Creating a Kinder World – The Subtle Bully

Recently my phone rang. The person on the other end asked, “Am I crazy?” and proceeded share some things that have been said to her by her boss at work. These words caused her to feel less confident and made her question her abilities. This was not a one-time occurrence. Whenever the employee felt she was doing a good job and things were going well, the boss would call her in and say something to cut her down. Because those words were not exactly cruel, she wondered if she was just being overly sensitive. Based upon many past experiences, I was able to respond: “No, you are not crazy.”

The most common thing we think of when we hear the word “bullying” is the small boy with glasses on the playground who gets beat up by the big kid. But there are many other kinds of bullying; it can be much more subtle. Bullying can occur on the playground, online, in the workplace and in the home. It can be physical or verbal. It can seem intentional or can be subtle enough to wonder if we are taking it the wrong way. Shouldn’t we just have thicker skin to cope with it all?

There are many kinds of bullying. This article is about a more subtle form of bullying that mainly happens in the workplace but can also happen with friendships and in other relationships.

According to the American Psychological Association, bullying is:

…a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions. The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to “cause” the bullying.

Why do people who are being bullied have trouble defending themselves? Why do they stick around? There are a lot of possible reasons. In some cases, a person who is being bullied may feel a false sense of control. They may say “well I give as good as I get.” They may feel as though the benefit they are deriving from the relationship is greater than the effect of the bullying. A person may feel that since the person who is bullying them is nice at times, they can handle it. Often, bullies are nice at parties and in public, and they bully in private. So, a person may feel as though something truly is wrong with them and they deserve to be mistreated.

Additionally, it can take a while for a person to realize that he/she is being bullied. It may start out as backhanded compliments or little flashes of temper where an apology follows soon thereafter. But after a while, a person may begin having feelings of discomfort without realizing why. Their stomach may start churning when the boss asks “may I see you in my office for a moment?” or when the toxic friend invites them to dinner. I recall this happening to me. A coworker and I had a boss who could go off at any moment. The boss was gone for a month on his honeymoon. When he returned, for some unexplained reason, my teammate and I both had bad stomach aches and had to go home. These stomach pains were real. We both had unspoken anxiety about our boss’s return, and that anxiety appeared in a physical way for both of us.

Being bullied is not a sign of weakness. The teammate I mentioned above was a retired firefighter and a very tough guy. Sometimes people who are strong will stay in bullying situations because they assume they should be able to handle it.  They tell themselves that it is the bully who has the problem, not them. They psychoanalyze the bully and say that they understand why they are doing what they do, and then they presume that with this understanding of the bully, the bullying will not matter as much. There are a couple of circumstances in my life where I was bullied. People told me it was because the other person was jealous. Even though this could be true (and probably was out of some kind of “your-grass-is-greener” misconception), it did not make being bullied any easier to take.

People may also put up with bullying because they do not want to be perceived as a bully themselves. They want to be seen as polite individuals who have it all together. Sure, the bully has a problem, but it will not become their problem. So the recipient will do nothing, believing that their restraint is a sign of strength and an example of better behavior. I grew up in a family where the smallest of incidents would create an angry response of hitting or lashing out with hurtful words. I had to overcome a lot of learned habits about how to respond when I am hurt, and this did not happen overnight. Because I am aware of this, there are times when I will choose not to respond when someone is trying to bully me. I sometimes fear that if I lash out, my old way of handling things may return and it may not be pretty. Nor would it be productive. So there are times when I have said nothing when I perhaps should have said something. We believe that life is easier if we avoid confrontation, but sometimes taking a stand is important. But we can learn how to take a stand in ways that are productive, effective and peaceful.

How can we respond to bullies in a healthy way? Here are some things to know:

You are not crazy. If someone is saying something that hurts you or makes you feel unsure of yourself, and this becomes a pattern, you may be dealing with someone who is either consciously or unconsciously wanting you to lose confidence or become fearful of growing and taking risks. Recognize this and do not let those words determine how you feel about yourself. If they claim it is “constructive criticism,” ask them where the construction is. Criticism, or feedback, can be good if those things are accompanied with words of encouragement and ideas on how to improve. Otherwise, they are just putdowns that you do not deserve.

