FAQ’s about Adult Bullying

Bullying sucks, at any age.

Bullying hurts…the irony being that the bullies in the schoolyard are often the ones being bullied in another arena.  They feel hurt and powerless…and so exert power over another to push away the helplessness.

Those that are bullied are often hesitant to disclose to others that they are bullied…no matter what the age. The reason why bullying works is cuz there is a little part of the bullied that believe the messages of the bully…that they are fat or a fraidy-cat or dumb or worthless and they do “deserve it”.

You are not alone.

Enjoy the beauty, feel the understanding, cry with those who are hurt:


To this day, those who have been bullied are affected.

To this day, those who felt vulnerable to the names and labels that hurt more than sticks and stone remain vulnerable to those names and labels that are more sophisticated and layered and nuanced as adults…but no less subversive to one’s sense of value.

What is adult bullying?

Sarcasm, yelling, name-calling, threats, intimidation, withdrawal of love, physical attacks. When someone threatens your emotional or physical wellbeing, or tears your character down–rips apart who you are…that is bullying.

Critique addresses behaviour. Bullying attacks the person.

Feedback is phrased carefully. Bullying is dumped carelessly.

Real relationships cross boundaries, but are open to feedback, circling back and apologizing…and then doing things differently.  Bullying says, “you’re being too sensitive”, “stop being hurt, it’s no big deal”, “because I don’t see the problem, it’s not a problem”

When you feel like you are made to feel small, weak and powerless in the relationships–that is a bullying relationship.

Are the nasty bosses, or the drunk buffoon at the bar the adult bullies in our lives?

Yes, they are.  People in a position of power–a supervisor at work, your landlord, your banker…they can be fullies.

But parents can be bullies to their adult children.  Adult children can be bullies to their parents.  Spouses can be bullies to their partners. Friends can be bullies to friends.

When close relationships have bullying elements, it can be subtle and insidious and difficult to name and change…which makes those close relationships of bullying pretty darn tricky.

How does bullying work?

Bullies seek (consciously or unconsciously) to have the person feel vulnerable, weak and powerless.  That’s when bullying works most effectively to control the other.  Each incident of bullying demonstrates to the bully that it works to exert power over that person.

Without intending to, each time a victim acquiesces to the bully, it is a message saying that the bullying is worthwhile and effective and worth continuing.

Those in close relationship with a bully often feel like they are taking the path of least resistance, or avoiding a fuss, or “keeping the peace” by giving in.  What this is actually doing is reinforcing the behaviour.  Bullies know that if they keep at it, you will give in. By smoothing things over, and giving the bully what s/he wants, a victims increases the intensity of the bullying.

Carolyn, are you blaming the victim?

No. I’m not.

To be clear, it is never OK in everyday relationships to hurt another, belittle them, take away their power or self esteem or sense of well being by intimidation or coercion.  Tantrums or manipulation or threats don’t have a place in relationships.  Even on your bad days, you don’t deserve that.  Nobody does.

However, I remember going to a workshop many years ago where the leader said, “There are three kinds of kids on the playground.  The bullies, the victims, and everybody else…most people are in the ‘everybody else’ category”. The workshop leader went on to point out that a bully may go up to an “everybody else” person and say, “you’re ugly and fat” and throw spitballs at the person.

An “everybody else” person will respond to the name calling with something like: “That’s rude, dude. Stop it. So not cool.” and turn back to spend time with their friends.  Bullying doesn’t work on a lot of people cuz they simply won’t buy it.

And the bully will move on to try somebody else…cuz it’s no fun trying to bully somebody who doesn’t do their part by playing the victim.

The “everybody else’s” may be intimidated by a landlord or a boss, and may have to be subjected to some unfair treatment…but inside, they won’t really be bullied…because they will know, at the core of their being, that this is unfair, and they don’t deserve it.

And that’s the key.  Deserving it.

When there is a small part of you that believes the nastiness…that you believe you deserve the names, the criticism, the abuse…then you allow it.

So what do I do with the bully in my life?

First…look after yourself.  Typically, a bully seeks to isolate his/her victim.  Don’t let that happen.

Share your story with someone you believe in and you trust. Risk telling stories you are embarrassed or ashamed or humiliated about…letting the other person know it’s hard.  Have them speak truth into your life.

You need to hold onto who you are–to be emboldened and empowered in yourself to engage with the bully from a position of feeling strong…of knowing you are worth being treated well.

This will help you know that you have more power than you realize.  You can say “no”.  You can walk away. You can choose not to engage in a dance you know isn’t going anywhere. You can protect yourself from something that is gonna get ugly.

Sometimes that takes advance planning. Sometimes it takes bringing other people in as witnesses, or doing things via email so it can be documented.

Almost always it’s terrifying.

And generally, the bully doesn’t like being stood up to.  Things can get worse for a while, as s/he tries harder to bully you into submission…that’s when it gets really hard–until the bully knows you mean business and you won’t be backing down.

You need support to help you stay calm, stay in the space of what’s true, and work towards a solution, rather than escalating a problem.  Bullying a bully rarely works.

Any last piece of advice?

One simple, but complex line:

You teach people how to treat you.

Talk to friends. Watch videos. Read books. Get counselling. Invest in developing strategies that will have people understand how to relate to you.

This is not easy, and often those who are bullied as adults were trained to be bullied because they were bullied as children…when someone approaches them in an intimidating way, they are very naturally intimidated.

Know that it’s not easy, but it is do-able–to learn that you are worth more than that, to know that you can make decisions not to put up with that crap…and to have the bully understand that the old patterns simply aren’t going to work anymore.

Teach people to treat you respectfully…know that you are worth it!

We teach other people how to treat us. Poster by Bergen and Associates in Winnipeg, a therapy clinic

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