with [Tim] and I wrote him a long message and I apologized to him. And he thanked me. He remembered it vividly. Remembered me picking on him. Now we communicate. We connect and talk and share things.

Sumner: That’s awesome.

Flood: It is. I was just caught up in it, in the 80s, it’s just what we did. [Sumner: “I hear ya, I get it.”] Ya know, they’re from a different tribe, ya know, one way to prove your masculinity is not be gay or pick on the gay guy. Right?

Ending the Bullying Culture

Sumner: Yeah. I have many, many, many similar experiences where you’re doing something that you abhor and you don’t even understand why. It’s like you’re on cruise control and I think that causes a lot of the pain and damage because, at the end of the day, we all got to sit back and reflect on ourselves. At some point you’re going to be staring at a blank wall. When you do that you’ve got to either figure out how you can be comfortable with you as a person and if you’re not doing it in a healthy way, you’re going to find an unhealthy way to change it, and that usually has pretty bad consequences.

Flood: I remember a guy who came from a machine shop. He came here for a violence assessment because he threw his tool box and threw a bunch of tools at his co-workers, and I thought, “Wow! This guy sounds like a hot head.”

So, I get him in my office and he starts sharing the story: they were harassing him, doing stuff to his tools, hiding stuff, they were spraying oil on his desk, so when he would come into work and set things down things would slide off. He said he tolerated it for a long time and then he finally popped off. Of course, his employer looks at him as the loose cannon with the problem, and they send him to my office for a violence assessment. Ya know? There’re just certain cultures, still, where people are just stuck in middle school or high school doing this bullying stuff.

Sumner: I worry about people that really are indoctrinated into that and buy into that because there’s really less tolerance for that behavior and that pushes it away, and that scares me a bit. I worry about those people that really hold true to those values and what’s gonna happen to them. Where does that erupt? What does that look like? I think it’s important that we really change and challenge how we train and teach our boys, the examples that we give them so that we can end this accentuation.

Flood: What does it look like in male culture if we don’t normalize bullying as being a part of it? Or hazing as a part of it? How can we be guys and have fun with each other? There’s a way of doing it that there’s some level of consent involved, there’s some sharing of power. There’re new rules I think we have to adopt and learn: Saying, okay this is bullying. This is using your power to shame and degrade and pass your pain onto that person. It’s damaging and creates potential for violent reaction (which we see in school shootings often). I think there’s a way of doing guy culture but avoiding this other more toxic.

Sumner: I agree. I think that the change for that starts with paying attention to your inner dialogue.

Flood: Back to the beginning, right?

Sumner: Yeah. How do you talk to yourself? My whole thing is I don’t subscribe to a political party, I don’t subscribe to an organization of any kind. When I make my decisions, I make my decisions based on “I want to be a man of compassion, kindness, equity, and strength.” That’s what I want. That’s the filter I put everything through now, not “Are you in my political party?’ “Are you on my team?” “Are you in my tribe?” Is what I’m doing, this? Yeah.

Flood: Those are great values that we hopefully all can have and uphold. Thanks for coming in. It’s important for us to acknowledge this part of male socialization and for giving others permission to maybe change their inner dialogue. Once you do that, it changes the way you behave to yourself and others. So, thanks.

Sumner: Thanks for having me, Randy.

Programs That Help Bullies and Victims Recover their Lives

Whether you’ve been or are a bully, have been a victim, or just struggle with that inner dialogue of normalizing the receiving and passing of pain onto others, you can end the cycle of fear, loneliness, and shame. When we change how we dialogue with ourselves, we change how we interact with others.  The therapists and counselors at the Men’s Resource Center can help. You can find a list of services on our website. It includes anti-bullying consultation, anger management programs, and help with recovery from trauma. Our individual and group counseling is available on line and in person. Contact us through the website or by phone (616) 456-1178 for more information or if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.