You are not powerless. If a bully is trying to make you feel powerless, do not buy into it. You have options. Those options may range from politely disagreeing with the statements made by the bully or finding ways to get out of the situation. Feelings of powerlessness can appear long after the event has ended. Be mindful of this and recognize that even if you felt powerless in the past, you are NOT powerless NOW. You are resilient. You made it through and learned some things along the way.

Bullying can happen any time and to anyone. Just about everyone has been bullied at one time or another. And, at times, we could have been a bully to others. Bullying is done by people who are hurting. And we all hurt from time to time. Be aware and be prepared to respond to situations in a healthy way.

Take care of your mental health. Take care of yourself, mentally and physically. Take times throughout the day (or as often as possible) to have peaceful thoughts. This can be through the practice of mindfulness, peaceful meditation, prayer, taking a walk, keeping a gratitude journal, and celebrating your accomplishments and achievements, no matter how small. (You took the trash out when you were tired, you responded calmly when you were upset – these things are worth celebrating and patting yourself on the back). Remember that you may not be perfect, but neither is anyone else. You are doing your best, and that is all any of us can do. Have compassion for yourself!

Use gentle confrontation. A therapist told me once that the proper response is to turn the tables. Ask them if they are ok. Is something bothering them? Use “I” statements. “I am feeling that you do not like the way I do ____. Do you have suggestions for how I can do it better?” Getting defensive and fighting back only plays into their hands. This is hard to do in the moment, because the bully is good at making people feel powerless. Gentle confrontation takes practice. The first few times may induce butterflies, but as you gain more experience with gentle confrontation, those butterflies will start to feel good.

Ways to counter bullying words. Agree with the point, then move on. Respond with a compliment (when a bully says your hair looks frizzy, say “really? yours looks great!”). Act as if what the bully said was a compliment (thank you, what a sweet thing to say). Or, you can say “that was interesting, so do you have anything else to add about my [appearance, work ethic, etc.] while we are on this fascinating topic?

Consider the source. If a person consistently puts you down, realize that this is an issue with them, and is not about you.

Tell someone. Tell a friend. Report it when possible. I once worked for a boss who used abusive and ugly language when no one else was looking. I found another job and told Human Resources why I was leaving.  When he found out I was leaving, he tried to retaliate. I went to the partners told them what he was doing, and they allowed me to leave before my two weeks’ notice was up with full pay.  A couple of months after I left, I learned that he was told to wind down his existing clients and to find employment elsewhere. I did not get immediate satisfaction, but I stood up for myself and told someone, and that was empowering. I know that this may not work in every situation. I have worked in jobs where because people made a lot of money for the company, they were allowed to act in any manner they chose. That kind of corporate culture does not work for me. Companies that put up with that kind of behavior do not deserve loyal employees (or customers).

Finally, if you are in a situation that is unsafe or is affecting your mental well-being, get out. Find help. Go to a shelter. Find another job.

Bullying happens more often than we would care to admit. We may tell ourselves that we should just stand tough and not be so sensitive. But there are other alternatives. We all deserve to be treated well and to be respected by others. And if people do not treat us the way we deserve to be treated, then it is time to put a stop to the situation, either by standing up in an appropriate way or leaving.


The Cycle of Abuse

This article deals with “subtle” bullying or abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship and are in danger, please understand that the situation will not improve. The cycle of abuse repeats itself over and over again, and you need to get out. Abusers can be very charming people. If someone hit you on a first date, you would learn that this person has issues, and you would run as fast as you could. Abuse develops over time, and abusers can be very loving when they want to be. The first time they hit you, they will be very sorry afterwards. They will cry. They will show you what looks like vulnerability. They will buy you treats. They will treat you like royalty. So, the next time they hit you, you will perceive that it must be your fault because the person is so nice at other times. This cycle will continue. The best action to take any time there is physical or emotional abuse is to get out.

Here are some links that could help:

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline:

Childhelp National Abuse Hotline:

Racial Equity Support Line:

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