When we think of bullies, we usually think of the big kid on the playground. You know, the one that punches us in the head until we give up our lunch money. We may also think of a bully as someone that uses verbal assaults or spreads rumors. We think of bullies as generally unpleasant people that exploit the weak for their own gain. Bullies generally make our lives a living Hell. Learning to stand up to bullies can be one of the most freeing things you can experience. Overcoming the fear of bullies is a definite life-enhancer.
Before I tackle the dynamics of bullying, I’d like to expand my definition. We don’t just see bullies on the playground. Or in the movie “Mean Girls.” Or the workplace. Bullies could be closer to us. We could have family members that are bullies. Our friends could be bullies. Our significant other could be a bully.
Since all of the problems with these various types of bullies can be handled with the same basic tools, let’s come up with a rather simple definition of a bully:
A bully is anyone that tries to intimidate, coerce, or manipulate us for their own personal gain.
In most cases, the bully/victim relationship can be thought of as a power struggle. It’s about control. The bully is attempting to gain power and control over another person using undesirable social methodology.
The specific tactics used by bullies can range from overt aggressive physical assault to subtle emotional manipulation. The best way to assess the tactics used by bullies is to look at a wide variety of bully “types.” Note- most bullies are going to use a variety of techniques to carry out their attempts at intimidation, coercion, and manipulation to gain power and control. As such, most bullies will fit in multiple categories.
- Physical Bully: Most well-known type. This bully uses physical force and/or intimidation to gain power over weaker victims.
- Verbal Bully: The verbal bully uses words to degrade and insult victims to establish an unequal balance of power.
- Social Bully: This is the stereotypical mean girl bully. They attack social relationships by spreading rumors, pitting one person against another, or attack reputations. They gain power by threatening our need to belong.
- Assertive Bullies: This bully gets their way by being overbearing and excessively assertive. They may use aggressive posturing or language to intimidate weaker people. They gain power by imposing their will on other people.
- Martyr Bully: Martyrs, which I’ve written about excessively, use a far different bully methodology. They turn bullying upside down by making it seem like they’re a victim of their own making. By creating situations where they’re making extreme personal sacrifices, they create a social debt which others feel obligated to repay. This is the method they use to manipulate relationships to gain control.
- Passive Aggressive Bully: This is the “frenemy” bully. Like the martyr bully, the passive aggressive bully uses tactics that aren’t typically considered ‘bullying’ behaviors, but still achieve the goal of gaining power and control. They will appear to be the weaker partner in any relationship by being overly sensitive, agreeable, and meek, but then engage in sabotaging behaviors to cut others down.
- Withdrawal Bully: This bully gains control by withholding attention, love, sex… whatever. They use positive emotions as a bargaining chip of sorts, a form of positive reinforcement. If they get their way, they reward the victim with the positive emotions. If they don’t get their way, they withdraw the emotions. They may even overtly give positive attention to others in the presence of the victim.
- Whining Bully: The whining bully is a complainer and/or nagger. They gain power in relationships by making noise when they don’t get their way.
- Rule Nazi Bully: The rule-follower will use rules, procedures, and morality as a tool to control victims. They will appear to be very pious because they are continually judging others. They gain power by reminding others they’re violating some particular code.
Decision-maker- convince you you’re not capable of making decisions
- Minimizing Bully: This bully minimizes your accomplishments. The goal is to remind you that you’re weak.
- Blaming Bully: The blaming bully gains power by diverting blame to anyone and everyone around them. The blaming bully gains power by assuming a role of superiority by never accepting responsibility for their actions.
- Possessive Bully: The possessive bully uses jealousy to gain control in relationships by filtering threats to their power. Their goal is to isolate their victim using jealous behaviors.
- Apologetic Bully: The apologetic bully will use a wide range of overt behaviors to control their victims, and tend to be rather extreme. They maintain control by apologizing after the bullying behaviors. This type of bully will often make promises to change their behaviors, but never does.
- Sadistic Bully: The sadistic bully may be manifested in a variety of ways. What differentiates them from the other types is motive- they care less about power and control. They bully because they enjoy inflicting harm on others.
Most people that engage in bullying behaviors will fall into one or more of these categories. Regardless of the type, the same methods can be used to assure you don’t become a bully’s victim.
The most common advice given is something along the lines of “tell an adult” or “seek outside help.” That advice is almost always bad.
First, bullies tend to be rather manipulative. A third party intervention is unlikely to make a difference because the bully will talk their way out of it. They will convince the third party that there is no bullying taking place. If they’re caught in the act, they will promise to change.
But they never change.
Second, “tattling” reinforces the very behavior the bully is after- control. Seeking third party help signals weakness in victims, which is exactly what the bully is preying upon.
Bullying is reliant on a cycle. The bully engages in a bullying behavior. The victim reacts. How the victim reacts either strengthens or weakens the cycle. If the reaction exhibits weakness, the bullying behavior will continue. I see many parents responding to their kids being bully victims by confronting the bully (or the bully’s parents) themselves. That’s completely ineffective because it not only signals weakness to the bully, but it sets up a lifelong cycle of their kid being a perpetual victim that cannot solve their own problems.
If the victim’s reaction exhibits strength, the bullying behavior is less likely to occur. If sufficient strength is displayed, the bully will move on to a weaker victim.
That, of course, is our answer. The solution to stopping bullying is to stand up to bullies. Shelly wrote a good post a few years ago about standing up to bullies:
The actual mechanism isn’t especially difficult. I’d recommend these steps:
- Identify the bullying behavior. A good way to identify the bullying behaviors is to ask yourself “How is this person trying to control me?”
- Figure out how your reaction to said bullying behavior fuels the bully/victim cycle. How are you displaying weakness in your response?
- Make a plan to change your reaction. The next time the bully exhibits their bullying behavior, put your plan in motion. Be prepared. Bullies don’t like to be confronted. They may escalate the behavior or change bullying tactics. Be persistent; stick to your plan. Note- physical bullies can be dangerous. If you’re being physically bullied, fleeing the situation and exercising complete avoidance may be the best plan.
- Repeat as necessary. The closer the relationship, the more time it will likely take for the bully to learn that you’re no longer an ideal victim. For example, a casual acquaintance will quickly move on. A friend may take more time. A romantic partner may take a very long time. Bullies require an imbalance of power. If you’re persistent, they will eventually move on.
This advice holds true for everyone from the kids on the playground to the spouse that’s being abused. Standing up to bullies is a scary proposition. They often rely on that fear to keep you in the bully/victim cycle. They’re feeding off your weakness. The solution is to stop being weak. Strength is the best tool to combat bullying.
What do you think? What experiences do you have with bullying? Share in the comments section!