We asked experts how to identify bullies and how to respond if you’re dealing with one personally.
Bullying is generally associated with children, but the last few years have given us ample examples of adults showcasing classic bullying behavior.
Workplace bullying returned to the spotlight last year, when President Joe Biden’s top science adviser, Eric Lander, resigned following an investigation that found he had violated the White House’s Safe and Respectful Workplace Policy. (He’s not an outlier boss; in a national survey, the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 19% of adults said they’d personally been bullied by a higher-up or colleague, while another 19% said they’d seen it happen to someone else.)
Then there was bullying over masks: Conversations around mask usage were highly charged and politicized during the height of the pandemic, leading to grown adults verbally and physically confronting those who opted in or out of wearing one.
Some adults who wouldn’t dare bully someone in public feel entirely OK doing it online, leaving nasty comments on celebrities’ Instagram posts or blatantly attacking trans kids and their parents on Twitter.
“As with children, adult bullying is a power struggle that emanates from low self-esteem, jealousy, and envy.”
Bullies exist in our more intimate lives, too: A bully can be a meddling, aggressive neighbor, a manipulative, undermining friend or a romantic partner who uses humiliation to get their way.
“Bullies are not confined to the workplace, they’re not confined to one gender or identity. They come in all shapes and sizes,” said Laura M. Riss, a psychologist in Atlanta.
While other forms of bullying may seem more evident because they violate tangible boundaries (ex: a boss who violates HR standards in the office), Riss told HuffPost it’s important not to minimize how harmful unchecked, more intimate forms of bullying can be.
“All forms of bullying harm the victim’s sense of self, safety, and security and often lead to feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and loss of control,” she said.
Adult bullying is usually an act of control, especially over someone whom the bully believes is not as strong as them, said Joyce Morley, a psychotherapist in Decatur, Georgia.
“As with children, adult bullying is a power struggle that emanates from low self-esteem, jealousy, and envy,” she said.
While the forms of adult bullying can run the gamut ― the American Psychological Association defines bullying as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort, and can take the form of physical contact, words, or more subtle actions” ― the tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with an adult bully tend to be fairly similar.
Below, therapists we spoke with share a few behaviors that suggest you may have a bully on your hands.
They look for opportunities to bully you in front of an audience.
Whether they’re trolling you on Twitter or snidely mocking your ideas in a brainstorming meeting, adult bullies get a charge out of ridiculing their target in public settings.
“Adult bullies seek attention and display their bullying tactics in the presence of
others: On a group call, in person with others, in a reply-all email, or through social media,” said Morley. “They are often opportunists. The person bullying feels more empowered when there is an audience.”
For the bully, public ridicule is all about making their targets feel isolated and ostracized.
“They use isolation as a weapon and gaslighting to lead to self-doubt, second guessing, anxiety and insecurity in the person they are trying to control,” Riss said.
At the same time, Riss said, the bully will often conduct themselves appropriately with others so that their target will doubt whether they’re dealing with a bully or not.
Bullies usually love to gossip.
When it comes to spreading rumors, bullies are the ultimate mean girls: gossiping in the break room, sharing information they shouldn’t about someone else during girls’ night, slyly subtweeting or posting an Instagram quote card about someone without mentioning their name.
“Technology permits people to cause pain without seeing its impact on others and/or without consequences,” said Aimee Martinez, a psychoanalytic psychologist in West Hollywood, California. “Power can then be derived from both the message being public and the user being anonymous.”
They’re masters of passive aggression.
Passive-aggressive bullying tends to be less easily identifiable because most anti-bullying advice ― from “anger management” classes to zero-tolerance policies at work ― deals with more overt forms of bullying.
To work around that, the passive-aggressive bully often disguises their bad behavior as sarcasm. They’re not cruel, they’re just witty! (Think: Violet Crawley, the grandma on “Downton Abbey,” passing off a sick burn as clever conversation.)
“They’ll embed jabs and biting remarks in the form of jokes or use of humor,” Riss said. “This bully will use sarcasm, eye rolling, shaming and blaming, mimicking, or mocking to control and coerce and flip the script, accusing the victim of not being able to take or joke or [telling] them to
How To Get A Handle On Adult Bullies
If this all sounds familiar, you’re likely the victim of an adult bully. Here are some of the smartest ways to address any instances of bullying in your own life.
Look for bystanders and witnesses.
Have you noticed that you’re not the only one getting bullied at work? Have your other friends recognized that your one friend has a habit of making condescending remarks about your personal life?
See if you can seek guidance and talk openly with them. Bullies gain power by isolating their targets, so there’s strength in numbers when it comes to bullies, said Preston Ni, a professor of communication studies and author of the book “How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People.”
“Seek allies to help you deal with bullying when necessary,” he said. “Depending on the situation, support may include friends, family, colleagues, mental health professionals or even legal experts.”
Be intentional about when you engage.
Not all bullies are worth engaging with, but if it’s vital that you speak up, try to keep your composure and be as non-reactive as possible, Exelbert said.
“Bullies will attempt to push your buttons, so it’s important to continuously remind yourself that a bully’s behavior reflects how they feel about themself, and it has nothing to do with you,” she said.
While some bullying situations will require the establishment of strong and effective boundaries, others will require you to be polite and unemotional, she added.
Know the difference between bullying and harassment.
How do you know when you’re being bullied and when you’re being harassed? While both bullying and harassment are based on power, there are some distinctions, especially in the workplace.
When bullying is directed at an individual who belongs to a protected class (whether based on their race, ethnicity, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, family status, marital status, disability or nationality), it’s considered harassment and a type of discrimination, Exelbert said.
Document any instances of bullying you can.
Many places of employment have systems in place where you can seek help with bullying or harassment, but keep in mind that sometimes systems fail, so do your best to document any instances of bullying when they’re happening in the workplace.
“It can be helpful to keep records and document interactions, save emails, texts, and other digital footprints particularly if you think you might need to file a complaint or report these interactions to the authorities,” Riss said.
Don’t allow yourself to be part of the system that either supports or ignores bullying.
It is important to consider that bullying is not just a binary of bully and victim, Martinez said: Those who witness bullying are a part of that system.
That said, it’s difficult to know what to do or how to speak up, whether the bullying is taking place in the workplace or in your personal life. You might want to speak up but worry that if you do, you’ll get bullied yourself.
Always assess for safety in moments of confrontation, Martinez said.
“Are there others around to witness it? Can you safely support the victim to remove themselves from the situation? Or perhaps you might set a boundary with the bully and encourage them to leave.”
In these moments, Martinez said, “finding words to support someone who can’t find their own words, or is too scared out of fear of retribution, can be a powerful form of solidarity.”
Remember that you’re valuable and that you have worth.
Remember: Bullying is not about you, it’s about the bully’s need to dominate and feel empowered, Exelbert said. (In fact, she noted that oftentimes, bullies will target someone who threatens them due to the other person’s strength, confidence or abilities.)
“Bullies ultimately want to make someone feel as small and insignificant as someone earlier in their life made them feel, as most bullies were once bullied themselves,” she said.
If you’re being bullied, remember: Your happiness is just as important as anyone else’s.
“There’s a popular quote often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that’s helpful to consider here,” Exelbert said. “‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ In other words, don’t accept what a bully has to say as truth.”
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