Adult bullying: the indignity and its consequences
Published: June 22, 2015 Last Updated: February 22, 2022
You’re 7 years old and you’re playing in the school playground. You’re effortlessly gliding over the monkey bars and you jump to the ground, filling the air with a cloud of dust and lodging shards of bark in your sneakers. Suddenly it’s your turn to be “it” so you close your eyes, count to ten and sing out ‘Ready or not, here I come!’. You open your eyes, only to see your worst nightmare has become a reality. The handful of friends who were once playing alongside you are now running away from you hand in hand, cackling loudly, further and further from the playground, and they don’t look back.
The secret conspiracy to leave you high and dry leaves you standing alone under the flying fox, tears stinging your eyes and heart pounding in humiliation.
Schoolyard bullying cuts deeply, especially to a young, sensitive soul and a soft heart. We’ve all experienced some variation of this over the years. We’ve gone home, had a cry to Mum, picked ourselves up and carried on.
But what about when this kind of behaviour extends past childhood and you find yourself being bullied as an adult?
As a reasonable adult, no doubt you have lived enough to know that life is about compromise. Often we find ourselves in personality clashes and we give in a little, knowing that it is easier to keep the peace than be constantly sweating the small stuff. The problem with this only arises when you are dealing with someone who is unreasonable, like a bully.
If you give an inch to a bully, they will inevitably take a mile but they won’t take it all at once. Calculating in their actions, they will first identify your areas of weakness or softness and they will push their agenda, slowly and insidiously, until one day you wake up in a toxic dynamic where you are an angry and resentful doormat.
The most common scenario is the office environment. Bad managers, eager to hold on to their position with the least amount of effort and the greatest amount of favour, will harass and belittle their team into chaotic clambering to meet deadlines, providing little to no support. Usually, the smartest, most resistant or independent employee will have a target on their back, for a bully will always sniff out the least impressionable and only reward those who continue to maintain their status.
If you are unfortunate enough to have found yourself in an institution where bullying is considered the norm and is ingrained in the culture of the organisation, you may leave for work each morning sick with dread and spend the day walking on eggshells. The frustration of being surrounded by toxic or enabling leaders means that you may have no one to talk to who is able to address the issue judiciously. This silent validation of an employer’s bullying behaviour only fuels their fire and keeps them immune from disciplinary action.
A bully may also be present in other capacities, such as within friendship circles, a housemate or even a family member. They will be charismatic and easily influence others with their feelings and opinions, maintaining a flock of followers at all times. Lying is effortless for a bully, and even if instinctively you know their stories have no truth, you don’t have the evidence to call them out on it. So controlled in their manipulation of others, they rarely slip and often believe their own lies, making them more believable to others.
The long-term emotional effects of being insulted, humiliated or even purposely ignored need to be realistically identified, sooner rather than later. It is important to consider how this continual treatment is affecting your life in terms of fear or stress. Because of the slow build-up in a bullying situation, it can often feel as if you are trapped and drawing the line between normal and ‘too far’ becomes more problematic.
Bullying is a conflict that feels very personal and leaves us questioning ourselves. Why do I let this person bother me so much? How am I complicit? How have my own actions dictated this dynamic? Painful early memories can arise, raw feelings of insecurity and vulnerability, causing more anger and frustration that, like a child, you are still able to be triggered in this way.
So is it possible to take back control of the situation? It involves redefining the norm, or status quo of your own personal environment. The first step is identifying your own thoughts and feelings about the situation, and understanding how it is impacting you. Knowing what the situation is and where any underlying negative beliefs about the self might be triggering your feelings will help to ensure you can deal with the problem rationally and effectively. A counsellor can help you with this, or a friend/family member.
Seeking help is important. If it is a workplace issue and involving HR is an option, first document specific examples of the behaviour to support your case. Bullying can be sustained by the silence of others, so enlist the endorsement of witnesses to the situation. If you feel confident enough to confront a bully, show assertion but not aggression. They will probably be indignant that you would dare to challenge their power so expect some form of manipulation and don’t allow it to trick you into falling into an emotional heap or becoming angry.
If confronting the situation does not appeal to you, or you feel as if it will get you nowhere, nothing is stopping you from cutting the cord. Sometimes regaining control can mean untwining yourself from the mind games completely. No one needs the drama and there is always the choice to walk away if you are miserable.
Most of all, be kind to yourself. Don’t blame yourself. You are human. You don’t need to man up or suck it up. Allow the situation to strengthen you into knowing what you want, after having experienced what you don’t want. Take clear steps to achieve the harmony that you need. Love yourself enough to know your limits and create healthy boundaries that command respect and reflect your worth.
Written by Laura Bannerman
Health & Healing Wellness Centre, Brisbane