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How to Handle an Adult Bully

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistMay 17, 2019

Many of us dealt with bullies growing up. My own experience with bullying started in first grade when the class bully pushed me into a ditch on my walk home. Thankfully, my protective older brother came to the rescue and confronted him.

Unfortunately, bullying doesn’t always stop once we become adults. And whether it’s a boss, a partner, a peer, a family member, or someone else, adult bullies often can’t be stopped simply by appealing to an authority (or a big brother). Standing up to a bully can result in retaliation, such as being fired or being abused by a partner.

Having worked for a bully, I know it can be hard to stand up to them. Because of their narcissism, their need for control, and their skill in manipulating others, bullies are often found in powerful roles, with few people willing or able to challenge them.

Here are some guidelines that may help you handle the adult bully in your life:

Call it what it is.

If your boss, partner, co-worker, or anyone else bullies you, consciously acknowledge to yourself that they’re a bully. Once you identify the situation for what it is, you’ll be in a better position to respond to it. Understanding it can also help you deal with the questions and confusion like Why is this person so difficult? and What am I doing to cause this? Instead, you can realize that it’s in the person’s nature to be a bully.

Understand the system you’re a part of.

Bullying is often made possible by a system that rewards bullying behavior (see this podcast episode for a dramatic example). For example, you might wonder why your supervisor turns a blind eye to your peer’s bullying behavior until you learn that they’re golfing buddies. Or maybe your bully is the boss’s daughter.

On an organizational level, the leadership might believe that managers who bully get the best results. Or you may be a member of a vulnerable group that has little power to address bullying, such as being an undocumented worker. Knowing as much as possible about the factors that allow bullying to happen can help you find the most productive way to address it.

Exit the situation if necessary.

If it’s unlikely that the situation can improve, get away from the bully if at all possible. Bullies are generally unwilling to take responsibility for their behavior even when confronted, and continued contact with them is likely to add ongoing difficulty to your life. They may keep finding ways to make you feel small and intimidated—a subtle look, a passive-aggressive comment, undermining comments behind your back.

Find a new job, leave your relationship—whatever it takes to get yourself free. Take care as you do this, especially if you’re leaving a partner; trying to leave an abusive relationship can lead to violence. (Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline for resources.) 

Document your experiences.

Whether or not you intend to leave the situation, keep a record of the bullying (and keep it some place secure). Write down specifics—times, locations, others who witnessed the bullying, what was said. Also file away relevant emails, and take photos or screenshots if relevant.

The more detailed evidence you have, the harder it will be for the bully to convince people you’re imagining or exaggerating their bad behavior.

Don’t go it alone.

If you decide to address the bullying, such as filing a report with your human resources department, try to find others who will stand by you in your claims. It could be an office mate who witnessed the bullying, or someone who was treated similarly. Having even one ally will not only provide moral support but will make it harder for your complaint to be ignored.

For additional emotional support, surround yourself with people who care about you. Talk with them about your experience—getting it out in the open in a loving relationship can cut through feelings of shame and self-blame.

Be kind to yourself, too, as bullying often takes a toll on your self-confidence. Watch out for self-critical thoughts, like seeing yourself as “weak” and even blaming yourself for the bullying behavior. Pay attention to the language you use, keeping in mind that you were the target of bullying, notthe victim. Finally, remember that some people bully because that’s what they do—it doesn’t mean it was your fault or that there was something about you that made you an attractive target.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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