Adult Bullying Is a Thing, Too
Seven tips for how to deal with being bullied as an adult.
Posted February 19, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Curiously, while adult bullying is fairly common (some studies say it’s as common as childhood bullying), it doesn't make its way into our conversations as frequently as childhood and adolescent bullying. Furthermore, there are more online resources when it comes to childhood bullying. While there is research on adult bullying that mostly focuses on bullying in the workplace and higher education, it’s not something that we often talk about. Why isn’t adult bullying more a part of our casual conversations?
While I don’t have the answer as to why there seems to be a shortage of both material and conversation surrounding adult bullying despite its pervasiveness, I’d like to offer a hypothesis: We talk less about bullying in adulthood because it carries a greater stigma with potentially higher consequences than it does in childhood.
Because adult bullying is often sneakier and more masked, the person being bullied carries shame and self-doubt—wondering if it’s all "in their head" and they are misinterpreting what is happening. Furthermore, the person getting bullied may likely be worried about real-life outcomes that can have long-ranging and devastating effects — loss of their job, relationships, or reputation. Because of this, adult bullying feels taboo and carries more weight.
Therefore, it’s easy to see why being bullied as an adult can be a lonely experience.
Only, it’s not. In one article found with quantitative data about the rates of adult bullying, a poll derived from The Harris Poll done on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association surveyed 2000 United States adults and found that 31 percent of them reported being bullied as an adult, rates that are surprisingly on par with the levels reported in adolescence. Bullying as an adult was related to significant mental and physical consequences, just as it is when it happens in childhood and adolescence. These numbers were corroborated in other studies done from the early 2000s, where the authors found 30 percent of Americans will be bullied over the course of their careers.
To be honest, this is a topic that feels personal to me, as I have had two experiences of being bullied as an adult, including one fairly recent incident. It’s interesting for me to reflect on the self-doubt that came up for me as I considered writing about my experiences on a public forum. And if there’s something that I’ve learned over the years, it’s that many (if not all?) of our experiences are shared with other humans. If I feel something, then there is a strong likelihood that many others do, too. We are just not that unique. There is something comforting in this awareness of our implicit kinship. It reminds me of the old advice we got back in grade school about speaking up and asking questions: If you have the question, you can assume so do others. Generalizing this to our experiences: If I have this experience, I can assume so do many others. We are more similar than different, and our brain processes mirror one another’s in several important ways.
Both times that I was bullied as an adult, it was by someone older than myself who held greater perceived power. The first time was years ago when I was a graduate student, and the second time was in a cyberbullying incident.
In my recent online bullying encounter, I had the gumption I lacked in my first bullying experience. This time I dealt with it in a proactive and empowered way. I took a stand. I spoke up. I set boundaries and reached out to my social support. I noticed shame as it arose and worked through it. I got information. I regrouped and figured out a new path for myself that limited interaction with the person doing the bullying. In contrast, I responded quite differently years ago when I was bullied in graduate school, where I suffered a hellish year of social isolation, abuse of power, and misconduct perpetrated by someone who held more power than I. It’s nice to notice our growth when we are put back in a similar position for a second time.
Propelled by my own experiences, I feel compelled to spread awareness around adult bullying. It happens, and not infrequently. It’s more insidious and passive-aggressive than childhood bullying, because adults are, well…more sophisticated in how they attack their prey. Bullying behavior is pervasive. It’s perpetuated by smart executives and people in high-ranking positions. It’s executed by people claiming to want to help you and build you up. There is often a power dynamic — but there doesn’t need to be. And the recipient of the bullying often feels very much alone, carrying big shame on top of all the other costs of getting bullied.
Shortly after the above-mentioned cyberbullying incident, I created an adult bullying-themed week on Instagram where I discussed different facets of adult bullying. It was both heartbreaking and illuminating how many people said that they were bullied as an adult. Many women wrote to me that they were bullied by other women. In an era of “women supporting women,” this reality can carry an extra sting and be more painful. It may leave the victim wondering, “there must be something wrong with me to be the target of another woman. Why does she seem to be supporting other women but not me? What’s wrong with me?” and often because the individual doing the bullying is supportive in other ways, or claims to support the voices of women, there is additional doubt and fear of not being believed.
