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5 Strategies to Deal with a Bully

How to avoid being pulled into controlling relationships.

Bully. Most of us are familiar with this term. What was once upon a time a word used to describe a certain kind of person, a certain type of interaction with a limited connotation has become much more recognizable recently and has had its meaning expanded socially, emotionally, and psychologically. Most of us are knowledgeable about what bullying is and what it means to be bullied and, in fact, many of us have had the personal experience of being bullied.

What is a bully? Well, it’s someone who gets on your case, in your face, on your back, and doesn’t let up. They find you, pick you out, deem that you’re vulnerable and a good target to bother and harass. They believe that you are somehow weak enough and defenseless enough to allow them to vent their aggression and anger, and to unload their numerous insecurities upon you.

Who is a bully? A bully may exist in any setting—someone in your family, at work or at school, a once thought to be friend, and most surprisingly, a spouse and/or other intimate relationship. Sometimes, it’s a stranger.

What is bullying? From my point of view, it can run the gamut from a rather benign annoying interaction to a very malignant and aggressive one. Some people just get under your skin whenever they have the opportunity but their intention does not run so deep. They just want to get your attention and perhaps, your reaction, but not much more. Some bullies, on the other hand, give a great deal of thought to how they interact with their “victims” and their intention is to upset, to inflict some level of emotional pain. And sometimes, bullying is intended to be devastating to the one bullied and, as we’ve seen in the media, to inflict harm and evil.

More specifically, let me give you some examples of what I consider bullying behavior. Some of you may not agree but others of you will probably shake your head “yes” recognizing certain kinds of behavior and interactions that many of you have personally experienced. School is a place where kids may find themselves alone, not fitting in to any particular group, feeling awkward (as many kids do), and having to navigate their way around without anyone to support and/or protect them. They may stand out as particularly vulnerable and an easy target for a bully. Daily teasing, harassing, making fun of someone’s looks, intelligence, etc. may become a nightmare for a bullying victim and may even escalate to a level that may cause the one bullied to become afraid, anxious, depressed, and much worse.

Then there is the office. Co-workers can become bullies for many reasons, due to their own personal psychological issues, to jealousy over another’s abilities on the job, especially when they are recognized for their work and contribution, to fear that someone else will succeed on the job and they, the bully, won’t and/or will be compared to someone perceived as doing a better job. Then there are those who just don’t like other people, or working cooperatively, or just get their jollies by upsetting everyone.

Next, there are the family bullies. This can be just one member of the family that likes to stir the pot, creating discord within the family, being difficult and uncooperative when it comes to family dynamics in general, often pitting one family member against another. Sometimes they consistently pick on one particular family member, or spread the wealth by annoying various members at different times. They may bully for psychological reasons, for perceived wrongs done to them; they may bully for financial reasons, and may even bully a vulnerable family member sexually.

Sometimes, a parent is a bully to all of the children, or to one particular child, and sometimes a parent(s) create a situation where the whole family bullies, gangs up on, and/or scapegoats one particular child. I’ve seen a situation where the women in a family (the mother and a few sisters) bullied a sister whose opinion they did not like by threatening to ostracize her if she did not get with the “family program”.

Then there is the situation where a partner in an intimate relationship becomes a bully to the one they’re supposed to support and nurture most of all. Bullying can run the gamut from making fun of someone’s vulnerabilities and teasing them about sensitive issues, to ridicule, judgment, and criticism, to rude and inappropriate behavior, both privately and publicly, to emotional, psychological, and physical abuse.

This is very small discussion about a very large and important topic. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when dealing with a bully. Ideally, the best thing is to run far away from people who mistreat you but often this is easier said than done, and often relationships are much too intricate to just simply walk away from.

Be prepared. Know how to respond ahead of time. Obviously, this isn’t so easy to do when bullying first begins. It may actually take you a while to understand dynamically what’s happening. Observe what happens time after time. Does the bully wait to get you alone or does he/she wait until others are around in order to have a bigger forum and to publicly humiliate you? Understand the bully’s modus operandi and practice ways of dealing with it before you are actually confronted. That way you will not be caught off guard.

Try to understand where the bully is “coming from." What issues push their buttons, get them going? What are their issues with you specifically? Do they ever express interest in airing the differences between you in order to work on your issues or problems? You may try asking them what their problems are with you and see what happens. My guess is they’re not going to be interested in working things out reasonably. On the contrary, they’re getting something out of the combative interaction, whether it’s getting attention, putting you down, or feeling superior for the moment.

Set boundaries. Decide beforehand what the limits of your contact with the bully will be. Know when to remove yourself from a “bullying” situation. Once you understand how they usually operate, figure out a way to engage them in the least possible way and to exit the situation as quickly as possible. Do not attempt to reason with them. Try not to be in a situation where you are alone with them.

Avoid emotionality. At first this will be extremely difficult. After all, their intention is to push ever button they can, to make you angry and upset. Stand up to the bully without getting upset and without hostility. Stay logical and practical. Keep your responses short and sweet indicating there is no room for discussion.

Align yourself with people who support you. Sounds obvious but there’s nothing like being in the company of people who respect, honor, and celebrate you. Sometimes bullies are very good at what they do—to undermine your confidence in yourself, to doubt and second-guess yourself. Those who support you are often the voice of reason and sanity, reminding you to be confident in what you understand to be true. Your friends will help you sort out difficult situations and relationships, help you make decisions about the relationships you keep, and help you identify who in your life has your best interests at heart.