Coping with Bullying as a Quirky, Gifted, or Sensitive Adult

Young professional sits in front of laptop with open notebook, head on hand, looking botheredIf you were to think of a bullying situation, you might conjure an image of a small, bespectacled child cornered by a much larger one. Or perhaps you might imagine a group of taunting children circling rivals, enemies, or maybe an outsider. It’s common to think of bullying as a children’s issue.

Generally, people don’t expect bullying from adults—yet it does occur and can even come in disguise from a trusted colleague or someone considered a friend. Those who stand out as quirky or different, such as gifted or highly sensitive people, may be more vulnerable than most.

Adult bullying can occur anywhere, but it often occurs where a person spends the most time, such as the workplace or in social situations. Whether at work or among friends, bullying can take a person by surprise given that our social norms tend to discourage aggressive behavior, particularly in adulthood. However, adult bullying doesn’t have to be obvious and belligerent; in fact, it can be quite subtle.

If you are an adult, you probably have witnessed or experienced some form of bullying. Bullying is usually considered to be a type of harassment that occurs when someone purposefully tries to control someone else, without their approval.

Verbal bullying often occurs through word choice or tone of voice, and can be tauntingly direct, suggestive, or perhaps indirect—such as ignoring your contributions, insinuating disrespect, devaluing your time, excluding you, or sabotaging your work.

Bullying of this nature may happen once or repeatedly. When a person bullies, it can stem from insecurity about something or low self-esteem. It might be due to feeling powerless on the inside, resulting in behaviors that seek to take power from others. People who engage in bullying might have been victims themselves or perhaps never learned how to self-regulate. Of course, at its most troubling, an adult might bully others because it “feels good” or is somehow fun or rewarding. Exerting power over another person might feel especially “good” if there is a lack of empathy for those being harmed.

No matter how they came to bully, people tend to find their victims in people they consider significantly different from themselves. This could be someone they perceive to be (or wish to be) at a lower social standing. It might be a person who just rubs them wrong in some way. While not the most mature of behaviors, bullying is a significant problem in the adult population.

Gifted and highly sensitive people tend to stand out as different, and therefore may be prime targets for people who bully. But what do we mean when we use the terms “giftedness” and “high sensitivity”?

What Is Giftedness?

A person is typically labeled as gifted if they have been professionally assessed to have an intelligence quotient (IQ) of 130 or greater. However, not everyone has undergone IQ testing, and many professionals who work with the gifted population favor a more descriptive definition of giftedness. According to Morelock (1996), the Columbus Group provided this definition of giftedness in 1991:

“Giftedness is asynchronous development in which advanced cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences and awareness that are qualitatively different from the norm. This asynchrony increases with higher intellectual capacity. The uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching, and counseling in order for them to develop optimally.”

Being qualitatively different, asynchronous, and atypical from the norm can make anyone of any age seem like an outsider.

What Is High Sensitivity?

Dr. Elaine Aron described highly sensitive people in 1997, purporting high sensitivity to be a personality trait that occurs in about 20% of the population. She further described this trait as stemming from differences in the nervous system, where there is a greater sensitivity to stimuli.

Highly sensitive people tend to perceive things more intensely and have a stronger awareness of the subtleties around them, making them generally respond differently than most to their environment. Highly sensitive people are often known to be gentle, emotional, intense, and of course sensitive.

The same wonderfully positive traits that make this population stand out can lead to highly sensitive adults being misunderstood or perceived as weak, overly emotional, haughty, or pushovers.

Possible Bullying Targets

The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that 27% of people have been bullied in the workplace (Namie, 2014). It stands to reason that a percentage of those who have been bullied stand out as different, quirky, sensitive, or atypical.

Gifted traits often include keen observation skills, fast thinking, and a strong sense of justice, which can potentially make gifted individuals sound like know-it-alls, system challengers, or tattletales—common marks for people who bully.

