Kyle MacDonald: Are you a victim or a bully?

NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald.  Click here for the original article…

“Regarding bullying, reality is, it’s killing many through suicide. Why is it so rife?” Concerned

Bullying is a word that has been redefined, a word we used to associate with schoolyard taunts, and the singling out of one child for physical attack is now synonymous with the cruel online attacks that seem to increasingly put the lives of young people, and adults, at risk.

But is it any different? Or is online bullying (as tragic as the outcome can be) just more visible, and therefore more easily reported? And how does it drive some to such intense distress that they take their own lives?

Singling someone out with the aim of running them down, humiliating or attacking them is as old as social groups, and yet in some ways we are only just starting to understand the impact it can have, especially on our emotional development.

Traditionally dismissed (think “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”) just a generation ago, children were encouraged to ignore it, and not let it get to them.

But more recently research into the effects of all kinds of “adverse events” on emotional development suggests sustained bullying can almost be as harmful as physical and sexual abuse, and it’s consequences just as long lasting.

To me there are some really key differences with cyber bullying. The first is it is much harder to escape. If you’re being picked on at school, you can always escape it outside school, or in other social groups. The nature of social media means, for those who use it, it’s always on. And that makes users more vulnerable.

READ MORE: • Why are we becoming so narcissistic? Here’s the science
Many social scientists have also found a gradual increase in narcissism culturally in the west, and with it a decrease in empathy. Some believe social media is a cause, and some believe it’s an outcome of this trend, but what is clear is that the very nature of social media, with the absence of physical proximity, the ability to read physical and facial clues, means we all risk responding thoughtlessly online (I know I have).

For all the wonderful things social media brings to our lives, in my view it can also amplify the risk of bullying. It can make empathy for others harder to generate, and harder to sustain, and it also makes it harder to know when enough is enough.

Ultimately it falls on all of us to not only make sure we protect each other from bullying, but to also accept that within all of us lies the ability to respond without empathy, to feel justified in attacking rather than engaging, that within all of us lies the potential to both be the victim and the bully.


• Questions will remain anonymous
Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.


MacDonald on Violence

My first job in this field was working for an agency that ran  groups for men who were court ordered to attend treatment subsequent to domestic violence charges.  It wasn’t as tough as it sounds, in part due to my enthusiasm for having a job I had a pretty unflappable attitude to it all, and in part due to the experienced staff around me at the time.

My boss, a very experienced (professionally and in the “school of hard knocks sense” of the word) taught me how to focus in on listening for projection and blame, and to relentlessly challenge it.  And while the content of the course was important: assertiveness skills, understanding the role of tradition and culture in domestic violence, recognizing the control tactics for what they are; in the end it all came down to one thing: accountability.

Half the men there would claim there partners started it, that they were violent too and they never got charged.  What they wouldn’t say unless challenged was what actually happened was his partner had scratched him because he was yelling in her face, and then he punched her so hard she got a black eye.

The other half would roll out ridiculous stories like (I’m not joking here) “I was just expressing myself with my hands and she walked in to my fist”; “I was trying to restrain her and she slipped and I accidentally landed on her with my knee.”

If it wasn’t so awful, it would’ve been laughable.

This is why accountability and self responsibility is the target in treating men who hit women, because overwhelmingly the majority of men who end up in programmes like this don’t have it.  They blame their partners, blame their wives “emotionality”; blame their “relationship” even in the face of the overwhelming reality.

So why, many would ask, when “she started it” do the men get arrested? Because again, in the overwhelming majority of cases the difference between a scratch and a broken nose is recognized in the law.  When men assault women, it’s really really dangerous.  Whether you like it or not, we are bigger, stronger and more inclined (on average) to lash out when emotionally overwhelmed.

And let’s not even get started on the scale of the problem.  Here’s just one stat that shocked me: :

“NZ Police recorded a family violence investigation on average every five and a half minutes in 2014. [and yet] 76{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} of family violence incidents are NOT reported to Police.”  (Click here for the whole article)

So this is why so many people have reacted so strongly to his insensitive comments about McCaw’s punch in the face, but even more strongly to his attempts to defend himself in a subsequent Facebook post:

Veitch on Sport










Now there are people claiming that they have been bullied via personal messages from this page, of other commenters bullying women on the page and of anti-Veitch comments being deleted and other rumours emerging of Veitch himself still allegedly exhibiting some pretty worrying behaviour about one year ago. (“He” in this post comment being Veitch).

Veitch kicking DJ










And of course reading the content of the actual assaults that occurred, as they were made public in 2009 and re-circulated via social media in the last few days, makes for harrowing reading.

