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Why Bullies Are On Top

Bullies can teach you something

They may be at work, in your social group, or in your neighborhood. As a child it’s likely that you encountered a few at school and still remain resentful. A bully can preoccupy your thoughts and affect your attachment to a place or to other people. They can mistreat you and yet charm others who either fail to recognize their manipulative and denigrating behavior or who choose to ignore it out of their own need for acceptance or experience of helplessness.

A workplace or professional setting can be miserable when you have regular contact with someone who bullies either harshly or slightly.  Even if you are not a target, the behavior of a bully seems to permeate the entire atmosphere of an organization, especially if it is disregarded or goes unrecognized by those who have the authority to control it. Just to know you’re not alone, the Workplace Bullying Institute reported in their 2010 findings that 35% of workers have experienced bullying firsthand, which they define as “repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, and humiliation” (HBI, 2010). They also found that in 80% of cases, women bullies target women and that the majority of bullying (68%) is same gender harassment. However, the similar experiences of others don’t really ease the situation when you’re in the victim role. Victims of bullies experience anxiety and personal shame that can result in sleep disturbance, withdrawal, agitation, self-esteem problems, and stress. Having an understanding of how a bully’s emotional life impacts your own might help you to deal with the situation differently.

Bullies are notorious for misusing power. They may overtly denigrate, criticize, or exclude you in such a way that, at the time, you may be incapable of responding. In a group meeting, they may covertly destroy you by responding to a comment or suggestion you make with a remark alluding to the idea that they don’t understand what you are talking about—suggesting that you are inarticulate or ignorant—and not allow for clarification. But even more insidious is their capacity to manipulate or incite others to be aggressive, belittling, or hostile toward you through their denigrating remarks or creation of rumors. The farther they push you down, the more they rise to the top. And they do succeed.

It’s tempting to think of people who behave like a bully as having a personality disorder along the likes of the borderline or narcissistic type. Although that may be true in many instances, personality disorders are complex and ownership of bullying characteristics does not belong to any one diagnosis. A bully can be an everyday normal neurotic personality who exhibits features of various personality disorders. Yet in order to recognize the state of mind of bullies and their basic strategies, you needn’t go beyond understanding how they use the emotions of anxiety, shame, and pride (hubris).

Shame is what a bully attempts to hide. As noted in a previous PT blog (Do Bullies Really Have Low Self-Esteem?) bullies have high self-esteem, but they are very shame-prone— they are anxious about the exposure of their failures or shortcomings. Their mean behavior toward others keeps their self-esteem high because it takes their own and others' attention away from the parts of themselves about which they are ashamed (Thomaes, Bushman, Stegge & Olthof, 2008).  Thus, the bully gives away his shame by denigrating you and, as a result, a bully will make you experience shame about your own inadequacies. This will relieve him of any anxiety that his own shame will be exposed. And you will be left experiencing anxiety and humiliation.

The anxiety and shame experienced by the bully interface with his sense of pride. In evolutionary terms, the expression of emotions, such as pride, conveys information to other social group members regarding one’s social status. The pride expression strongly signals high status and survival-relevant messages to others (Shariff and Tracy, 2009). The high self-esteem of a bully is a result of, and maintained by, hubristic pride.

Hubristic pride, which represents a more global and overly self-confident attitude, is related to being proud of who you are in an arrogant or egotistical sense (Tracy & Robbins, 2007). Hubristic pride, which is experienced by bullies, generally translates into viewing oneself as being highly valued. In the experience of pride you might consider that your actions resulted in something done well, but with hubris you did something well because you are great. Thus, hubristic pride does not separate the self from the deed. Researchers found that hubristic pride is associated with shame-proneness and may be a way to hide feelings of shame, whereas individuals who experience pride tend not to be shame-prone (Tracy & Robbins, 2007b). Thus, the self-aggrandizement from hubristic pride hides a bully’s proneness to experience shame and keeps their self-esteem high.

Knowing this, what can you do when you are faced with a bully? First of all, recognize that the issue is not yours and behave accordingly. Aside from alerting anyone who is in authority, you must stand up for yourself. In fact, use the stance of the person who has pride: stand tall with your chest extended, head tilted back, and with a small smile on your face. Then speak. Have talking points in your head that you will use when confronted by a bully. If your talking points don’t work, then you need to develop ones that will. For example, in the case of the bully who in the work meeting questions what you are saying, you might simply respond that what you are saying is quite clear and reiterate it. The bully will make a snide remark. Comment on the fact that the remark is inappropriate. Don’t back down. A bully senses weakness and if you display vulnerability you will be attacked. Approach dealing with the bully in your life as an opportunity to grow: you may have many failures but, in the end, they are the best teachers of what you need to do in order to stand up for yourself in the most adverse conditions.


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 This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.


HBI (2010). The Workplace Bullying Institute. (

Shariff, A. & Tracy, J. (2009). Nonverbal expression of pride. Emotion, 9:5, 631–639.

Thomaes, S., Bushman, B. J., Stegge, H., & Olthof, T. (2008). Trumping shame by blasts of noise: Narcissism, self-esteem, shame, and aggression in young adolescents. Child Development, 79, 1792-1801.

Tracy, J. & Robbins, R. (2007). Emerging insights into the nature and function of pride.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(3), 147-150.

Tracy, J. & Robbins, R. (2007b). The psychological structure of pride: A tale of two facets. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(3), 506-525.