How to Handle Being Bullied as an Adult

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If you associate bullies with playgrounds and elementary school, that means you probably haven’t experienced one as an adult. Unfortunately, some people never outgrow being a jerk and continue this type of harassing behavior well into adulthood. Here are some tips for understanding and dealing with bullies, no matter how old you are.

What adult bullying looks like

You may not be getting squeezed into your locker by a pack of football players anymore, but adult bullies can still act out in similar fashion. What’s more frustrating about adult bullies, however, is they’ve gotten much better at hiding what they do. An adult bully is much more subtle than their “give ‘em a swirly,” “that’s so fetch” teen counterparts. They know how to poke and prod without attracting the attention of their superiors. Even worse, they might be your superior. We spoke with Roger S. Gil, a clinically-trained marriage and family therapist, about all of this and he explains:

As adults, many bullies are in a position of power over their victims. I’ve often seen adult bullies who are in a supervisory position at work. The power differential often serves to fuel their bullying behavior because they may feel that their weaker subordinates are truly powerless to do anything.

In fact, many adults don’t even realize they’re being bullied at all. Yes, it can take semi-obvious forms like playful joking, or pals ragging on you because “you seem like you can take it,” but it can also stay off your radar entirely.

Because careers take up a large chunk of your time as you get older, you’re most likely to encounter adult bullying in the workplace. According to Kenneth Dodge, Ph.D., Marc Brackett, Ph.D., and Jaana Juvonen, Ph.D., at This Emotional Life, workplace bullying can be hard to find if you’re not looking for it. Here are some less obvious examples:

  • Getting ignored: This could mean being given the “silent treatment,” refusing to help you when asked, not responding to your attempts to communicate (phone calls, emails), cutting you off while you’re talking, or even keeping you out of the loop for work-related social events.
  • Disrespecting your time: Intentionally showing up late to meetings, failing to get things to you by the time they said they would, or putting your requests off to help others first are all good examples.
  • Messing with your work: This could be in the form of sabotaging your ideas or projects, denying you well-deserved praise, taking credit for your work, making you the scapegoat for workplace problems, or even refusing to acknowledge your ideas at all.

Simple, yet extremely subtle things like undermining everything you do might seem small, but it’s grief you shouldn’t have to deal with as a mature adult. Of course, there is also the more obvious things like putting you down in front of others, playing pranks on you, starting rumors that aren’t true and even sexual harassment (the latter of which you should definitely report if it is happening to you).

If you’re still not sure what adult bullying looks like, perhaps there’s no better example than the character Jerry Gergich on the television show Parks and Recreation. It’s all for comedy in the show, but every one of Gergich’s coworkers is guilty of bullying him at one point or another. They all would probably argue that they are his friend, but if you were in Jerry’s shoes, you probably wouldn’t feel that way. That can be a big problem when you’re dealing with an adult bully. They don’t think of themselves as bullies, and may even consider you a buddy. In order to address the problem, you need to find out what makes them tick.

Understand their motivation

Adult bullies act out for the same reasons that kid bullies do: they’re trying to make up for some shortcoming of their own. As psychotherapist Jenise Harmon at Psych Central suggests, bullying is not about you. You’re not the one with the problems, so you shouldn’t ever take bullying personally. Similarly, Gil explains:

Every bully I’ve counseled has had serious insecurity issues. Many times it’s because they themselves were mistreated or made to feel inadequate in some way and the easiest way to feel empowered is to pick on someone that they perceive as weaker.

It’s very important that you understand this before you do anything else—both for your own personal well-being, and so you can start looking for the right way to approach the issue. Bullying might be targeted at you, but the first step to handling them is realizing that you’re not doing anything wrong. If anything, it means you’re doing something right! Bullies want power and control over you because they lack it in some aspect of their own lives. For example:

  • They may feel like they don’t get enough credit at work, or they may think you get too much credit at work.
  • They could be jealous of your family or home life, or they’re frustrated that they don’t have the kind of personal relationships you have.
  • They might feel threatened by your talent or ability, or hate the fact that your career is progressing and they’re stuck.

Separate yourself from the bully

As an adult, you have a lot more control over the situation than you did when you were a kid. You may not be able to “tell the teacher,” but you also can choose how you spend your time. You’re not necessarily stuck with them as you might have been in a school situation. If you aren’t looking for any kind of confrontation, Gil recommends some simple “avoidance strategies”:

Avoidance strategies can be as simple as upping the privacy on your social media, ensuring you’re not alone around the bully, or devising an escape plan should the bully try to corner you. While the passive approach may not be the most popular one, it may be the only course of action for some people who feel that they cannot address the bullying directly.