Even people generally considered kind may feel uncomfortable about, or threatened by, the characteristics often associated with gifted and highly sensitive populations. And the people who have these traits do tend to notice. The Gifted Identity Project (Malonai and Duncan, 2015) reported that most gifted individuals feel lonely, isolated, quirky, and different.

While gifted and highly sensitive people might come across as different, the quirky aspects of giftedness are multifaceted and sometimes incongruous. Gifted traits often include keen observation skills, fast thinking, and a strong sense of justice, which can potentially make gifted individuals sound like know-it-alls, system challengers, or tattletales—common marks for people who bully.

Likewise, rules and fairness tend to be important to this population, which may elicit conflict resulting in bad feelings. Gifted individuals are often looked to for leadership, even when it is not their place. This can later cause resentment or jealousy. Hyper-focusing is another common gifted trait, which can make someone seem inattentive or distant. In general, many traits commonly associated with the gifted and highly sensitive populations might bring about hard feelings in potential bullies.

How to Mitigate the Impact of Adult Bullying

Although you bear no responsibility for bullying behaviors you experience, it can be helpful to be both self-aware and open to improving your understanding of how others might perceive you.

  1. Keep calm and breathe deeply. Don’t give your power away by responding outside of your value set.
  2. Know the truth and believe in your own strengths. Don’t let anyone else determine who you are, nor let them get into your head about it.
  3. Speak up. Bullying can be seen differently by different people, and might in some cases be a matter of perspective. It might be worthwhile to share that you are feeling bullied, and specify how the words or actions impact you. It could be that speaking up will put an immediate stop to the problem.
  4. If you do speak up, do so safely. Make your approach when you believe there will be sufficient time, as hurried conversations are not necessarily easier. Choose an environment where you can speak confidentially that also has potential witnesses, such as a coffee shop or conference room with the door slightly ajar.
  5. Don’t respond to provocation. This will help diminish the power a bullying person might seek to obtain. In psychology, we call this fading.
  6. Show respect to yourself and others by responding to the underlying message instead of the negative words or behaviors. A good start to mitigate aggression is to acknowledge where the other person might be coming from. For example, “This seems very important to you. Let’s talk about it.”
  7. Get support. Even if it is difficult to open up when you have felt wronged or misunderstood, it can help to talk it out. Your mental health is worth the effort. Also, you might learn something about your strengths or get ideas on how to de-escalate the situation. Support might be found through your human resources department, an employee assistance officer, a trustworthy friend, an understanding coworker, a family member, help line, or a licensed professional such as a clinical counselor, mediator, or doctor.

References:

  1. Aron, E. N. (1997). The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
  2. Bullying Statistics (n.d.). Why Do People Bully. Retrieved from http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/why-do-people-bully.html
  3. Malonai, G. M., & Duncan, S. L. (2015). Gifted Identity Project. Cultural Influences on Gifted Families [Power Point Slides]. Retrieved from http://www.giftedidentity.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/GIP-Cultural_SENG2015.sm_.pdf
  4. Morelock, M. J. (1996). On the nature of giftedness and talent: Imposing order on chaos. Roeper Review, vol. 19(1), 4-12.
  5. Namie, G. (2014). WBI U.S.: Workplace Bullying Survey. Workplace Bullying Institute National Office.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Grace Malonai, PhD, LPCC, DCC, therapist in Lafayette, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 22 comments
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  • Margaret

    Margaret

    November 23rd, 2016 at 9:13 AM

    I do not understand why there are those people who seem to get off on bullying and pushing around other people. I have never understood that kind of appeal, that desire to make another person feel bad about themselves just because of who knows what reason. There are naturally going to be those who see to let things like this roll right off their back and then there are going to be others who seem to take everything to heart and those are the people whom this all hurts the most.

  • Empath

    Empath

    November 23rd, 2016 at 4:49 PM

    They bully you because they see something in you that they would like to have, and you make them feel inferior in some way.

