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The Basics of Bullying and How to Stop It

“All cruelty springs from weakness.” —Seneca, 4BC-AD65

There are those who say that bullying is behind all forms of violence, conflict, persecution, abuse, harassment, discrimination, and prejudice.

The death of Phoebe Prince in 2010, a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who hanged herself after being harassed by a group of students from her school, puts a spotlight on bullying among teenagers. And in fact, there have been many notable cases of teen bullying, on and off the Internet (i.e., cyber-taunting on Facebook) that come to mind when we think of bullies.

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However, it isn’t just children and teenagers who bully. Although it may not be as obvious, or as easily identifiable, adult bullying may be more widespread. “Independent research suggests that bullying is happening to around 1 in 4 people” (from “Life After Adult Bullying”). Bullying impacts many of us, regardless of our age.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is defined as “an act of repeated aggressive behavior in order to intentionally hurt another person, physically or mentally” (Wikipedia). It is characterized as behaving in a manner to gain power over another person. And it is a form of abuse. I would suggest that if you rephrase the descriptive action from “repeated aggressive behavior” to “taking frustrations out” on those who are weaker or different, bullying becomes a much more commonplace and identifiable act. In fact, it is pervasive.

There are different types of bullies and different environments in which they proliferate. There are verbal bullies, physical bullies, serial bullies, gang bullies, cyber bullies, subordinate bullies, unwitting bullies, work bullies, sadistic bullies, and psychotic and sociopathic bullies. There are bullies at work, at home, in schools, in governments, in religious organizations, on the Internet, and in social cliques.

What Kind of People Bully?

Usually people with low self-esteem and a certain amount of unconscious resentment (envy, jealously) that pushes the bully to project their own feelings of inadequacy onto you while denying that anything is wrong with them. Not all bullies are serial bullies. Sometimes the average person loses it under pressure and takes out their feelings in a bullying manner. But regardless of how or why it is happening to you, it is not acceptable.

What all bullies have in common is the use of power to satisfy one’s own psychological shortcomings. Each time a bully moves against someone weaker, he/she feels better about themselves for an instant. But because that feeling doesn’t last, they do it again and again. Sometimes the bully appears to lack insight into their own behavior (unwitting bully), but more often the bully does know yet elects to ignore the moral and ethical considerations by which the majority of people are bound. The rules don’t apply to them. Or they have projected so much self-hatred on the other that they truly believe that those they are bullying deserve exactly what they are getting.

Why Are There So Many Bullies in Society?

One of the reasons bullying is so prevalent is because most bullies commit non-arrestable offenses. And so bullying becomes unconsciously acceptable. It’s an outlet–a way to express–frustration and/or rage.

There are adult bullies we can easily identify. Hitler was a bully; racists are bullies. Parents and older siblings have been known to bully. Certainly, gang members bully. But what about those who threaten, shame, or intimidate you into doing things you don’t really want to do? It happens to most of us, and when it does, we are being bullied. Even when it comes from a person or institution that you love, respect, admire–your government, your church, your significant other, a family member, a professional colleague. Sometimes there is a fine line between harmless coercion and harmful bullying. But you can feel the difference. You know when you are truly ambivalent and open to being talked into something versus when you are being pressed against your better instincts, wishes, or values. And if you are being bullied by more than one person (i.e. an organization or group), it is even more difficult to stand up for yourself.

More insidious and pernicious is the type of bullying that has less to do about forcing you to do something and more to do with “putting you in your place”–minimizing or even destroying you in order to make someone else feel better about themselves. People do this consciously or unconsciously because of a hole inside of themselves that they try and fill by being better than someone else. It gives them a sense of power and authority in the world that they may not otherwise experience. It is a way to externalize their own feelings of insecurity, inferiority, and/or rage by putting those feelings on someone else and then attacking them.

Some bullying is so subtle that you really believe the bully. They make you feel unsure of yourself; bad about yourself. They can even do it in the guise of friendship or love. It becomes more of a mind game than an outright violation. But it is bullying just the same. We will not be able to rid the world of bullies, but we can learn how to stand up to them.

How Do You Stand Up for Yourself to Stop Bullying?

