Susan* is a well-dressed, attractive woman in her early 50s. She has two grown children. One is a daughter who does not speak to Susan, and the other is a son who lives at home and has never been able to keep a steady job.
Susan does not understand why her daughter refuses to talk to her, but she is convinced that it is not because of anything she did wrong. “I am a very, very good mother,” she says.
She also feels that she cannot be held responsible for her son’s difficulties. “We gave both of our children everything they could possibly need,” she says. In her own way, Susan loves her children—and her husband. But she is a bully who constantly criticizes the people she loves. She is hurtful, controlling, and often verbally abusive. And she has no idea that her behavior has a destructive impact on the people she loves most.
Susan almost, but not totally fits the profile of a school-age bully offered by my PT colleague Frank L. Smoll:
"Bullying is repeated, aggressive behavior … that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Its purpose is to deliver physical or psychological harm to another person. There are three main types of bullying. In youth sports, the most common forms of verbal bullying are name calling, taunting, rudeness, and threats of violence and/or harm to another athlete. Social bullying includes excluding another athlete on purpose, gossiping, hurtful trash talk, and embarrassment of an athlete in front of others. Physical bullying includes hitting, slapping, tripping, head butting, towel snapping, spitting, stealing, and making rude hand gestures."
Another PT colleague, Peg Streep, tells us that bullying does not have to be loud or overt:
"Some of the worst kinds of verbal abuse are quiet; silence in answer to a question asked or a comment made too can pack a mightier wallop than a loud rant. Silence effectively ridicules and shames."
Susan was never a physical bully, but she uses her power to get her way, no matter who she harms. The odd thing that separates her from the kind of bully described above is that Susan thinks she is doing the things she does out of love. “How else does a child learn?” she asks.
"A mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that's vulnerable to the slightest criticism."
The connection is probably obvious, but I’ll just put it into words: Someone with an inflated sense of importance, a deep need for admiration, and a lack of empathy for others, and who is also vulnerable to criticism, can, in the right circumstances, become a bully who attempts to get her or his own way through aggressive, threatening, and hurtful behavior toward those who have less power.
Bullies can be women as well as men, girls as easily as boys. They can be parents, siblings, classmates, teachers, teammates, coaches, colleagues, and bosses. We know that parents can bully their children, but children can also bully parents.
One of the difficulties with bullies is that they often start out with more power because they are bigger, stronger, or in a position of authority. They also suck in power from everyone around them, so their strength seems to grow as their victims' strength diminishes.
But they are not invincible by any means. Children are taught to go to other adults for help with a bully. Adults have historically turned to a superior, or a union representatives, when dealing with a bully at work. But who do you turn to when the bully is the adult with most of the power in your home, work setting, or elsewhere?
Bullies are only as powerful as we allow them to be. The story of David and Goliath is a classic example of the weak vanquishing the strong, but taking power from them is not always as simple as it might seem. In his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell offers examples of how this can happen. Not everyone loves this book, but the idea behind it—that the apparent strength of a bully can also be his or her undoing—is well worth considering.
The following suggestions come from leading authorities on the subject:
1. Be Confident.
PT blogger Amy Cooper Hakim tells us, “Bullies lose their power if you don’t cower. Deep down, they doubt they deserve your respect. They admire you for speaking with self-assurance and confidence. So when they bombard, don’t counterpunch. Rather, win them over with your strong, firm, courteous demeanor.”
2. Stay Connected.
PT blogger Signe Whitson writes, “Bullies operate by making their victims feel alone and powerless. Children reclaim their power when they make and maintain connections with faithful friends and supportive adults.”
3. Use Simple, Unemotional Language.
Whitson also writes that an assertive, but unemotional response lets a bully “know that the victim does not intend to be victimized. It does not seek forgiveness, but does not pose a challenge either.” (Because a challenge gives a bully the attention and sense of power she or he is seeking.)
4. Set Limits.
Chrissy Scivicque writes, “The trick is to remain polite and professional while still setting your limits firmly. Don't let the bully get under your skin—that's what he wants. Practice your response so you're prepared the next time something happens and you can respond swiftly without getting emotional. Keep it simple and straightforward, for example: ‘I don't think your tone is appropriate.’"
5. Act quickly and consistently.
Whitson further tells us, “The longer a bully has power over a victim, the stronger the hold becomes. Oftentimes, bullying begins in a relatively mild form—name calling, teasing, or minor physical aggression. After the bully has tested the waters and confirmed that a victim is not going to tell an adult and stand up for his rights, the aggression worsens.”
6. Strike while the iron is cold.
Sometimes all you have to do with a bully is wait a little while. Rather than exchanging hostilities, step back so that you are not responding in the heat of the moment and meeting them on their own level. Cool heads find solutions more easily than hot ones. Besides, if you step back, they may do the dirty work for you. Rikki Rogers writes that, in the case of a bully using social media for negative purposes, “Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself. This is exactly what your bully is doing: marking herself with a big red flag. We may live in a world fully inundated with social media, but all truly professional organizations (and people) understand that this is not the mature way of acting in the workplace. So just ignore it. If your bully keeps it up, you won’t be worrying about her for long.”
So what can you do about the bully in your life?
Every one of these suggestions might not work for you, but don't give up hope if you try something and nothing happens right away. You have to keep at it, and stay consistent. You might also try combining several of the suggestions. That’s what Susan’s family did. Her daughter called her dad and her brother and asked if they could get together to talk. It took work, but they both eventually agreed. She asked if they could approach Susan with a very specific request. “It will only work if we all stand together, and if we stand firm,” she said. “We also will have to stay completely calm about it, and we’ll have to expect to fail the first few attempts. But maybe we could get together afterward to talk and take care of ourselves?”
Her dad was worried that they were ganging up on Susan, but his daughter said, “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life not talking to Mom. But I can’t reconnect to her on my own.”
The single thing they decided to focus on? That Susan not call them mean names when she spoke to them. “It’s hurtful and demeaning,” said the daughter when they finally had the family gathering. “Yeah,” said her brother. “I don’t know if you really do think I’m a stupid idiot, but it sounds like you do. So that’s how I act.”
Susan was angry, resentful, and unkind during the first get-together. She hurled insults at all of them, and wrote them nasty emails when the meeting was over. But they persevered, and after several attempts, she finally agreed to the one request. “I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she said tearfully. “But I’ll need you to remind me. Can you do it nicely?”
Susan did not stop being a bully after this one “intervention," but her family members' self-esteem flourished as a result. Her daughter began to have more contact with the family and to get some support from other extended family connections. With similar support, her son went into therapy and eventually back to work. And her husband found that he, too, was able to have a better relationship with Susan when he refused to accept her nastiness as inevitable and unchangeable.
* All identifying information, including names, have been changed to protect privacy.
Malcolm Gladwell (2013) David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
Whitson, S. (2014). 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen (2010) Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most