  • shelley

    shelley

    November 24th, 2016 at 7:07 AM

    So now being gifted and talented and smart is a reason for others to feel ok about bullying you… how shallow are these people who behave like they are forever in the third grade?! I wish that I could be celebrated for being smart like that and instead those who find themselves remarkably smart, even though they are the creators and the inventors and basically in so many ways make the world go round, they are demeaned for something that really should be toasted.

  • Darby

    Darby

    November 24th, 2016 at 5:47 PM

    When dealing with complete jerks like this you have to shake it off being so sensitive and try to develop a thicker skin

  • goodlett

    goodlett

    November 25th, 2016 at 7:02 AM

    I sort of think that those of us who are quirky adults and who have always been a little bit that way get sort of immune to the picking because most of us have had to deal with it all of our lives.
    I think that for many of us the price of being true to ourselves has sometimes come with a price but most of us feel like it is more important to be who we really are than to try to conform to what others expect out of us. Sometimes it feels so much easier just to take the little jabs and know that in the end they are probably just jealous.

  • teenateena

    teenateena

    November 25th, 2016 at 9:08 AM

    someone is always looking for another to be the weakest link, someone that they can exploit

  • zell

    zell

    November 25th, 2016 at 5:00 PM

    I agree, adult bullying can be so much more subtle than it is on the school playground, so you are thinking is this right? Is this really happening to me or am I making a mountain out of a molehill?
    In my opinion anything that someone does that makes you feel less that the person that you are, that makes you feel like you are not of any value, then that is a person who does not need to be a part of your life.
    I know that you can’t always extricate the person completely but you can do your best to not have to be around them so much.

  • Tilson

    Tilson

    November 26th, 2016 at 8:53 AM

    The thing that I hear that really just ticks me off is that we seem to be apt to put the responsibility to shake things off on the person who is being bullied or picked on and never once do we stop to put our feet down on those who are torturing them with bullying behavior.

    We have to do more to show these people who are being total a**** that this is unacceptable to do to another person, and that they need to relieve their rage and anger in another way, but never in a way that is going to hurt someone else.

  • Bergin

    Bergin

    November 26th, 2016 at 10:46 AM

    I have never understood the need to tear another person down. I guess that for most who behave like this it all boils down to low self esteem on their part/

  • Marina

    Marina

    November 27th, 2016 at 7:27 AM

    There is something that for some people that is threatening about those who think or act differently from how they do. For some reason they take this as a reason to ridicule and not a chance to learn.

  • frances d

    frances d

    November 27th, 2016 at 1:35 PM

    I am not saying that these things don’t happen but you know that there are people who are just too sensitive sometimes too, and so a lot of what is bothering them is more about them than what someone else is actually saying or doing to them.

  • Hayden

    Hayden

    November 28th, 2016 at 7:27 AM

    Just shake it off, we have a better ability to do that as an adult than as a child.
    Now if someone is physically harming you though I know that is impossible and you have to take up for yourself.

  • jacob n

    jacob n

    November 28th, 2016 at 2:47 PM

    I am in a position of I guess you would say some power at my job and honestly that comes with a whole lot of responsibility. So while others might think that what I am doing is bullying I beg to differ. I think that it is more along the lines I am trying to push everyone to be the best and most productive that they can be.

    I don’t think that anything that I do comes across as demeaning but I know that there are those who get feelings hurt pretty easily and they have a hard time with it.

    I just don’t get why everyone doesn’t want the same things that I do for our office and work their very hardest to achieve that?

  • English

    English

    November 29th, 2016 at 11:14 AM

    So why are those of us who are consistently trying to do the right thing being forced to modify so that we don’t become a target of some shallow individual?

  • Dargan H

    Dargan H

    November 29th, 2016 at 1:57 PM

    I swear that with people like that I have come to the point in my life where I just don’t give a rip about them. They can like me or not, I don’t care. I’m over all the drama.

  • francesca

    francesca

    November 30th, 2016 at 10:22 AM

    We should all learn to be kind to one another
    that would make things so much more simple for every single one of us

  • A.T.

    A.T.

