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How to Recognize and Deal With Adult Bullying

Learn more about the silent epidemic of adult bullying.

A survey by the American Osteopathic Association showed that 31% of individuals in the U.S. reported experiencing bullying as an adult and 43% reported that bullying seems to have become more accepted in recent years. (AOA) Other prior studies have found similar rates.

What does adult bullying look like?

Adult bullying includes spreading malicious, false rumors about the target; turning social alliances against the target by painting a negative picture of them; putting down or silencing the target in front of others; excluding; mocking the target; withholding information from the target; and/or claiming credit for the work of the target. (NHS) The target is often not in a position of being able to defend themselves easily as there may be an actual or a perceived power imbalance of some sort (such as being newer in a social circle). Bullying is a type of aggressive behavior.

What drives bullying?

People bully others whom they feel threatened by or envious of, especially those who are different from them in some way (Almeida et al, 2022) and to establish dominance in a group. (Salmivalli, 2010) Those who bully feel better by putting the target down. There may be a strong need for asserting dominance over others which can defend against underlying deep-rooted shame and a sense of inadequacy. Those who bully often have themselves been abused or bullied in the past. Mood, anxiety, substance use, and personality disorders may be more common among perpetrators of bullying as compared to others. A study also found associations between PTSD and bully perpetration. (McMillan et al, 2016)

Excessive competitiveness and excessive focus on advancing the interests of one's self even at the cost of others, are some themes underlying bullying. Dehumanization can be a factor as well. A study examining dehumanization and bullying among children found that ''non-friends were dehumanized more than friends." (van Noorden, 2014)

Contrary to prior theories, research suggests that people who bully tend to have high social cognition, not low (Andrews et al, 2023), but they do display low empathy.

The covert nature of adult bullying

Bullying is a silent epidemic (McAvoy and Murtagh, 2003; Killoren R, 2014). Those who bully often ensure good relationships with their superiors (Killoren R, 2014) and with others they deem important, thereby enabling them to evade detection of their bullying. The person who bullies may have 1 or 2 targets at a time. Targets of bullying often suffer in silence, because of a lack of effective anti-bullying policies and interventions, stigma, and at times, power imbalances. (McAvoy and Murtagh, 2003) Some suggest that those who bully know how to ‘work the system’ (Killoren R, 2014); they might plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of their superiors about the target, making it less likely for the target to be believed or taken seriously. (Killoren R, 2014)

The role of the peer group

Bullying is rarely solo. The term ‘bullying’ has its origins in the word 'mobbing' which was used to describe a group of children ganging up on one child. (Salmivalli, 2010) Recent research indicates that the peer group may inadvertently play a role in maintaining bullying. While peers may not theoretically be in favor of bullying, they may implicitly or unknowingly contribute to perpetuating bullying by aligning with the bully (WBI, 2021) or by staying silent because they might find it too risky to confront the bully, or by rationalizing that the bully is ‘just joking’ even though they may find the behavior psychologically harmful. The peer group may assign the bully the status of ‘cool’ or ‘popular’ or 'powerful'. (Salmivalli, 2010)

The impact of bullying

In addition to potentially harming the relationships and social standing of the target, bullying has detrimental physical and psychological effects on affected individuals via increasing risk of cardiovascular disease, adversely affecting the HPA axis, and increasing their risk of anxiety, depression (Niedhammer, et al 2006; Kivimaki et al 2003; Hauge et al 2010), sleep difficulties, and low self-worth. It can also adversely affect the psychological well-being and morale of those who witness the bullying, increasing the risk of depression among those bystanders. (Emdad 2013). Studies from children and adolescents show that even those who bully may suffer from negative psychological sequelae.

How to prevent bullying

Given that 34% of surveyed individuals in the U.S. are estimated to deny being aware of the existence of bullying and many people blame the target of bullying, the first step is to raise awareness about bullying. (WBI, 2021) Studies have been mixed on efficacy of anti-bullying interventions, with more research done in children and adolescents than in adults. Given that bullying can be one of the factors contributing to anxiety and depression, there is scope for further research in anti-bullying interventions, especially those involving the peer group.

What the peer group can do: The peer group members can engage in self-reflection, asking themselves questions such as: How did I reach this conclusion? Did someone else suggest it? Do I know this for a fact? Did I ask questions that would disprove, rather than confirm, my current hypothesis? Do I not like this person (target) for some reason, or do I admire the person bullying? (Gopal et al, 2021). If a peer group stops assigning ‘popular’ status to a bully, it may prevent further bullying. (Salmivalli, 2010)

What the target of bullying can do: if one is a target, it can help to remember that the feelings you are experiencing are not yours to hold or carry; they belong to the person bullying. Making this distinction can help. Trying not to take the bullying behavior personally can also be helpful. Keeping your distance (if feasible) from the person bullying may help.

What the person engaging in bullying can do: If you recognize that you have bullied someone, then, it can be helpful to self-reflect to understand what may have led you to engage in that behavior. Treating oneself and others with gentleness and kindness can help. Practicing putting oneself in the shoes of others can be a helpful exercise. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, the situation might allow an opportunity to make amends. Remember there is professional help available for healing.

Prevention: Programs that educate about bullying can also help. On a preventive level, compassion and mindfulness programs beginning in school might help create the groundwork for children, adolescents, and later adults to develop greater self-awareness, self-regulation, compassion, empathy, altruism, and equanimity, which may in turn, help prevent bullying. (Botha et al, 2015)

Compassion: Greater compassion for one another, rather than othering, can help bullying prevention and healing. Compassion is noticing others' suffering with a desire to relieve suffering. The ability for compassion is present in human beings and can be further cultivated and nurtured through compassion training. Compassion reminds us that others are 'just like us', in their desire for happiness and freedom from suffering. Compassion entails kindness and gentleness toward self and others. For a more peaceful world with better collective well-being and healing, compassion is a vital practice.

Copyright Richa Bhatia 2023. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical or psychiatric advice or recommendations, or diagnostic or treatment opinion. This is not a complete review or description of this subject.

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