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Is Your Bully Abusive or Just Abrasive?

The answer matters because one can be rehabilitated. The other? Not so much.

Key points

  • Although abrasive and abusive individuals appear similar, they're not.
  • Being able to identify the characteristics of abrasive versus abusive bullying can keep you saner and safer.
  • Abrasive bullying targets anyone who adds to the person's anxiety; abusive bullying hinges on maltreating targets and nurturing beneficiaries.

There is a vital difference between individuals who are abusive and those who are abrasive. Their conduct might manifest in similar ways—yelling, put-downs, raging, humiliating—but they are in truth fundamentally different. There are ways to identify those who bully and are abusive as distinct from those who are merely abrasive.

While abrasive individuals cause untold stress and harm, they are not nearly as damaging as those who are abusive. Most importantly, abrasive individuals can be rehabilitated whereas it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to change someone who is abusive. While they both resort to bullying conduct, the abrasive one is acting out of threat and anxiety, whereas the abusive one is motivated by a need to manipulate and conquer victims.

Abrasive Bullying

Dr. Laura Crawshaw has had a successful career of 30 years watching countless bullying bosses transform into mindful, thoughtful, empathic leaders. She does not use the term “bully” to categorize them. Instead, she uses the term “abrasive.” Crawshaw coaches aggressive, intimidating, rude, and angry bosses in order to support them in avoiding these reactive behaviors and replacing them with calm, engaging, and supportive conduct.

Source: Pexels/Pixabay

In essence, her method is to show abrasive bosses that they are acting from a place of fear. They are worried that their team is going to fail and their failure will result in a humiliating exposure for the bosses who will then appear incompetent. These kinds of bosses become aggressive and dismissive of their colleagues' challenges, feelings, and limitations from a deep-seated fear of not being able to deliver the project in its ideal form and on time.

Crawshaw helps abrasive bosses learn new ways to manage their stress and instead of lashing out, like a threatened animal, she trains them to understand success is far more likely and sustainable if they treat their employees with empathic understanding. She rehabilitates abrasive individuals by changing their behaviours and thus their brain wiring. Her work hinges on neuroplasticity, namely the brain’s ability to change based on what we practice.

Abusive Bullying

In contrast, as Crawshaw and I discussed, those who bully from an abusive drive are different and extremely difficult to rehabilitate. These individuals are studied by experts in psychopathology Dr. Robert Hare and Dr. Paul Babiak. They are referred to with the umbrella term the “dark triad," which includes narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths. These individuals may act in highly abrasive ways, but where they differ is in having specific targets.

Source: Tumisu/Pixabay

When bullying is from a place of fear and anxiety, it is directed at everyone and anyone who might expose the boss as incompetent. When bullying is informed by psychopathology, there will be targets exposed to abrasive conduct and beneficiaries who are protected from it. The abuse is selectively meted out.

When Crawshaw works with her abrasive clients to tackle their bullying crisis, they survey the organization to get feedback on the client's conduct. While the clients may have skills, talent, and competencies, without fail, they are described by everyone as bullying and harmful. In contrast, when Babiak and Hare canvas an organization to get feedback, they receive glowing reports, side by side with horrified reports of a single individual’s conduct. They say that this kind of dual response seems to be for two completely different people.

Abrasive people who are lashing out from a fear-based place lash out at everyone. Abusive individuals bully targets and put beneficiaries up on pedestals. Why? Because when their bullying conduct is reported, the beneficiaries rush to their defence.

Why do they behave in this manipulative, destructive way?

Babiak and Hare explain that those in the dark triad are driven to win. They play with others as if they are pawns on a chess board to be sacrificed for the win. Their game-like compulsion is to make targets into “losers” in order to assure their own status as “winners.” It is extremely challenging, if not impossible, to transform their behaviour because they deny it. In their own minds, they are victims of abuse, not perpetrators.

Dr. Martin Teicher examines the brains of abusive individuals and explains that someone with a split personality that favours some and bullies others suffers from “associative identity disorder.” He describes this self-division in exactly the same way Babiak and Hare do in their studies of psychopaths in the workplace. He says this condition arises when “seemingly separate people occupy the same body at different times, each with no knowledge of the other.”

Source: Kalhh/Pixabay

Clearly, the split personality presents a serious hurdle to anyone who seeks to change the abusive individual’s behaviour and it helps us understand how it is that these people remain in positions of trust and influence not just for years, but for decades. It is incredibly difficult to call them to account because they always have defenders who cast doubt upon the victims. Well-known examples of abuse reports being dismissed are related to coach Jerry Sandusky, doctor Larry Nassar, and producer Harvey Weinstein. One minute they’re good Dr. Jekyll, and the next minute they're Mr. Hyde. It confuses the one who receives the abuse reports and allows the abusers to continue their harmful behaviour for a long time, leaving many victims in their wake.

How to identify abusive individuals and not mix them up with abrasive ones

The key is to watch for the double presentation. If you have targets reporting abuse and beneficiaries reporting nurture, it signals associative identity disorder. Do not make the mistake of turning your doubts onto those who report abuse.

Think of a child bully. She does not target all children; she zeroes in on one or two and bullies them. The others are exempt, and she showers them with kindness. It’s not as sophisticated as adults in the dark triad who are far more adept at covering up their split personality. When victims report abuse, watch out for key phrases like “but he’s so popular” or “but she has a cult following.” These are the red flags that you don’t have a fear-based aggressor on your hands who is abrasive. No; you are dealing with a much more serious form of abuse with someone who believes they are the victim.

They’re the victim of a witch hunt, even. They’re being harmed and insist you protect them and their reputation. Watch out for this kind of textbook reaction. Knowledge about associative identity disorder is critical to save victims and whole organizations from abusive individuals.


Babiak, P., & Hare, R. (2007). Snakes in Suits. New York: HarperCollins.

Crawshaw, L. (2023). Grow Your Spine & Manage Abrasive Leadership Behavior. Zurich: Executive Insight Press.

Teicher, M. (2000). “Wounds that Won’t Heal.” Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science 4.2: 50-67.

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