    December 21st, 2016 at 8:05 AM

    I find a lot of wisdom in the call-out quote above: “Gifted traits often include keen observation skills, fast thinking, and a strong sense of justice, which can potentially make gifted individuals sound like know-it-alls, system challengers, or tattletales—common marks for people who bully.” That describes me to a T. Except I wasn’t a tattle-tale very often. Now I would rather directly confront the bully. It’s sad that so many people can’t see life beyond a pecking order. They’ve been on the bottom, being pecked, and as soon as they can, they start name calling others to show they are powerful. They’re adults and should be more aware. What is that little thrill we get when we put someone down? Why is it so hard for some people to see it as sickness?

  • Thomas

    Thomas

    March 8th, 2017 at 8:27 AM

    This is an excellent article that shows the Arthur has an in depth understanding of the complexities that highly sensitive and gifted people have.

    I am an actor and have been through so much bullying in my profession. I am now on the verge of quitting. It has affected my confidence in all areas of my life. With acting you are very vulnerable and exposed, because that is the nature of the work. It can be tricky to protect yourself and give a rich emotional performance. The danger is that if you are highly sensitive, you attract nasty bullies or people who are ‘nice’, but take advantage of you being open during your performances and then use it to make nasty personal comments and destructive criticism. I have been getting nightmares, weepiness, fatigue, lack of motivation etc, because of nasty people and what appears to be an inate cruel trait in many (not all) humans. I believe many people are not very sensitive and can smell vulnerability in gifted and sensitive people.It is particularly hard if you are male. They then have a lust to ‘destroy’ this person because of a perceived weakness. The awful thing is most people are weak and will join in, rather than support the person being bullied. On the rare occasion you notice someone standing up for the bullied person, and this is the type of person that has an affinity with empathy. We need more strong beautiful people like this. I wish there was more research into how self esteem is affected in the performing arts when people are from vulnerable backgrounds, highly sensitive and gifted.

  • A.T.

    A.T.

    March 8th, 2017 at 3:59 PM

    Thomas, So sorry to hear that bullying is prevalent in performance arts, which tend to draw “outliers,” people who feel they somehow don’t fit with the majority. It does unfortunately show how the desperation to be accepted by the group (take part or be the victim) can rear its ugly head in any of us. I think your explanation of the problem for highly sensitive people is right-on. I’m sorry it’s happened to you. I’m curious about how many different acting groups you’ve been in when this happened, if you care to share that.

    I also wonder if showing a high level of emotion and vulnerability in your roles is allowing the person in the opposite role to push beyond your comfort boundaries, which would bring up a certain amount of fear in any of us. If the other person (unconsciously) senses that fear and there is something in them that needs to exploit that in order to feel more powerful, they could respond by bullying. This usually happens in groups. Bullying can be one-on-one, as anyone from an abusive relationship knows, but it is at its roots an ancient mob behavior that gains momentum and power as people struggle to find their role in the group. You alluded to some similar thoughts in your post. Bullying is in a sense a way to build separation when in a state of fear. The fear is often unconscious and has to do with feeling threatened. That doesn’t in any way excuse their response to you, but it may be a clue to why it happens.

    I wonder what would happen if, before you have any interaction with a new group, and also as you prepare your role, you were to prepare your internal “armour” through a thought process, a talk in the mirror, something like what they do in positive-thinking or transformation exercises, that would have you feeling powerful and impenetrable as you entered the room or the role? That has worked for me, although I forget that I need it and then get exploited again.

    I believe that we unconsciously set the stage for how we are to be perceived… and those of us who are comfortable being vulnerable and expect others to be the same, are continually caught off guard because most people operate unconsciously in a lower echelon. They are reacting to a more base level of need. So it’s hard for those of us who have great empathy and operate naturally with a higher level of expectations, because we find it very difficult and painful to lower ourselves to that base level. It has to do with intelligence and empathy, as you suggested. (Although I was first bullied as a little girl, when my “self” was just beginning to form, I had that sensitivity, which would later grow into more awareness and a certain way of seeing the world.) That doesn’t mean we can’t play with those people. It means we have to get to know them individually, when they aren’t in the magnetism of the “gang,” so that we have a chance to find common ground with them as individuals. But we should also do this with a strong sense of self-esteem and again, the belief that if they do come at us in combat, they won’t find us with our shields all the way down. It is a very tricky balance, to be somewhat open and still shielded, and takes practice. It’s about staying with ourselves all the time, never giving over our internal power.