First and foremost, recognize what is happening and remember that it is the bully who has the problem, not you. Unless they are physically threatening you, bullies are “paper tigers.” If you stand up to them calmly and confront their behavior rationally while asserting your rights, they will back down. If you call them out on their actions, they usually have no place to go–especially if others are witness to these actions. You don’t have to attack a bully; you simply have to calmly and self-assuredly stand up for yourself. You don’t want to give them reason to escalate by engaging in a heated or emotional manner. You may be thinking that this sounds easier than it would actually be. So start slowly. If you can’t immediately stand up to a bully, at least don’t play into their behavior by trying to appease them.

Let the bully know by your reaction that you are not cowed and quietly walk away. Think about what you want to say and either talk to them later or wait until the next time they behave that way and then call them out on it. Bullies don’t have any real power once they realize that you won’t engage in their game. Once you have exposed them; they will fade away.

© Copyright 2010 by Roni Weisberg-Ross, LMFT, therapist in West Los Angeles, CA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • JUDE June 14th, 2010 at 11:25 AM #1

    My boss is such a bully…has a special liking to bullying me and a few others…handles us some lenghty work at the last moment and gives us unreasonable deadlines and keeps shouting at us and keep telling us just how inefficient we are and how we can never match up to his younger past…I’d like to just slap him and tell him that he is nothing more than a bully and I am better than him,atleast in the aspect of treating others with some respect!

  • Julia June 14th, 2010 at 4:09 PM #2

    How do adults allow themselves to be treated like this? How poorly do you have to think of yourself as an adult to still allow this to happen to you?
    I can understand it happening to you as a kid, you have no real way to defend yourself. But as an adult you should have the ability to stand up for yourself and tell someone that he or she is doing wrong!

  • Lisa June 14th, 2010 at 4:52 PM #3

    Roni, I’ve been told before that the worst thing you can do to a bully (in their eyes) is laugh at them because it takes away their power. Would you advocate that as a strategy? I’m thinking more of online bullies, not bosses or a person you have to deal with face-to-face. I would think brushing off what they say with a jokey comment that shows it doesn’t bother you would be a good tactic.

  • Teach June 14th, 2010 at 7:15 PM #4

    I just read a new study that came out in Canada about workplace bullying. The findings were that workplace bullying can be worse than even racial or gender harrasment. It’s a serious problem there and up until now, it’s not been illegal. A new bill that’s coming in this month addresses that.

    vancouversun.com/news/Bullying+work+worse+than+gender+racial+harassment+Report/3151623/story.html

  • JERRY June 15th, 2010 at 4:24 AM #5

    I have never been bullied and have never bullied anyone either. But I just don’t understand this online bullying…I mean, size or position does not matter online, does it…? Also, you have the option of ‘turning off’ the bully, right…?

  • Steve June 15th, 2010 at 4:45 AM #6

    adult bullies are laughable- they are doing it all to prop up their own fragile egos- let them know that you know that about them and I guarantee the bullying will stop faster than it began.

  • Earnshaw E June 15th, 2010 at 12:13 PM #7

    @Jerry:you’re right.its not like they can follow you and taunt you in the real world…but they surely do,in the cyber world…its not as easy as just switching off or logging off…suppose you’re on a social networking site and this particular person is bullying you by posting fake info about you and writing to you.you can block that user but he will only create another user-name and get back to bullying you.and you would’nt want to delete your own account,would you…?!

  • Martha June 15th, 2010 at 7:58 PM #8

    Phoebe Prince wasn’t a Massachusetts girl. She was from Ireland and had only moved to the US months before. Her heritage was part of what made that poor beautiful girl a target too. Jealousy was at the root of this bullying, over a boy she was dating. Those kids killed her with their words and taunts as surely as if they had shot her.

  • Cameron June 16th, 2010 at 9:01 PM #9

    Wouldn’t ignoring them to be a better strategy than joking about what they said, Lisa? Because when you joke about it, you’re drawing attention to whatever they posted. If you ignore it, it doesn’t get the attention they crave that it will. All the online bullies I’ve ever came across hate nothing more than their rants and bitchy comments being ignored as if they aren’t even there.

  • Pearl June 16th, 2010 at 11:14 PM #10

    I had a boss once that bullied every youngster in the place. He eventually was removed from the job because a complaint was made against him. Employees need to know they do not have to accept workplace bullying! You can report it to HR. Bullying bosses feed on your fear and assume you’ll never do that. Make it official if you can.
    Once you do, it’s all on record and they can’t bully anymore because of that. They know that HR will be watching because they don’t want a lawsuit on their hands.

