In recent weeks, news of high-profile acts of bullying flooded our TV screens and social media. Among them is the outrageous disrespect that soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson endured during days of hostile questioning from opportunistic Senators, as well as actor Will Smith’s assault of comedian Chris Rock for telling an insensitive joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. (In this case, one might see the bully in Chris Rock as well as in Will Smith.)
But bullies menace outside of politics and entertainment, as many of us might remember from the playgrounds of our childhood. Some of us face bullies every day—at work and even within our own families. What’s important is that you know how to spot them, and how to survive them.
A bully is someone who abuses their power to intimidate or harm another person. This abuse can be emotional or physical. A bully’s power can stem from their official position—like a senator who has the authority to deny a nominee their confirmation, a boss who has the ability to hire or fire, or an older family member or more senior member of a group—or their physical size and strength. Power can also be derived from economic or social standing, which might come from being socially savvy or perceived as popular or charismatic. Either way, the threat felt by the person being bullied is real and frightening.
A bully could be motivated by the need for attention or resentment regarding their status or the unfairness of life. Some bullies, like an intimidating boss or co-worker, may be jealous or want to rob a more vulnerable individual of a real or perceived advantage, like better skills or popularity. For African-Americans or other racial minorities, bullying can be doubly harmful because it can be motivated by racism from those who resent perceived “preferences,” or who fear a loss of their status in the workplace or in society.
Whatever the motivation, the target of bullying can experience lasting harm. Ongoing bullying can cause distress and trauma, especially if it echoes childhood experiences or family dynamics, exposing long-dormant traumas. The experience can make you fearful and avoidant, and lead to anxiety and depression among other mental health issues. Over time, the stress from ongoing bullying can lead to physical health effects such as high blood pressure. To avoid these problems, here are some steps to stand up to the bully in your life.
- Check-in with yourself. Acknowledge what’s happening to you, how you feel about it, and how those feelings might echo feelings from your past. Does it bring up memories of being bullied as a child? Taking this step of mindfulness will help you connect today’s discomfort with earlier times when you felt vulnerable.
- Write it out. In your journal, write “I feel ________ when I have to interact with this person.” You might be feeling intimidated, small, or afraid to confront the individual or situation in a work context. Whatever the emotion, get it out on paper so you can face it.
- Speak up. If you feel safe, consider raising the issue directly with the bully. If you’re at work, you may want to discuss it in terms of what you need to do your job effectively. Remain positive and keep the focus on how the bullying behavior affects not only you personally but also how it affects your ability to work. You may also want to write what you intend to say in advance.
- Get help. On the job, you might discuss the issue confidentially with someone in human resources. That way, you go on record as experiencing a difficulty in the workplace that is affecting your ability to do your job effectively—and that HR should respond to.
- Talk to someone. Discuss the problem with peers or a friend or a mentor outside the workplace to get advice and perspective. If you have trusted allies on the job, share the problem with them; you may find you’re not alone in suffering under a bully.
- Document, document. If the bullying is ongoing, keep a record of it, including dates, times, specific conversations, and examples of bad behavior. You may find this documentation useful if you need to get legal advice.
- Don’t take it personally. Sometimes victims of bullying start to think that something is wrong with them. Recognize the problem lies within the bully, not you. Be compassionate with yourself.
- Consider your exit. No job is worth your emotional and physical health. If the situation does not improve and your employer doesn’t help, update your resume and start looking for greener pastures.
- Seek mental health support. Talk to a therapist or consider group therapy to help you cope and recover.
You do not have to accept a bully’s abuse. It may take time to change a situation, but protecting yourself is too important. By taking action, you send a message to the bully, and more importantly, to yourself, that you deserve better.