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How to Deal With an Adult Bully

Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistAugust 12, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Bullying doesn’t just happen in the schoolyard. Bullies exist in families, at work, and out there in the world at large. Anytime a person or a group of people is purposely cruel to others, they are being bullies. And, as bullies age, their ways of inflicting harm can become more diverse. They can hurt others by exerting and abusing their authority, physical strength, financial resources, political or social stature, and intellectual superiority. Although adult bullying is often camouflaged, you will know when you are being victimized – at the very least, you will feel something is very wrong in one or more aspects of your life.

If your encounters with someone (or a group of people) leave you feeling victimized, take a close look at the situation. Consider whether the person is acting in ways that harm you – including ways that might be hidden from others. There are innumerable examples of bullying, such as a boyfriend pressuring a partner to have sex, a child taking financial advantage of a parent, or a boss indirectly threatening to fire an employee if they don’t take an ethically questionable action. Once you realize that you are being bullied, it’s important that you muster your courage to protect yourself.

Some frequently effective ways cope with bullies are:

Respond with kindness. This can be an effective response if you or the bully is in a new situation and the bullying does not pose a serious problem. The “bully” might be reacting to the situation – they might feel threatened, and the bullying might be their way protecting themselves. In this type of situation, being kind can disarm the “bully.” However, you don’t want to be a doormat. So be sure to limit your use of this approach – maybe reaching out amicably only a couple of times and not doing it at all if they have overstepped a serious boundary (e.g. threatening physical assault).

Assert yourself. There is no need to be aggressive or be a bully back – that kind of reaction is likely to aggravate the situation; however, standing your ground will unequivocally tell a bully that you are not an easy mark. And if the person didn’t realize that they were being so hurtful, it will tell them to stop what they are doing.

Stand together as a group. Sometimes bullies are cruel to a group, rather than a single individual. For instance, a boss might abuse their authority with those who report to them, or someone might bully the rest of their family. It can help for those victimized to band together and assert themselves collectively.

Get help. Sometimes the wisest thing to do is to seek an authority that can help. This might mean reaching out to a boss, the police, or a lawyer. You might also want to arrange for a witness if the bullying tends to be done when no one is around.

Use the structure of work to your advantage. When bullying takes place at work, you may find that there are policies and procedures set up to handle the situation. So, consult with your company handbook. Taking detailed notes about bullying incidents can often help. Also, going to human resources or the bully’s supervisor might be helpful.

Leave. If you don’t see a reasonable solution to your problem or your attempts to solve it have failed, consider leaving the situation – assuming that’s an option. If you are hesitant to leave, think carefully about your reasoning. Maybe you don’t want the bully to get away with their behavior, or you don’t want to live with the consequences of leaving (e.g. ending a marriage). That’s understandable. But it’s also important to consider the possibility that leaving is your best option.

Above all, remember that being bullied is not your fault. No matter what you have done or have not done, no one has the right to purposefully harm you. So, take action to stop it as soon as possible.

Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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