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How to Check a Bully's Contempt, Mockery, and One-Upmanship

Bullies seek social dominance by sabotaging victims and controlling bystanders.

Key points

  • Thirty-one percent of Americans report having experienced bullying in adulthood.
  • Common tactics of adult bullying are understated, subtle, indirect, and passive-aggressive yet insidious.
  • Bullies often exhibit low levels of empathy for targets and high levels of victimhood that rationalize abuse.
  • An insecure yet socially competitive mindset can lead bullies to feel powerful when publicly shaming others.
Keira Burton / Pexels
Source: Keira Burton / Pexels

Adult bullying occurs at a similar rate as adolescent bullying. According to a survey conducted by Harris Poll, 31 percent of Americans report having experienced bullying in adulthood. The survey defined bullying as “being subjected to repeated, negative behavior intended to harm or intimidate.”

Despite its prevalence, recognizing adult bullying can be difficult. Compared to childhood/adolescent bullying, adult bullying is less likely to involve overt insults and is more likely to be subtle, indirect, and passive-aggressive. In the aforementioned survey, for example, a quarter of respondents had experienced the silent treatment from an individual or group on a repeated basis, and 20 percent reported having lies spread about them that no one refuted.

While the tactics of adult bullying are generally more understated than childhood bullying, the effects are no less obvious. Notably, 70 percent of respondents to the survey reported feeling anxious or depressed, and 55 percent reported a loss of confidence.

“A bully gains power in a relationship by reducing another’s and shows little regard for the consequences to a victim’s health or well-being,” says Charles Sophy, DO, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and medical director for the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services. “Bullying is a coping strategy used to assert control when faced with personal limitations, whether intellectual, physical, or otherwise.”

To Dr. Sophy's point, adult bullying often maps onto emotional abuse, particularly narcissistic abuse. Either involves a perpetrator seeking power and dominance––social, spiritual, romantic, professional, financial, and otherwise––over one or more victims. The primary motive is to avoid hyperawareness of one's own inadequacies by ensuring everyone else is too disempowered.

Shvetsa / Pexels
Source: Shvetsa / Pexels

In narcissistic abuse, the narcissist escapes dealing with their own low self-esteem by social-climbing and/or seeking out those who have status because of wealth, fame, or beauty. Eventually, though, insecurity resurfaces, leading the narcissist to either fear abandonment, feel envious, or both.

Fear of being outshone or forgotten leads the narcissist to deploy a host of manipulative tactics: constant criticism, gaslighting, guilt-tripping, negative humor, projection, pretend ignorance, and victimhood, among others.

These tactics can overwhelm a target's nervous systems, chip away at their self-esteem, and cause them to walk on eggshells until they are unrecognizable to others and no longer any fun to be around. In this state, the target no longer triggers the narcissists's insecurities.

While not every instance of adult bullying involves narcissistic personality disorder, many bullies do exhibit narcissistic traits. What can make narcissistic traits unbearable is not mere vanity but a low level of empathy for targets and a high level of victimhood that rationalizes the mistreatment of others. These latter traits go hand in hand with how bullies play god, play the victim, and play dumb as they normalize contempt toward victims and mask their own competitiveness.

Here are some suggestions for how to check for five common tactics.

Anna Shvets / Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets / Pexels

1. When they “humble” you to offset attention

To “humble” someone is to burst their bubble. Often, the driving impulse is to divert attention away from someone who is being admired or celebrated, back to the bully. Examples include a backhanded compliment, criticism that is ill-timed, unnecessary, or unsolicited, or a patronizing reminder that someone still lacks seniority even despite their accomplishments. Special occasions are prime times for humbling because all eyes are on one person.

Checkmate: “I’ve always celebrated you during your special moments, even when I was down on luck. What would make you so negative during my special moment? Whatever the reason, thank you for your feedback. Please remember, though, that timing is everything, and I’d appreciate it if you considered that for me as much as I do for you."

2. When they distort your self-esteem into snobbery or vanity

“Let’s not pump up their head,” “I bet you took forever primping,” and “You love the sound of your own voice” can be jokes. Yet they also suggest that someone is arrogant or shallow. Such negative humor can put targets on victims’ backs since people generally rationalize hostility—scapegoating and schadenfreude, even—toward those assumed to be elitist, pretentious, selfish, or smug.

Checkmate: “That’s really funny…but only because I don’t actually show up that way in real life. Can you remember a time when I did? I hope you don't believe deflating my self-esteem is necessary for things to be fair or for you to be seen. We all have a right to like ourself. My confidence is hard-earned and powered by self-acceptance, not external validation or flattery."

3. When they recruit others into disliking you

Karolina Grabrowska / Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabrowska / Pexels

When someone can no longer control you, they will attempt to control how others see you. Bullies who engage in defamation and slander may lack the maturity to view conflict outside of dichotomous, zero-sum thinking. They might feel suspicious about the idea that two things can be valid simultaneously. So, every conflict becomes a race to establish the dominant narrative and appear blameless or victimized, while embarrassing the other party.

Checkmate: “Since our conflict began, I’ve felt coldness or hostility from several people who were previously warm, and a couple have shared that you’ve embellished my part in our conflict while downplaying your role. I’ve owned my part because I gain nothing from pretending like I have no room to grow. But I refuse to be villainized or put in the position of fending off allegations or mistrust based on a biased narrative.”

4. When they play devil’s advocate facetiously

Critical thinking entails considering alternate perspectives and weighing counter-evidence. But bullying might be at play when a facade of objectivity is used to cloak facetious contrarianism. Especially during conversations pertaining to oppression, playing devil’s advocate can seem callous and uncalled for. Signs typically include someone using a dry tone of voice, relentlessly sifting emotional content through a hyper-rational filter of “whataboutisms,” and trivializing or oversimplifying complex issues to suggest you are overreacting.

Checkmate: “Just an observation here: It seems like you are using this conversation as an opportunity to push my buttons and test my patience. It feels like a debate where, by default, I’m in the less powerful position of convincing you to change your mind—and you’ve made up your mind already. Moving forward, please remember that your level-headedness during discussions about unfamiliar lived experiences is a result of privilege, not your objectivity or neutrality.”

5. When they twist your words to make you sound simple-minded or unreasonable.

Shvetsa / Pexels
Source: Shvetsa / Pexels

This tactic often involves distorting or exaggerating your critiques, positions, or preferences. While an overview of logical fallacies is beyond the scope of this post, this tactic can take on the loaded assumptions and bad faith framings of several logical fallacies. A few worth looking into are the straw man fallacy, the red herring, the false equivalence, and the false dilemma or dichotomy.

Checkmate: “Can I be honest? It feels like you’re committed to misunderstanding me because you drew the most negative conclusion(s) possible from what I [just] said. It seems like you might be filtering my words through your own preconceived ideas about who I am, or projecting presuppositions onto my words without seeking clarification first. That feels unfair. Let’s stick to charitable and good-faith interpretations of what each other is saying.”

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