For me the key question then is: are these outbursts the actions of someone who has taken full accountability for their actions, and as a result understands the impact of his actions?  He might, I’ve never met the guy, but nothing in his recent commentary demonstrates that.  To describe his own struggle with having to “re-build my life and career and learn from what was a hideous relationship” doesn’t leave people feeling full of confidence that he’s really got it, now does it?

The reality, in my view is that as a public figure convicted of a fairly horrific assault, not only should you count yourself lucky to be working in a highly paid public role again, but you might want to consider being a little more thoughtful when you’re talking about violence, and have a nit more understanding when people call you out on your views.

In other words: be accountable for your actions.

Sticks and Stones

We’ve all heard of, seen and maybe experienced being bullied as kids.  But it is now well recognized that bullying happens no matter how old you are, and the most common place to experience bullying as an adult: the workplace.

Wallace and I talked about adult bullying this week, Sunday morning on Radio Live, how to spot it and what to do about it.  (Click here to listen to the interview…)

The picture in New Zealand is frankly a little scary.  “A 2011 survey of more than 7,000 female Public Service Association members found that 43 per cent had felt bullied in their current workplace at some point.” (Click here for the whole article and here for the original research report)

The same research also outlines the most common forms this bullying takes:

  • Spreading rumors about someone
  • Verbally picking on someone or setting them up to fail
  • Making threats about their job
  • Overloading them with work


And the effects can also be severe.  Some studies have shown that as high as 1 in 10 people who experience workplace bullying display symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Sticks and stones may break bones, but words most certainly will hurt even more.

However when we think about adult bullying, we aren’t just limited to workplaces and the stereotype of an overbearing manager making an employee’s life hell.  Bullying occurs anywhere there are groups of people.  Sports teams, volunteer organizations, community groups and families.  Frequently we aren’t used to thinking about bad behavior as bullying, it often just gets dismissed as someone being difficult, or worse we see those effected and think they should just toughen up.

So what’s really going on when someone’s bullying or being “impossible?”

The pattern of behavior that is common with adult bullies is what psychiatry refers to as “narcissism“.  While most people think of this as an excess of self love, as defined in the myth of Narcissus that led Freud to coin the term, there is more to it than that.

The relevant feature when it comes to bullying is diminished (or absent) empathy for the other person.  And this is the key feature of what is defined as  the exploitative or entitled narcissist.  There are the people that seem to act is if the world owes them a favor, are more likely to take advantage of a situation or rip someone off and not experience guilt, and more likely to put others down or need things to go there way all the time.

There are some gender differences, females with this make up tend to be more charming and harder to pick, and men tend to be a bit more domineering, but a lot of this is down to cultural models of what is acceptable behavior for men and women in our society.

As an approach to the world, it can be quite successful, especially in certain career paths like the corporate world or the legal profession.  It’s also true that entitled narcissists will crave success, and ways of displaying to the world how successful they are like big expensive cars, flashy houses.  They will also often end up in positions of relative power, with the responsibility for managing employees or groups of people.

If you’ve ever found yourself yelling (or wanting to yell) “IT”S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU…” chances are you’re dealing with an entitled narcissist.

So what should you do if you’re struggling with someone who is entitled and bullying?


  • Recognize, and keep reminding yourself, that it’s not about you.
  • Give up on winning the argument, or convincing them to see your point of view.  It’s likely that they actually can’t or won’t see your point of view.
  • You also won’t change them, so give up on that too.  In severe cases narcissism is classified as a personality disorder, and particularly resistant to change even when people just display mild versions of this behavior.
  • Use trusted friends to “reality check”.  Interacting regularly with entitled people can leave you feeling like you’re questioning your own view of reality.  Being constantly questioned, disagreed with, and pushed to accept the other person’s point of view at the exclusion of yours, is one of the subtle strategies of adult bullies.
  • Don’t confront them directly and certainly not on your own.  If you do it’s likely one of two things will happen.  They will escalate their attacks and make you feel even worse; or deny the problem all together by “turning the tables” and acting like the hard done victim that has just been unfairly attacked.
  • If the behavior is happening in a group, try to get all of those effected to speak up.  Silence is what gives bullies power.
  • Most importantly don’t be afraid to label behavior as bullying and support others who are being bullied.


“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
― Desmond Tutu


Being a therapist, privacy’s kind of in the blood.  Much the same for all health professionals, it’s part of our training and our professional ethics.  Lawyers, doctors and priests all have legal privilege to keep even incriminating information private, with some very occasional exceptions. These exceptions don’t have black and white rules, they’re governed by clinical experience, professional ethics and balancing risks.

