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How to Defend Yourself Against Adult Bullying

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Robert writes informative articles about people and relationships.

Adult Bullying

Adult Bullying

Adult Bullying

This article describes techniques and tactics that you can use to defend yourself against adult bullying, whether it be in the workplace or in your personal life.

There has been a lot of news coverage and discussion about bullying among children. The growth of social media has drawn attention to the way that children pick on other children, which can lead to tragic results including permanent damage to self esteem, eating disorders, and even suicide. However, not as much attention has been devoted to an equally real and dangerous social problem: Adult Bullying.

The fact is that people who were bullies as children often continue to be bullies as adults. Sadly, many of the techniques that they learned as child bullies work for them as adults, and they use these techniques to dominate and abuse fellow adults, be it in their workplace, their family or their social circle. It is a sad fact of life that bullies are often perceived as alpha males or females, or as having leadership qualities, so that many people in positions of authority such as large workplaces tend to be bullies, which gives them expanded opportunities to bully others, using their authority to guarantee that the victim is or at least feels powerless to do anything about it.

What can you do to protect yourself if you are the victim of adult bullying?

What is Adult Bullying?

Before discussing what one can do about bullying it is important to understand what bullying is, as well as the different types and forms that it can take since the strategy that may be most appropriate will depend on the type of harassment that you are experiencing. It is also good idea to know your enemy: not all bullies are the same and their motivations differ. So you will have to adapt your defensive strategy to the situation and the specific bully.

An adult bully is a person who persistently uses intimidation, offensive conduct, or insulting behavior to humiliate, belittle or get his way. The key to this definition is that the behavior must be persistent. Isolated incidents of inappropriate behavior do not make a person a bully; we have probably all been guilty of some wrongful actions at some point in our lives. But when these acts form part of the person's regular repertoire of behaviors, and come define his or her personality, then you are dealing with an adult bully.

Six Practical Steps You Can take to Counteract Bullying Behavior.

What Bullying is Not

The term bullying is often used too broadly. Bullying is not an isolated incident or even incidents of rudeness, especially if the situation provoked the behaviour. Anyone can have a bad day, and being rude or even calling someone a name does not make someone a bully. It may not be right, but it is not bullying.

How to Stop Adult Bullying

How to Stop Adult Bullying

Quick Tips to Deal With Bullying

  • focus on their behaviour, not the bully; remember you want to stop the bullying - you are not going to make this person into a nice human being.
  • make it clear what specific bullying must stop; never make the conversation about how much they are hurting you
  • project confidence in your verbal responses and in your body language
  • remember that it's not your fault and you are not alone. Over 41 percent of people report being bullied in the workplace; the number is even higher when we include social settings such as clubs, churches and social relationships

What to Do if You Are Being Bullied

If you are being bullied it is important to understand that fundamentally the bully does not care that they are hurting you or your feelings. Therefore, telling the bully how hurtful they are being and how they are crushing your will to live, not only will not make it stop, but may even make them escalate their behavior. If they know they are getting to you, the bully becomes like the wolf singling out the weakest animal in the pack.

Also, retaliating against the bully or trying to hurt them back is not going to be productive. Bullies are very often sociopaths or have borderline personality traits. Any retaliation against them is often seen as unforgivable affront, even if they richly deserved it, and very often fighting back only motivates the adult bully to attack you even more vigorously because now they have an excuse. They see you as their tormentor and they are just self righteously defending themselves or at least putting them in their place.

Studies have shown that in order to defend against adult bullying, you should focus on their behavior and not the bully. You are not going to change the bully. But you can make them stop targeting you.

Push back firmly but respectfully. When confronted by bullying behavior say things such as:

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Your behavior is over the top and if you want to speak to me you must do so respectfully.

I will no longer tolerate your abusive behavior so our conversation is over.

Make the focus of your statements, their behavior. Never say wimpy things such as, "I do not appreciate the way you are treating me." Instead say "You need to talk to me more respectfully." In this way you are diverting the focus away from you to their behavior.

Your response must be clear, unequivocal and forceful. You are not asking them to stop or to treat you more respectfully - you are calling them out on their actions and telling them how to behave. In this way you are projecting confidence and taking power away from the bully.

Bullying in the Workplace

Over 40 Percent of Americans Say They Have Experienced Bullying in the Workplace

Over 40 Percent of Americans Say They Have Experienced Bullying in the Workplace

Difficult Cases

The hardest cases are those where the bully is your boss or has some power over you. In today's job market leaving an abusive work environment may not be an option.