  • rare August 3rd, 2010 at 9:12 PM #11

    only those who experienced being bullied can truly relate to those who are being bullied but help ,more often than not must come from those who have not experienced bullying. its easy to say how one can allow oneself to be bullied but its a fact its happening and the bullied are helpless. they dont ALLOW others to bully them far from it, if they can leave that situation, im sure they would but they cant. i dont know if im making any sense at all, maybe those who are being bullied can understand what i mean.

  • kc November 20th, 2010 at 6:24 AM #12

    Most often there is nothing you can do to a bully boss. Yes their superiors know it. You become a child dependent on abusive dysfunctional parents. If your a government employee. Only God can help you.

  • bullied January 22nd, 2011 at 9:10 AM #13

    KC, You’re right about that. As a government employee, my boss is one insecure guy. He’s about 6 years older than me and will harass or make comments on a weekly basis in passing, sending a zinger my way or commenting about my name. I always feel like he wants me to quit but says that I’m doing a good job. He’s got some health problems and is in pain but makes some of the most outrageous comments I’ve ever heard or known a manager to make. And upon review, he’s done it in staff meetings and to our group as a whole. It’s amazing that he hasn’t been taken to HR and warned about this. He also confided to us that he taught high school history, a student drew a knife on him and he broke the kid’s arm. He was fired, but I’m sure he verbally provoked the kid. The kid’s actions weren’t justified but adults are capable of fostering and antagonizing just as easily as children and teenagers. The only thing that assuages my angst is that I consider the source and realize the immaturity and delayed development of this individual. I often wonder if he ponders the thought about the mind/body connection and how it may be worsening his debilitating illness. Yes, I pray about this and other situations at work regularly.

  • roneyrode February 20th, 2011 at 1:47 PM #14

    they always mention what a bully hitler was and how evil he was. yet they forget to mention what a bully stalin was who had killed far more people than hitler did more brutally and stalin was a jew. you forget to mention what a bully the united states and israel is to the innocent palestinians murdering and massacrering and raping men and women. oh yeah it is also a typical techinique of the bully to call the victim a bully. thanks to malcolm x, louis farrakhan and kamau kabon and leonard howell thousands of innocent white people are being bullied everyday. you know the words: cracker, honkey, white boy etc. isn’t tha racial bullying?

  • Courtney April 22nd, 2011 at 10:15 AM #15

    @Julia that’s a pretty insensitive comment. People who are bullied don’t want to be and usually are preyed on because they may be shy or timid or don’t like to stir the pot.

    Also – what if your HR manager is the one DOING the bullying?

  • Steph March 24th, 2012 at 2:30 PM #16

    one of my Supervisers is a Bully to me and we work with kids and we have it posted every were this is a Bully free zone and I went to my manager and I need help on this. I tried doing everything in my power to say something and she goes to the boss and says Steph is Lieing I never did anything that is she saying to me.

  • Martha October 19th, 2012 at 2:58 AM #17

    I am 46 years old and am currently being bullied by my sociopathic x-husband’s sociopathic first wife. We were divorced over three years ago and this week, his first wife decided to call my current boyfriend’s x-wife (who she doesn’t know) and tell her a bunch of lies about me. Although all the information was false, this phone call has caused so many problems on so many levels and has hurt so many people I love that I am completely overwhelmed by my feelings of powerlessness. X wife #1 has been trying to ruin my life since day one and I thought when I divorced the sociopath that I had seen the last of her as well but she was just waiting for an opportunity. And, frankly, I don’t care what her childhood was like. Yes, adult bullying is real and it can happen because there are people in this world who have more hate than love in thier hearts.

  • Wendy November 22nd, 2012 at 4:26 PM #18

    I am a 36 year old woman who has been “mobbed at work”, my manager was a friend who has at every turn manipulated and abused her position as my manager. After years of this and plenty of attempts to discuss the issue and try and resolve it, i then complained to HR. BIG MISTAKE -The bullying escalated until everyone was constantly making personal comments and intimidating threats. I was unable to continue working
    any longer and i am now on the sick with depression and stress. My name is “MUD” and i have no redeeming qualities. I had started to feel better, however i have just had a massive shock!! People are abusing me online, the comments are EXACTLY the same as they were in work and although they haven’t mentioned my name it is very obvious who this is aimed at. I can’t stop crying, i am absolutely devastated. Can anybody help me? Has anybody got any advice which would enable me to be able to cope.

