Managing Adults Who Bully

Bullies Aren’t Just on the Playground-
Have you ever wondered why we put up with emotional bullies? What is it about a bully that makes us surrender to their abuse? When I hear people talk about bullying I immediately think about the school -yard bully. For many years I gave workshops to schools and parent groups about bullying. I talked a lot about strategies for helping children avoid being bullied and for building a climate of what was called the “bully free school.” One of the main points I tried to make in these workshops was that we needed to engage both the adults and the innocent bystanders in order to create a bully-free climate. Adults of my generation (before the age of sensitivity training workshops) often would take the position that “kids will be kids” or “boys will be boys” as if those statements explained that bullying was a necessary part of growing up. They are more nearly statements which say: “I don’t know what to do, its always been this way.” My point in these workshops was that kids can’t make kids stop bullying, only adults can. Kids can participate in making adults aware of the bullying that occurs, but they will not do that unless they learn that the adults can be relied upon to do something about it. Otherwise, they just learn survival skills ,which include the lesson that the strong dominate the weak and Darwin was right.
But lately, I have been thinking about adults who bully. I have a friend with a son who married a woman that bullies not only the son, but everyone in the family. My friend is saddened and angry. He is afraid to challenge either this woman or his son because he is afraid that the woman will take the son and the grandchildren out of his life as punishment. As a result, he permits things to happen and words to be said to his wife and him that wound and strain the fabric of the relationship. He is operating under the illusion that if he just tolerates this little bit of abuse, then it will ultimately be ok. He does not face the fact that she can never be appeased and that her demands will continue to be outrageous, and her weapons of abuse and pain will continue to be used. He cannot make his son “see” her as damaging. The wife has already created a relationship with his son where the father is seen as controlling, insensitive, non supportive, and abusive. Therefore, any challenge that my friend makes to this woman’s goals and desires, is doomed to be interpreted in the context of the script that dominates the relationship between the son and his wife. My friend is fighting a loosing battle. He cannot win in the short -term, he has to look at the long -term relationship. It is possible that over time his son may come to his senses and the relationship the son has with his wife will atrophy. If my friend waits and occasionally invites, his son may come back to a level of intimacy that is not foreshadowed by his wife’s bullying.
Taking a look at the long term instead of the short term is a difficult thing to do. My friend may have to compare the cost of pain. The pain of not being intimately involved with his son and grandchildren is certainly intense. What my friend is not calculating though, is the pain he is suffering by being untrue to his sense of self. When he swallows his reaction, when he fails to establish boundaries that work for him and his own wife, he is making himself and his atmosphere toxic. This toxicity will become a cancer and grow over time to stultifying proportions. I encourage my friend to set his boundaries and be true to himself. This will mean that there will be a confrontation and a blow up and a separation. The bully will play all the manipulative cards she has in her deck. My friend will have to choose to not play the game on her terms. If he attempts to negotiate or compete with her, he will most certainly lose. He can only win if he refuses to play. He must be consistent and confident in terms of his own boundaries, and he must not respond to the challenge of her seduction to be agreeable or her threats.
Basically, that part is easy to identify and easy to understand. It is not so easy to do. However, it has been my observation that it is not easy to be abused either! Especially because it is like the death of a thousand cuts. Each little slice may sting, but eventually you have enough little slices that you bleed to death. Sometimes it is better to amputate a limb, and deal with that loss, than to let it fester until the whole body is dying from the infection.
The pattern that leads us into conflicts with bullies is also easy to talk about, but difficult to spot in the moment. Generally, it takes an accumulation of pain over time to get to the point where one will consider ways to live without being subject to bullying. The problem is that most of us were raised to be “nice.” We were given aphorisms like: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!” Most of us are conflict avoidant and unselfish. We tend to think that it really is not that big of a deal to pick the restaurant we want to go to or to arrange our vacation days to suit the “needs” of our extended family. We really don’t mind in our kind hearts letting someone else be the center of the action and the planning. We know instinctively that we have to share and that it is not always “our turn.” What we don’t face is the reality that some people do not play according to these rules at all! Some people really are not nice, they really do think they are the center of the universe and that they are entitled to have their way in all things at all times. When we meet these people we are shocked and thrown off balance. Sometimes we just wait for “our turn” which never comes.
Sometimes these bullies are aggressive and intrusive, they seek out conflict in order to dominate and make themselves feel good. Others have different methodologies. They appear nice on the surface, they say all the right things, but they consistently and insistently expect to get their way. They make you question yourself because their way makes sense, yours does not. Why can’t you just try their way this one time? Then you will see. Their weapons are more subtle, they are more manipulative (although not necessarily consciously) and they just expect that things will go their way and they behave accordingly. They are not aware of your feelings since you, frankly, are not important enough on their radar that they would give your feelings a second thought. They just expect that you will want to do what they want because they are entitled. These people are completely narcissistic. They do not necessarily want to hurt you or punish you, that is just the consequence on your needs not being as important as their needs.
These people are exhausting and hurtful. They will destroy you overtly and covertly if you do not learn to recognize them and learn that you must have your own strong boundaries. Set your own limits on what you will do or not do, allow or not allow, and be prepared to pay the cost of separation if it is required. It is better to amputate the foot, than to die from the gangrene. If you learn to present yourself as having good boundaries and confident you will find that the bully tends to move on to another target. Protect yourself by being strong, but not strident. Do not become a bully in defense of your integrity. Integrity is its own reward.

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3 Responses to Managing Adults Who Bully

  1. Can I clone your article to my blog? Thank you.

  2. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be actually something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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