By Ruth Minshull
We hear a lot about bullies these days. But, as near as I can tell, despite all the hand-wringing, the situation isn’t getting any better.
Most of us have been plagued by bullies at one time or another—whether at school, at home, in the neighborhood, on the internet or at the workplace.
There’s no particular profile for the bully. He or she may be the kid on the playground, the boardroom shark, the ruthless Hitler, the sneaky internet attacker or the quiet librarian (who belittles others with gossip and sly innuendos). Sometimes we don’t recognize them right away. But we will know them by how they make us feel—usually disturbed, off-balance or powerless.
What to do about bullies?
LEARN TO RECOGNIZE THEM
In his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton offers two tests for recognition of the “asshole” (his name for the bully):
- After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
- Does the person target people who are less powerful than themself?
I have noticed an interesting difference in bullies. Many of them will openly ridicule, tease, insult or otherwise “pick on” their victims. But the most difficult ones to identify are the honey-dripping, sweet-talkers. They often slip under the radar because they appear to be “nice”, yet we wonder why we’re so uncomfortable around them. Instead of attacking directly, they are underhanded. They will blindside our self-confidence by coating every insult with a compliment. “Oh, what a cozy little apartment you have.” (Translation: “Wow! This really is small!”) “You’ve always looked nice in that dress” (“…even though you’ve been wearing it for the last ten years”).
The sneak attack is often from a woman, but not always. Consider the young woman who had a movie date with a young male acquaintance. She appeared in a dress and heels; he was wearing blue jeans and sneakers. He said, “My you look nice. I feel so under-dressed.” (You’re pretty over-dressed for a movie.)
However they deliver their barbs, bullies will try to undermine our morale and self-confidence. Openly or pussyfooting, they will bulldoze, buffalo, insult, intimidate, belittle or ridicule us.
He or she is often a controlling person, always seeking the upper hand. He’ll be corrupt. Perhaps he’s a scurrilous criminal (a street ruffian or the gentle bookkeeper who is embezzling tens of thousands from her employers). He could also be perfectly “legal” (an attorney, a judge, a politician) while being quite unethical on a higher level (in the sense of doing the right thing by others). His efforts will be misdirected; he’ll often attack the wrong people.
He supports destructive solutions and attacks constructive ones. He speaks in generalities. He is not good at finishing things and he tries to prevent others from finishing; he will complicate, delay and prolong activities in which he’s involved. If you invite him to a wedding or a party, he may say he’d love to come, but he’s not sure he can make it. Then he’ll leave you on “hold” until the very end—never calling to confirm or decline. (Note: not every person who does this is a bully, some are just immature and inconsiderate.)
HOW THEY MAKE PEOPLE FEEL
An encounter with a bully is never benign. We feel as if we should be careful around him. We approach him with a sense of dread. We end up being annoyed, worried, angered or beset upon.
We never feel better.
Bullies are energy-draining people, causing us to feel exhausted after coping with them. After encountering one, we may even become cranky and mean to those close to us. Unfortunately, continued exposure sometimes can turn us into troublesome bully-like people ourselves.
Don’t try to be “understanding” about the bully. Recognize him. He may look and walk and talk like a regular human being, but he isn’t one. He or she is a monster—trying to do you in. Consider the bully an alien in a human body. (Think of “Men in Black”.) He doesn’t have the same feelings that you and I have. While you may try to negotiate with him, to placate him, he will continue to bedevil you relentlessly.
One eleven-year-old boy was so tormented by a bully in school that he took his father’s car and drove away. He managed to get 200 miles from home before he ran out of gas and had to ask for help. Although his escape was amazing, his motivation was not unusual.
Young people have committed suicide after being harassed by bullies. Cyberbullying has become so bad that some states have passed laws making it a crime. Of course, cyberbullying is usually easier to identify than playground, workplace, neighborhood or family bullying
Whether we’re seven or seventy, most of us have difficulty if we are being picked on by a bully. Sometimes it seems that there is no way for us to deal with him (or her) and no way to avoid him.
Bullying causes an assortment of side effects: we may have trouble sleeping, become forgetful, suffer headaches, misplace things, make mistakes, experience difficulty concentrating. We may even become ill.
What is the defense against these low-down polecats? Well, the biggest problem in dealing with skunks is that some of their stink could rub off on us. Naturally we don’t want that; we don’t want to become like them. So we need to take measures to avoid that.
Kids may complain to their parents or teachers about harassment, employees may speak to their bosses, but generally nothing much changes. Too often everyone tiptoes around the subject of bullies, making ineffectual gestures and hoping the problem will go away by itself.
On a job, you may decide to lodge a complaint about the bully. This could be risky, as you could come off looking like a weakling and a complainer who can’t get along with your fellow workers. If you decide to complain, be sure to have several examples to mention, deliver your report without emotion, exaggeration or generalities. Give only the exact facts, without embellishment. If you are accompanied by a fellow employee with the same complaints, this will strengthen your position.
If you can detach yourself from the bully, by all means, do so. I know, sometimes it isn’t possible (or advisable) to break off with the bully. In such a case, for your own survival, you will need to have a face-to-face showdown.