You can also ask your boss to move your desk, or be taken off of their project. Generally speaking, if an opportunity arises for you to get away from them, take it. It won’t work every time, but if nothing else, it’s a start.

Stop playing the victim

This tactic is an oldie, but a goodie: stop playing their victim. The bully singled you out because they see you as weak and vulnerable. As Gil explains, they look for someone with some kind of trait that they can exploit:

Bullies might go after the “short” girl, “fat” guy, “ugly” kid, etc. because they feel they can target the person in the area where they are the most insecure. Some bullies will target someone who they perceive to be an “alpha” (e.g. the popular girl, the good-looking guy, etc.) to boost their ego. This strategy serves a social purpose in that the bully is trying to establish power so nobody else will try to push them around.

Bullies are looking for people that are willing to submit to their power play. If you make it look like the bully’s actions and words don’t affect you, it ruins it for them. Try to keep your ego in check and let it all roll over you. For example:

  • If someone keeps making jokes at your expense, laugh along with them.
  • If someone makes sarcastic, fake compliments, thank them.
  • When someone says something rude, pretend that you didn’t hear them.
  • If someone harps on the same mistake or accident you made, tell them that you don’t care about that anymore.
  • Keep your cool if you do anything embarrassing so you don’t give them any fuel.

When you stop being a victim, each of the bully’s attempts becomes embarrassing for them, not you. Remember, most bullies just want to get a rise out of you so they feel like they have control. The less subtle and more aggressive they are, the easier they are to deal with. Label them as a bully in your mind and consciously avoid their bait. They might be aggressive, but they’re probably lazy as well, so they’ll eventually lose interest and look for a “weaker” target.

Take a stand

For some bullies, a little more force might be needed. If a bully keeps pushing you despite your other efforts, you need to push back. Not physically, of course, but verbally. If there’s one thing that bullies hate more than someone shrugging off their flak, it’s someone standing up to them. Gil suggests the best way to do that is to point out their behavior:

Assuming the bully is nonviolent and unlikely to find some other way to harm you, confronting them by pointing out that their behavior is bullying is sometimes a good start. Avoid provoking them but, at the same time, question their motives and what purpose going after someone who has done them no wrong serves them. This shows that you’re not afraid to call them out and, if necessary, put them on the defensive.

Many bullies will back down at the first sign of resistance, so this can be highly effective. If you’re going to call them out on their actions, however, make sure you do it right. Here are some suggestions:

  • Prepare for the encounter: Harmon suggests you prepare what you want to say specifically, as well as where you want to say it. Having a plan will help relieve some of the anxiety you might be feeling, and it can also help ensure you approach the situation safely.
  • Don’t attack them: Therapist Roni Weisberg-Ross at Good Therapy recommends you calmly and self-assuredly stand up for yourself. Avoid getting emotional or escalating the situation. If you don’t think you’re ready, focus on not giving them the reaction they want for now.
  • Be specific: Holly L. Roberts at Livestrong explains that it’s important to be specific about the issue at hand. Avoid blanket requests like “stop bullying me” and specifically tell them what they’re doing that is not okay.

Also, make sure you decide if you want to handle this privately or with others around. This usually depends on the severity of the bullying, so you have to feel things out for yourself. A bully that’s just looking to get some laughs, or someone that doesn’t realize they’re being a bully, is probably best handled privately so neither of you have to feel embarrassed. A more serious bully though might be best handled with some help from friends or coworkers. You don’t want to gang up them, but having others around can help make sure things don’t escalate.

Tell someone who can help

Despite your best efforts, some bullies just won’t go down easily. When things have gone too far and you can’t seem to get them off of your back, it’s time to send in the big guns. As Gil explains, your safety should be your number one concern. Don’t let your pride prevent you from getting the help and protection you deserve, especially, as Gil notes, if things are escalating to dangerous levels:

It goes without saying that any perceived physical threat should be handled with the assistance of local law enforcement or other community resource. Some bullies are dangerous and may need legal interventions (e.g. restraining order, police report, etc.) to reduce the risk of harm.

This goes for bullies in the workplace too. You do not have to tolerate a toxic work environment, so reach out to the people who are specifically there to help in these situations:

If the bullying happens on the job, many human resource departments have policies to address workplace bullying as well. The most obvious way to deal with a bully is to take a stand against them but this isn’t always feasible (in the traditional sense) if the bully is your manager at work. Again, contacting HR after documenting the instances of bullying and following company policies to address the situation is key (I’ve found that using the term “hostile work environment” will often get HR to pursue your complaint fairly quickly… at least here in the U.S.).

So if you find yourself with a bully as an adult, know that you have several tools and strategies that can help: you don’t have to sit there and take it.

This story was originally published in August 2015 and was updated on Dec. 1, 2020 to update outdated links revise the content to match current Lifehacker style.

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