An earlier version of this piece was originally published on Many Kind Regards. It is being reprinted here with the permission of the site owner, as well as the author.
How to Fight Against the Adult Bully
Think back to your childhood. Somewhere in there, do your childhood memories include a run-in with a bully? Or worse, were you the bully in someone else’s childhood? Ever wonder what happened to that person?
What Is Bullying?
Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s define what bullying actually is–
The American Psychological Association defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that intentionally causes injury or discomfort” and can include physical/verbal aggression, or other actions.
Most of the time when we talk about bullies, we tend to focus our conversation on children. It makes sense – they’re fairly easy to spot. Overt aggression, shunning, and other behaviors are so classic to childhood bullying that they’ve become part of an archetype often represented in our entertainment. A more recent trend, bullying via social media is still relatively new, and often proves many times more difficult to identify. But there’s another bullying scenario we hardly ever see talked about anywhere—
Much to my surprise – and possibly yours– bullying in adulthood occurs as well. Imagine that! Here you are, a successful, bona fide adult with kids, a job and a car payment – and still dealing with people who derive pleasure in tearing us down.
No need to imagine, adult bullying is a real thing. It’s here.
And once again, social media is a great place to start looking for it. There are a ton of keyboard ninjas out there. But we can also find them at our places of work, worship, and even in our own families. The truth is that while some schoolyard bullies may modify their behaviors as stressors and other external factors are eliminated (think about the kid being abused at home who acts out on others in school), many of them simply grow older without acquiring greater empathy or emotional maturity. What these people often acquire instead is a lifetime worth of experience in bullying – which makes their approach more cunning, and their attacks more subtle. And depending on the environment, certain social/professional hierarchies can exacerbate the power differential between the aggressor and their target. It’s like adding gasoline to a fire.
The truth is that while some schoolyard bullies may modify their behaviors as stressors and other external factors are eliminated, many of them simply grow older without acquiring greater empathy or emotional maturity.
Busting Some Bullying Myths
While preparing for this article, I have to admit I was grateful to learn that some of our longest standing ‘truths’ about bullying couldn’t be further from reality. And I hope this will help everyone to better understand the social dynamics at play when dealing with one’s own personal bullies, as well as those our children may face as well.
Myth 1: Bullies are Unpopular
Were you ever bullied by someone who was unpopular? Because by and large that is not the experience I’ve heard from folks – either past or present. Most people, who’ve shared their experiences with me, as well as those I’ve come across in my research, spoke about their bullies as people with significant (relatively) amounts of social power and influence. And they also referred to their experience not as 1-on-1, but rather as with a ring leader and a social pack.
Myth 2: Bullies are Anxious & Insecure
As much as I understand the appeal of this line of thinking, especially when trying to bolster the deflated mood of someone’s most recent target (I refuse to call them victims), the research just doesn’t support this claim. Dr. Dan Olweus, a psychologist often heralded as the Father of Bullying Research, states otherwise. He reports that most of the bullies he’s studied had average or better than average self-esteem. Which, when you think about it – makes more sense than not.
Bullying as a Worldview
The idea that bullies do not suffer from low self-esteem and insecurity seems to stem from a piece surrounding entitlement. It’s the same conversation that comes up when we talk about other issues that plague our society too. As Dr. Susan Limber, a developmental psychologist at Clemson University noted in an interview with Nicole Crawford for the Monitor on Psychology, “Bullying is a form of victimization. It is no more of a conflict than child abuse or domestic violence.” 
In that interview, Limber went on to describe the misunderstanding of popular interventions – like mediation – when trying to confront bullies. While we could definitely argue that insufficient communication skills and poor access to healthy emotional release often contribute to violent outbursts in families where domestic violence occurs, we don’t use those factors as rationales for why those targeted individuals should be “the bigger person” and accept apology after apology.
Now I’m more than expecting a little pushback on the notion that bullying and things like domestic violence and rape are in someway on the same level. And I get it. They are different. Not all bullies are rapists. Not all bullies are people who go home and abuse their partners. But I guess the real question is, can you be a rapist or an abusive partner and not be a bully?
I would argue that bullying is absolutely a precursor the other forms of abuse I mentioned. And the research generally tends to agree. Studies from the CDC and other institutes have shown a correlation between bullying in youth, and sexualized aggressive behavior later on in adolescence and young adulthood. While again, it’s far from a 1-to-1 conversion, wielding power over another in an effort to exploit them for one’s own gain doesn’t really change regardless of whether we’re talking about playground bullies, domestic bullies or those who perpetuate workplace hostility. In every example, power and control reign supreme.
So How Do We Fight Back?
So here’s the deal. As an individual, the solution, tends to be a little lack luster. If you are someone in a disempowered state, and therefore the target of adult bullying, the best thing to do is to remove yourself from the situation. The truth is that hostile environments, or perhaps more accurately – environments that tolerate hostility – need to experience change at the systemic level before individuals can really benefit from fighting the good fight. And while you should absolutely file reports, as appropriate; most of what I’ve heard “from the trenches” so to speak — others who’ve experienced this form of bullying, lean towards the reality that changing a social climate is a long and slow process. And it’s usually something where the action of change needs to originate with the power holders.
I hate writing that.
I want to tell you that staying and fighting the system and the bullies therein is the noble and honorable choice.
But would I tell someone who’d been physically assaulted to stay and fight the systems that made that abuse possible? Are the invisible bruises, the anxiety and hurt cause by words and actions of another any less valid?
A clinical supervisor of mine once said, “All abuse begins with verbal abuse.”
If someone chooses to stay and fight adult bullying on social media or in the workplace – of course I will respect him or her. I’ve even listed some resources below for how to CYA and document your harassment.
But for those who want to leave, and only stay for fear being called a “coward” or a “quitter” – I say to you: Are you truly running away? Or are you refusing to participate in your own abuse? The intentions with which we perform our actions are ever-important.
We need to treasure ourselves. We need to value ourselves. And sometimes that means staying and fighting. And sometimes that means getting the hell out of Dodge.
Lastly, the other thing we need to do is make sure that we are not ourselves adult bullies, or silent bystanders of others’ actions.
For more information on workplace and adult bullying, check out the following links.
Adult Bullying Info Page
Adult Bullying | Bullying Statistics
Huffington Post on Adult Bullying
Tips on Documenting Bullying in the Workplace
And if you’d like to share your story so others don’t feel so alone in their experiences, I’d encourage you to do that as well in the comments.