If you find yourself in the position of being bullied as an adult, here are some ideas that might be useful to help you ride, and ultimately thrive and grow from, this very difficult experience. The following are some strategies you might want to try to help yourself if you are being bullied:
1. Take a stand. People who bully find their strength and power in fear. If you show fear or let your shame dictate your next moves and cower, this gives more fodder for the bully’s fire. By speaking up either directly, using calm and assertive techniques, or to a superior who can help (if you feel like you would benefit from more support), you are letting the bully know that they chose the wrong target.
2. Document everything. Save emails, screenshot messages on social media, and write down incidents that occur. This will help you if the bullying persists and you need more support down the line.
3. Use your social support. Don’t stay quiet and carry this burden in silence. If you don’t talk about it, you may be reinforcing your belief that there is something wrong or shameful about you. Talking about it not only enables you to receive emotional support, but it can help you gain perspective, and step out of the shame spiral. Take a deep breath and reach out to people whom you trust and can rely on. These people can offer you reassurance and advice, and remind you that this bullying incident is just one small facet of your life.
4. Validate your experience. Because adult bullying is sneakier and often encourages you to "get in your head," you may find yourself diminishing or not fully acknowledging the extreme hurt of the situation. Try asking yourself this question—if a friend came to you with this exact problem, how would you respond? Turn that empathy inward. Validate the awfulness of what it feels like to be bullied. You’re not making it up, your feelings are justified and reflect that you are going through something real and hard.
5. Set clear boundaries. Physical boundaries are those concrete boundaries where you decide how often and in what circumstance you will have contact with the bully. Unfriend or block the bully on social media if you can. Decide what events you will participate in, and how. Emotional boundaries are not receiving the emotional baggage the bully is wanting to offload onto you. I think of it as a game of volleyball — when the bully tosses the ball over the net (whether that is their anger, insecurity, or shame) ask yourself, is this mine to hold? Are these feelings stemming from something within me- or are they being evoked by the bully’s behaviors? If the answer is these feelings are not mine — volley that ball back over the net. Send those feelings back into the hands of the person doing the bullying. Life quickly becomes exhausting when we hold emotional baggage that is not ours to claim.
6. Practice compassion. Hurt people hurt people. Sadly, people who bully often have had their share of trauma and earlier difficulties leading to the development of a fragile ego and the need to rise up by pushing others down. Looking at it from this angle, while not condoning their behavior in any way, helps to minimize any intimidation you might feel from the bully. Maybe even try imagining them as a little child. This can help evoke feelings of compassion towards an injured human who is still hurting. Looking at it from this angle, we can feel both quite sad for the bully while being liberated from their perceived power at the same time.
7. Depersonalize. I heard beautiful words recently from Bonnie Duran on the Ten Percent Happier podcast hosted by Dan Harris. In it, she said the words “nothing is personal, nothing is permanent, and nothing is perfect.” I think we can use these words to reassure ourselves if we ever find ourselves in the midst of a bullying episode. While it is often difficult to depersonalize, it is an important reminder that the bullying behavior is not about you. It’s about some unresolved difficulties on the part of the person doing the bullying. It’s really not personal. But more than that, ‘it’s not about you’ reminds us that in this life, nothing is ever uniquely about us- even the things that feel deeply personal. Everything that happens to us- for us- reflects nature: human nature or the nature of this world. The bullying phenomenon is timeless. This power dynamic is written about in some of our oldest stories (read: Cain/Able or Jacob/Esau). Unfortunately, it's how humans have been treating each other for generations and generations. It’s a painful part of the nature of things, and not your story alone. There is something deeply comforting when we frame it in this way. And why has it existed for years and years and years? Because adult bullying is indeed a thing.