  • Erin December 7th, 2012 at 6:19 AM #19

    Would the owner of this post email me if you can? I would like permission to add it to a facebook page I am creating, “Resisting Adult Bullies”.

    I am currently dealing with a pair of adult bullies as well. SMART adult bullies. They never attack when there are witness’ around. I’ve resorted to purchasing a voice recorder in the hopes that at the very least, it will deter them from bothering me. It will either do its’ job or make matters worse…

  • Tanya December 10th, 2012 at 11:43 AM #20

    Wendy, So sorry to hear that you are in pain over being bullied. Before you record someone, BEWARE. That may not be legal in your country/state/city. If your bullies are smart, combined with punishing and vindictive, you could find yourself looking down the barrel of a LAWSUIT. My bully is an extended family member who claims to be religious but is a nasty, nasty woman with control issues. She’s kind of sick right now because she abused me in front of a number of people and she’s been (in my opinion) spinning and spinning the story ever since to make her look good. Her mistake (and I think she rarely makes one when bullying) is leaving WITNESSES. I was completely faultless in what I did to “earn” her abuse and…get this….everyone agrees I did nothing. So, this is a rare time she has been CAUGHT and she is reeling from that. I stood up for myself in the moment (without yelling, naecalling, or anything else) and I am so proud that I chose to assertively (not agreessively – I’ve heard that the difference between assertive and agreessive is that assertive protects oneself whi9le aggressive over-steps protecting oneself and begins to trample on another’s boundaries). Now all she is left with is trying to convince others how wrong I was and the conflict is threading its way through the witnesses, with her even demanding apologies from the witnesses who have attempted to respond to her propaganda. The only sentiment I have for her is: CAUGHT. So, to all of you who have been wrongfully bullied, take my scoring justice as a karmic score on your behalf. Love and light to you all!

  • Tanya December 10th, 2012 at 12:05 PM #21

    Oops, my recording comment was actually meant for ERIN,

  • Jen January 5th, 2013 at 3:42 PM #22

    I have just had a run in with one of my very best friends. He’s turned it into something quite nasty and upsetting so in a bid to find out how to address it I hit the internet.

    It was such a relief to read this post. I could identify his behaviour exactly, it’s almost a box-ticking exercise. I know I’m not perfect either, who is, but it was good to see that his disproportionate anger and attack was not really deserved. Having always played the peacemaker/conciliator, I feel encouraged to stand up for myself for the first time in 10 years of friendship.

  • Kel February 6th, 2013 at 9:11 AM #23

    I recently watched Dr. Phil after a lengthy period of not viewing his shows. I stopped watching because, to me, he seemed to bully his guests quite a bit by the way he treated them. I got the same feeling this time. After reading this article I am more convince than ever that my instincts are correct and Dr. Phil is a good example of an adult bully. We see more examples all the time just listening to judges put contestants down on shows like Idol etc.

  • Claire February 16th, 2013 at 8:11 AM #24

    How does one find help against bullying and sexual harassment not related to an ex-husband or job?
    I need help and I need it fast! I do not know what to do! I feel helpless and right now hopeless!
    Anyone with any information, please please help!

    Thank you!

  • Dave July 1st, 2013 at 8:37 PM #25

    I am presently being bullied by an “organization” related to a rare but important fact about myself. Anytime I find someone like me in this regard, this corruptly run group eventually also finds this person and then turns them against me.

    I’m looking to find or form a support group for people a victim of similar misconduct.

  • admin2 July 2nd, 2013 at 9:43 AM #26

    Hi Dave,
    Thank you for your comment. You may find it helpful to use our forum to connect with others and discuss this issue! http://www.goodtherapy.org/forum/

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • judi van emmerik October 21st, 2013 at 9:33 AM #27

    Hello, I was intimidated into having a hysterectomy that I did not need; because of a relatively minor incontinence problem I had. And I have found that I cannot complain about that to friends or family, they are not in the least even sympathetic about it. I am 58 years old and experience has taught me that even what I wrote above would be denied by those few in my personal circle. I do have some legal help out of state right now, and I do not talk about it to anyone around me. Sorry to have used the term “I” so much in this post.

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