    In an acting role, I think a vulnerable moment should feel like a parentheses with armour around it, so that we have a safe zone to return to immediately. That would be a good subject for an interview with successful yet sensitive actors, to find out how they handle that. The hardest part of all of this for me is that I know I have to be willing to do combat at times with people who don’t play nice. But that can be performed as comedy sometimes, which can take them off guard.

    I hope you’ll post again; I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

  • Thomas

    Thomas

    March 17th, 2017 at 6:37 PM

    Thanks for the reply A.T. Much appreciated.

    I’ve been to many different acting groups and a similar pattern has emerged, where a mob type mentality emerges. It has happened in other situations too, such as office environment, but to a much lesser extent as there tends to be a good structure.

    With regards to acting, I really feel it’s defiantly linked to exposing your inner self and my inner self is very sensitive , child like and vulnerable. I’ve noticed some people love this and it evokes a protection response, but with others it appears to bring out nasty hidden traits they have e.g. bullying, trying to dominate, envy etc. I am often described as quietly confidant with a dignified presence, so, it’s not like I’m some meek wallflower all hunched over cowering in fear. I have seen this behaviour many times where I’ve not been on the receiving end and I’m ‘popular’ in the group. I hate it and I ALWAYS step in to stop the bullying.
    These days I would say the performing arts don’t draw outliers or genuine artists, but people who want to be famous and rich. So shallow. Anyway, that’s a different discussion.

    .

    When I’m performing I am open and vulnerable, but it’s not simply the person you’re doing the scene with, it’s the way the group respond and feedback. They can get really nasty and generally, I’ve noticed a clique forms with non sensitive types or low sensitive types.

    I agree that they feel threatened by something they sense that is different i.e my high sensitivity, quirkiness and giftedness. Also, many people just see gentles especially in males as a red rag to start abusing and letting their ugly behaviours run free.

    I have tried all sorts of methods but it’s virtually impossible as my sensitivity floods me when in the moment and I can’t engage those tools. It’s too powerful. They also sense the hurt and this seems to drive them on even further! I’ can easily tell the difference between people who have alot of empathy or are highly sensitive themselves as they will often say something like ‘ sorry, I didn’t mean it in that way’ or will ask ‘are you okay’ and you feel at ease with them anyway. They are easily recognizable.

    It’s very hard being open and protective at the same time. I did alot of soul digging and talking to the HSP people I know after this and taht helped somewhat. However, I’m still searching for answers. I feel slightly wary about opening up on forums as it can draw people who think they are highly sensitive gifted types, but are actually not and are just jumping on the super sensitive bandwagon. Oh well, I’ve done it now.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and reply to my comment-feel free to private email me if you want to share this topic. I guess you are an artist of some sort too?

    Thanks

  • SomeoneWhoKnows

    SomeoneWhoKnows

    January 17th, 2019 at 4:45 PM

    i am often alone even my family treats me different i hate it sometimes all the emotions want make me want to explode and my family starts fights with me and i can’t stand it at all

  • Lotta

    Lotta

    October 5th, 2019 at 11:13 AM

    I’ve read a few studies on workplace bullying, as well as experienced it myself.
    While being most common in caring professions with mostly female personnel with lower educations, in contrast to bullying in childhood, where being different is considered terrifying, the victims of adult workplace bullying are actually not the quirky ones which you might assume.
    Rather it’s people who are ambitious, intelligent and have high standards. The mechanisms involved often include a dysfunctional leadership and an unhealthy workplace in general neral. Bullying more seldom occurs in a healthy workplace, in professions with higher education and not predominantly female workplace.

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