Written by: Cally Worden
In simple terms, bullying means one person or a group of individuals being deliberately cruel to another. Such behaviour is not confined to the playground, with childhood bullies often growing up to become a workplace menace. The effects of adult bullying can be just as devastating to those on the receiving end, but with age comes subtlety, and adult bullies are often sly, deeply manipulative and dreadfully difficult to expose.
Yet there is a veneer we mature folk carry, that seeks to gloss over the bullying behaviour of other adults. It’s like the dirty little grown-up secret that no-one wants to discuss, or sometimes even acknowledge. After all, haven’t we outgrown all that silliness now? Well actually, no. Because to the victim of adult bullying, the actions of their persecutor are anything but silly. They are hurtful, upsetting and can have serious effects on mental and physical well being. Bullying should not be ignored at any age.
Why Does Adult Bullying Occur?
Adult bullying often has its roots in childhood. Its causes are many and various, but can generally be traced back to issues of low self-esteem and a lack of self-worth that create individuals who lash out in order to protect themselves from perceived threats of any form, whether real or imagined.
How do I Spot an Adult Bully?
Verbal and physical behaviours are easy to spot, but much adult bullying takes a much more subtle form. Adult bullies have often grown very adept at cloaking their behaviours in plausible disguises, making it terribly difficult for victims to pinpoint the actions that are causing the hurt. Adult bullying can be incredibly insidious, creeping up on a victim before they even realise is has happened.
In some cases identifying a bully comes down to a simple feeling of disquiet. If you find yourself feeling guarded around an individual who may even purport to be your friend, then take care. If being in their company makes you feel drained or bad about yourself in some way, then you may be being bullied without even realising it. Sounds ridiculous, but believe me, it’s true. I’ve been there, and it’s a far from pleasant experience. My advice is to take a step back from the relationship you have with that person, and view it with objective eyes – what’s really going on? You may be surprised and alarmed by the answer.
How Can I stop it Happening?
Bullies thrive on control, which includes stimulating a reaction in their victims that shows the bullying actions have caused hurt or distress. It is highly unlikely that you will be able to change the behaviour of your bully, so don’t waste your time trying. First, it is vital that you understand that their behaviour is THEIR responsibility, not yours. You have not caused or invited the bullying. It is NOT your fault.
Change your response
Second, you need to address how you respond to the bullying behaviour. This is easier said than done, as it requires the huge step of recognising that you are being bullied in the first place, and then identifying exactly how it is being executed. You need to learn to spot the bullying actions before you can change your response to them. Even once you have tuned your radar, changing your own behaviour can be very tricky. It’s a scary thing, and invites further wrath from the bully, which as a victim, you will be desperate to avoid. It can become a vicious cycle – fear keeps you quiet, and makes you vulnerable, which invites more bullying.
Bullies target people who find it difficult to defend themselves, and those who are reluctant to fight back. The only way to stop the bullying is to name it, change the way your respond to it, and seek whatever assistance you can to raise awareness of it in others. You will need to dig deep, but the results will be worth it if you persist.
Here’s What you Can Do
- Tell a trusted friend what is happening, or seek the compassionate ear of an independent counsellor, such as the Samaritans – sharing your problem will ease your burden no end
- If the bullying is taking place at work, keep a log of every single event, no matter how small or apparently pathetic – a regular pattern of small events creates a clear illustration of a wider problem
- Get a witness to a bullying event if at all possible
- Keep copies of any documentary evidence – snidey emails, regular and unfounded written criticisms of your work, an unwarranted poor appraisal
- Confront the bully – this is best done with the support of a friend, line manager, HR representative or even a solicitor
Try to avoid Doing These Things
- Getting into a physical confrontation
- Returning the abuse – it may be tempting to respond in kind, but this won’t help you in the long run
- Acting out your frustration – if the bullying prompts you to behave in ways that are out of character, such as shouting at your partner or children, or behaving unprofessionally at work, then try to stop yourself. Don’t let the bully win. Go for a run, punch a pillow, kick a wall – just don’t let the bully change you into someone you’re not
And Finally …
Don’t give up. There is a degree of shame attached to being bullied, like it is somehow your fault. Remember that it’s not. Tell yourself that every day. I was bullied in the workplace by a very clever and devious individual for a year before I realised what was happening. For the following two years I struggled to cope, telling myself I could handle it, and seeking to respond with positivity, and doing my job to the best of my ability. This simply infuriated the bully more, and the campaign of nastiness escalated as management looked on and refused to acknowledge it or act. And I wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of the vile behaviour.
I told no-one until one day the manipulations finally got too much. I was shifted sideways from a role I loved into one I hated, and in which I was exposed to even further manipulation. Something inside me snapped and I began collating evidence. I cried. I finally told my husband. He cried too. I took advice from a solicitor. I took my file of evidence to HR. They initially made me feel like it was my fault, but finally capitulated and the individual concerned and her sidekick were given a warning. Apparently it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Shocking. The abuse ceased but the working environment was tarnished for me.
Shortly after all this I secured a new job and moved on. I know that the boost my self-esteem received by successfully confronting the bully was what gave me the confidence to secure a new role. It was a tough time, but it made me stronger. I’ve not looked back, and can finally feel empowered by the experience, and am no longer ashamed.
Adult bullying is real. If you are experiencing it, take heart and know that you CAN fight back. If you have a friend who is suffering be there for them. And if you are a bully yourself, then take stock for a minute and look at the harm you are doing. Now imagine it’s your friend of child who is suffering. Perhaps it’s time for a change.