It’s notable that the Government’s recent “White Paper” on child abuse responses even shied away from mandatory reporting.  Clinical privacy is a complex matter and breaching privacy for any professional is always a carefully thought through and serious matter.

However I’m fairly convinced the Minister for Social Development, Hon. Paula Bennett doesn’t really understand the ethics of privacy.

After breaching  beneficiary Natasha Fuller’s privacy in 2009 by releasing details of her income from WINZ, the Minster said:

“I acknowledge that you consider that I was wrong to do so and that this resulted in a breach of Ms Fuller’s privacy. As you also know, I do not accept that view.”

You might recall the reason Mrs. Bennett breached privacy was because the client of WINZ publicly criticised the Minister for cutting back the training allowance, in other words exercising her right to free speech.

So it feels a little hard to swallow when the Minister now says of the unfolding privacy breach at WINZ (See here for Keith Ng’s original blog post):

“I’m deeply disappointed information which should have been secure has been accessed, the public has a right to expect more of a government agency,” says Mrs Bennett.”

And more of a Minister.

Accessing, hearing, holding and managing anyone’s personal information is a privilege.  Health, pastoral and legal professions “get this.”  Without confidentiality many helping professions cease to exist.

The common factor with the now public information about the internal computer systems at WINZ and the ACC (see:  “When a secret is no longer a secret”) is the complete absence of internal checks and balances against inappropriate access of information by internal staff and it would seem even by the Minister.  I doubt WINZ would see its information as “clinically privileged” but much of it is; and if the ACC don’t then they should by now.

In my opinion when information is handled “administratively” it can easily be handled without the privileged respect it deserves.  Keith’s blog outlines the digital equivalent of leaving files laying around on desks in an open plan office, with the front door unlocked.

Curiosity is human nature and robust privacy systems recognise that people are naturally inclined to look if there are no consequences.  In the public health system where I also work, I can’t directly access anyone’s file that I am not directly involved in treating.  If I do open such a file I must justify my actions and it is auditable.

But I guess if WINZ were to implement such a process it would prohibit the Minister from accessing the information she needs to attack and publicly shame her critics in the future:

“When asked… …if she would do the same thing again [breach a WINZ client’s privacy], Ms Bennett would not rule it out… “It would depend on the circumstances but I’m not going to make a judgement on what may or may not happen. I’d make a call at the time.”


Feminist sympathiser?

I have been accused of many things over the last couple of years and most of them I feel proud of.  Like this accusation from the MENZ website (the website of John Potter husband of Dr. Felicity Goodyear-Smith see here) because of this blog I wrote sometime ago.

“Perhaps his judgement has been impaired by an overwhelming flow of warm female fuzzies”

Contrary to Mr. Potter’s views, I think I’ve always had a reasonably balanced view of gender politics, we’re all more or less equal, should be treated as such and the ways in which men and women are different should be a cause for celebration, not derision.  I suspect that Alasdair Thompson would disagree though.  According to him women are fundamentally less productive, and “victims” of their biology.  See the interview from TV3 here and the Herald article here.  From the short video interview Mr. Thompson shows all the hallmarks of a bully, and that is at least as concerning as his grossly ignorant views.  It would be hard to imagine how any fair minded person would feel comfortable with him being head of their union.

It’s been a fair old week for gender politics of course, with the international phenomenon that is the “Slut Walk” having reached our shores.  See here for the Heralds coverage and here for TVNZ’s.  This movement was, of course, kicked off by yet another ignorant utterance of a public figure “in Toronto earlier this year when a police officer told students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts if they don’t want to be victimised”.”

This weeks Listener (July 2 – 8, 2011) covers this issue in depth and makes the excellent point:

“The trouble with precautionary talk about rape prevention, feminists say, is, first, that it assumes men will rape, given half a chance or a whiff of assumed encouragement, which patently is not true, and second, that rape is usually about sex and physical allure, which is untrue.”

These views, espoused in such an authoritative way by people in power, leave me feeling that this is not just a feminist issue, but a human rights issue.  As a therapist it also has made me wonder about how people seem to express such downright offensive views with such confidence.  And this leads me to what I think is the most disturbing part of these stories: these people believed their view to be objectively right.

Such narrow minded certainty is the enemy of free thinking and in many ways the opposite of psychotherapy.  Therapists so often deal with the conseqences of these views, and the logical, albeit extreme version of holding these views, namely bullying and abuse.

So no, I ain’t in it for the “warm female fuzzies”.   I belive as a therapist I have an ethical obligation to speak out about the abuse of power, bullying and ignorant dogma parading as fact.  In fact, I think we all do.