When I was young, I knew a neighbor boy named Melvin. He was about 12 years old, strong and good-natured. Another neighbor boy, Richie, was a bully. He was taller and meaner. One summer he started picking on Mel relentlessly, teasing him, taunting him, hitting him and running away. One day Mel came home crying because his tormentor had hit him on his head. Mel’s mother (normally a peace-loving person) was tired of seeing her son pushed around. Shaking a finger at him, she said, “I want you to go back over there and beat that kid up, or else I’ll beat you up.”
Armed with such an unusual threat from his own mother, Mel marched across the street to Richie who started jeering, “Hey, Mel, coming back for more?”
Without saying a word, Mel walked up to him and started pummeling him on the head, the neck, the chest. Shocked and helpless at Mel’s uncharacteristic attack, Richie backed away, trying to cover himself against the blows. Finally, he turned and fled, Mel chasing him, until he reached home and ran inside.
There were several witnesses to this confrontation, and word of the ferocity of Mel’s attack spread around. As a result, no one ever leaned on Mel again. And a much subdued Richie left Mel and the other kids alone.
This approach probably wouldn’t work today. Richie’s parents would file a law suit against Mel’s parents and the good guys would all get punished.
A few states have passed laws making cyberbullying a crime, but as far as I know, there is no legal recourse against the personal intimidator—whether direct or sneaky.
But there are other ways to “beat up” on the bullies.
Most decent people prefer to avoid argumentative encounters. This, of course, leaves an open field in which the intimidating person can operate. But a strong, direct verbal confrontation is the best method I know to handle them.
I knew a young man, just a few months out of high school, who had taken a job with a small business. One day his boss said something belittling to him. The boy turned, looked the man straight in the eye and said very slowly, very deliberately, “Don’t you ever speak to me like that again.”
The boss never did. They developed a workable relationship that lasted for many years after that. I found it interesting that such a young boy had the courage to stand up to his first boss. And it seemed even more amazing that the bullying boss backed off.
The best way to handle the bully is to state exactly what he is doing and tell him you will not tolerate it. Don’t add an “or else….” (That becomes a threat.) In any case, it is better to let the threat be implied, to let the other person fill in the blank. (He very likely will imagine worse consequences than you could ever dream of!) Also, bear in mind that you are not firing the opening salvo in an argument; you are not initiating a negotiation. You are making a final statement. Make it and walk away. Ignore any rejoinders he tries to interject.
You may be surprised at how easy it is to make the bully back off and leave you alone. The reason is this: beneath the swagger and bluff, the bully is a frightened weakling who gets a sense of power by feeding on the fear he can generate in others.
It isn’t always easy to stand up to a person who intimidates us—and if you don’t feel tough enough to do it, pretend you do.
To prepare yourself for the encounter you should first, be willing to experience any possible outcome. Make a list of the worst things that could happen. Now, go through them one by one. In each case, ask yourself: “If this happens, will I die?” “Will anybody else die?” “Will I be able to get through it?” Could there be some conceivable way I might benefit from the encounter?”
The main purpose of this exercise is to discover that the outcome (although not welcome) would at least be endurable.
The next step before dealing with the bully is to look at our own destructive actions, past and present, and tell someone about them. (Don’t forget the good acts we should have done, but failed to do.) This step is extremely important. Decent people feel remorseful after they have committed harmful acts against others (whether intentional or not). Deep down they believe that they deserve to be punished for such behavior. If we have no undisclosed harmful acts, we will have no need for self-punishment. When we “need” punishment (in our own minds), every experience hurts more than the same incident would if we were “clean”.
Clearing up our own past actions won’t make us indifferent or joyful about the conduct of the bully, but it will make his behavior hurt a great deal less. We’ll be able to confront the offensive person with less fear. The experience will be more endurable, and we’ll get through it with less damage to ourselves.
Another way to strengthen your own responses is to take a karate class. I’m not recommending that you beat up on anybody, but it will make you feel dangerous, less vulnerable. Mentally, at least, you’ll walk taller, with a swagger, and you won’t take abuse from anybody. This is an especially effective way to toughen up a child who is being physically intimidated by a bully. I’ve seen it work very well.
If you go for the showdown, you will find that when you meet up with another bully (and eventually you will) you will feel much less intimidated. In fact, very likely you will simply swat him down (with words or even a shrug) as you would an annoying mosquito.
Remember, bad guys don’t obey rules. So don’t worry about hurting their feelings, interrupting them, ignoring them or walking away from them. The bully is not really the big scary ogre we knew from children’s stories. He’s just an annoying mosquito.
If you simply can’t stand up to the bully in your life, do your best to get away from him or her. If you are married to a bully, leave. Get a divorce. Life is too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you.
If the bully is your boss, get another job. This may seem drastic, but your job could be killing you. Nothing is worth that risk.
If the bully is a “friend”, he is not a true friend. He or she is a “toxic” acquaintance. You need to rid your life of this venomous influence, just as you would rid your body of a poison.
The solution is more difficult if the bully is a child’s parent. Sometimes the child must simply endure the situation until it’s possible to get away. Make plans for your independence. Get a job, earn money and put it in the bank. Prepare to leave the house and don’t look back—ever.
If you are being physically abused in any way, you must leave sooner. There are agencies that can help you get a legal separation and arrange foster care until you are of age. Talk to a counselor at school
Any destructive, dysfunctional relationship will never get better by itself. Quit the job, move out, sever your connection. Do whatever it takes.
You have to fix it or escape it. This takes courage.
But, always remember: You are stronger than the bully. He’s just a scared weakling.
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©2013 by Ruth Minshull