In these cases, if the bully will not stop you may need to enlist outside help, whether it be from co-workers, the HR Department or even legal help.

The good news is that most larger workplaces have policies against bullying and harassment, and many jurisdictions have laws protecting employees from harassment. If a business fails to stop the harassment, or if the owners and managers are guilty of it themselves they may face substantial penalties. If you are fortunate enough to work in a unionized company, your union can help defend you by filing grievances.

If your attempts to reshape your relationship with the bully fail, then you have the choice of either putting up with it, leaving or taking your defensive tactics to the next level. For the sake of your human dignity I hope that you will do all you can to get justice before leaving or deciding that you cannot do anything about it and just tolerating the abuse.

In order to be properly armed for the potential struggle. When the bully says something abusive, pull out a notebook and ask him to repeat himself "for the record", as an implied threat that you are documenting himself. Being the coward that he actually is, the bully will probably not repeat himself, allowing you to score a moral victory; your tormentor will know that he chickened out. But write down what he said and did anyway, because this will be documentation. If there are witnesses write down their names as well.

If the behavior persists go to the bully's superior, and give them a copy of your notebook with the dates and details of the abuse. Never give them the original since it may conveniently disappear. Insist that they do something to stop the bully and if they don't make it clear that you are going to go over their head.

If the company or organization fails to act, you may need to seek legal advice. Most jurisdictions in Canada have laws against harassment and are required to maintain a respectful work environment. Failure to prevent a toxic work environment may result in the business becoming liable for substantial fines which is often an incentive for them to to the right thing. In the United States, the situation is more vague; workplace bullying is often not illegal unless it is accompanied by discrimination (as in the case of sexual harassment) or tortious conduct (such as assault or illegal threats).

It's Not You - It's Them

Bullying can have a corrosive effect on morale and on one's self respect. Over time we tend to internalize the abuse and come to see ourselves as defective or weak if you are not able to stop the bullying. Remember that it's not your fault. Bullies are fundamentally defective emotionally stunted people.

The very behavior that they think makes them superior to others, is actually what sets them apart as losers. Aside from any strategies on how to confront your bully, the most important thing is to keep your self respect. Literally keep your head high; studies have shown that bullies tend to pick on people whose body posture portrays lack of confidence. Simply sitting or standing confidently is often enough of a subtle signal of authority that bullies may avoid you as they look for a weaker member of the herd.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Robert P


Ijeoma Peter from Lagos, Nigeria on December 10, 2018:

Very well written, sometimes the best way to deal with a bully is to ignore him or her completely.

savvydating on March 24, 2017:

This article covers all the bases quite well. I appreciated that you said to literally keep your head high and to not give up until you have done everything you can to stop the bullying, or at least get compensation for it legally, if it comes to that. Great piece here. Very useful.

Susie Lehto from Minnesota on May 12, 2015:

This is an interesting article. I am glad I work at home and not in a work-place where I may or may not encounter bullies.

Lybrah on September 04, 2014:

It is sad that some people never grow up. I have to hope in cases like these that Karma has a way of coming back around to these people.

Robert P (author) from Canada on April 27, 2013:

Thank you SidKemp for your feedback and information. I was not aware that bullying could also be called mobbing in the workplace.

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on April 27, 2013:

Thank you for an interesting and important article about adult bullying. As a life coach, I have often worked with survivors of adult bullying. In the workplace, it is also called "Mobbing" and there are two great resources, a book called "Mobbing," and my own book, "Perfect Solutions for Difficult Employee Situations." I have even seen one case where a subordinate used bullying to drive her boss out of a job and take his job.

On a personal note, the non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi is a powerful response to adult bullying. Gandhi's approach is simple: "No one can hurt me without my permission." For those who practice meditation, we can learn to give no power to the words of others. This is not repression, but a true release of giving power to others. Then we find that a bully's words and actions only say things about them, and not about us.

Robert P (author) from Canada on April 27, 2013:

@NateB11 - sorry to hear about your experiences. Unfortunately it is true that not all bullies can be dealt with. Verbal self defence works in many cases, but sometimes they are in such a position of authority that the best thing to do for your own well being is remove yourself from the situation.

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on April 27, 2013:

I like how you described what bullying actually is, because people tend to get confused on that sort of thing and apply the term to whatever they want to. Good advice too about calling out the bully. I did that one time, it worked. Unfortunately, I've dealt with bullies continuously in school and work, and the thing that's made it stop is me having quit work. Sadly, as you say, in the US there's not much recourse. The law here does not really consider people, only people in certain categories. Makes it difficult to make a case against a bully. Thanks for the info and good advice.

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