Check Your Vibes: How To Deal With Adult Bullies

It’s easy for the word bully to conjure up images of playground terror, but sadly enough, bullies turn up just as often in the adult world as they do in kids’ worlds. Most of the time, adult bullies are less obvious, because they’re not taking your lunch money or threatening to shove you into your locker. Instead, they’re making snide comments about your parenting skills, making you feel bad about the way you dress, or dominating the decision-making in an aspect of your life that should be all your own. Some are perhaps even intentionally subtle in their cruelty so you don’t think to recognize their behavior for what it is or so you don’t catch on to what is obviously a very deep hurt within them that compels them to act that way.

Save for the rare adult bully who uses direct intimidation like her childhood counterparts, most adapt to use different behavioral tactics to get what they want; like guilt tripping, hysterics whenever they don’t get their way, manipulating others into being their allies, or using hurtful words that are meant to be “helpful.” At the end of the day, each bully’s go-to tactic is a means of keeping you in fear, whether that fear is because her actions legitimately make you feel unsafe or because they cause a massive disruption for yourself and others around you. It’s what gives them their power. Adult bullies can be hard to spot, but labeling them for what they are (at least on the inside, not necessarily to their faces) is what starts you on the road back to control over your own life, because once you’ve seen the light on how their toxic, controlling behavior operates, it’s hard to unsee it.

When I was a kid, I thought one of the privileges of becoming a grownup was that nobody could tell me what to do anymore, and that the scary days of unwanted confrontation were behind me. If only I’d known the truth! While I definitely feel like I have more control of my own life as a big kid, the need for putting controlling jerks in their place has hardly lessened. I’ve encountered a whole host of adult bullies in my life, but none so obvious as the few who popped up after my dad passed away last year and taught me some serious lessons about handling jerks. I was fortunate — when he passed away, nearly everyone I love rushed forward to provide assistance and amazed me with the depths of their kindness. Sadly, though, grief and chaos bring out the true colors of the more destructive among us as well, including one person in particular who seemed firmly set on creating tension and demanding control over a situation (loss) that wasn’t theirs to control — and it took me months to register any of this, because this person buried those actions beneath a facade of sweet naiveté and deep grief whenever anyone voiced skepticism about their actions.

This person, who I’ll call Bully, set out to undermine certain plans I, as my dad’s closest surviving relative, had for honoring his life. Bully’s actions were so blunt and cut so deeply but that I initially didn’t see them as malicious, because my first thought was, Who acts like that? There must be an explanation for this. I gave Bully the benefit of the doubt, because I knew they were struggling with grief too. At first I wondered if Bully just didn’t realize how upsetting their actions were. It took months of interacting with them to realize that the person had a pattern: overstep, undermine, and then revert to acting oblivious and unaware of any wrongdoing up until the point that their temper went off the rails or they launched into public hysterics. It was clever, really, because for a long time, it kept me living in fear of upsetting them. Whenever Bully resurfaced in my life, I felt obligated to keep them happy, lest they drag other people I love into the conflict or make a scene.

At a certain point when Bully’s actions had become too inappropriate to ignore, I remember walking down a city sidewalk as I debated whether to stand up to this person or find a conflict-free way to retreat, because I still feared a big scene or some kind of scary strike-back move — they clearly had few limits on how they’d behave to make a point. Around that time is when I remember stopping myself and saying aloud, “Is this seriously going to be my life?”

What I really meant was, Am I going to be the woman who lets people walk all over her and frequently suffers for it just because it’s the path of least resistance? Let me tell you, it was a terrifying thought. I have a conflict-averse personality, and at some point was taught never to make a fuss or a big scene, mostly because it wasn’t the classy or self-preserving thing to do. If I don’t stay aware and stick to those rules, my life could easily morph into a canvas for self-interested, manipulative people’s needs and not much else. I realized right then and there that Bully was, well, a bully, who was controlling me via intimidation, and that I was complicit in the whole thing for going along with it for so many months. For once in my life, I suddenly felt like conflict was absolutely necessary, both for the sake of my dad and for the sake of myself in the wake of all those other bullies in the past who I’d let dictate some of my actions. That moment felt like a tipping point — either put my foot down, or live my whole life that way.

I wish I could say I had a tidy story of how I made Bully back off once and for all. I don’t exactly, though I have emerged from the situation with a newly low tolerance for being bullied, and Bully now knows how much I see through them. They’ve stayed off the radar for a while, but I know they will resurface again someday with the same old moves, to test whether they still have their power. For that occasion, I’ve thought up a longer, deeper set of talking points that make it abundantly clear what kind of behavior is no longer acceptable to me, no matter what falsified drama this person tries to bring to the table in retaliation. I feel some serious compassion for Bully, because it’s clear they are unhappy, but feeling sympathy for them doesn’t mean I have to remain their victim. You can do better than me! You don’t have to spend months in the clutches of someone like them, because you can put a stop to it anytime you want.

Now I’m ready to more easily spot these bullying tactics in other realms of my life and cut off their power source (ahem, fear) before they’re able to manipulate myself or the people I care about. For some tips on how to deal with bullies in the wild, I consulted Stacy Kaiser, Live Happy Magazine editor-at-large and licensed psychotherapist, and she provided a few tips to help you survive even the scariest of bullies.

1. Disengage whenever possible. “With these types of women you either have to disengage and distance yourself or prepare yourself to be on the receiving end of the bullying,” Kaiser says. This offers two great bits of wisdom within the advice itself — people are unlikely to change, and when possible, de-escalate rather than participating in the drama the bully is attempting to create with you.

2. See them for what they are. Kaiser warns, “Women who consider themselves nurturers and caring people will tell you that they are not bullies even as they are bullying. They’ll say that they are just giving an opinion, that they are just protecting their kids or that they’re just the way the are because that’s the way they are.” This can be one of the most insidious parts of bullying, because when you’re being gaslit, it’s hard to recognize the bullying for what it is.

If you’re unable to disengage from the bully because your circumstances require you see them regularly, Kaiser suggests a few techniques for keeping things low-key between you and to perhaps show her that her tactics won’t work with you.

3. Remember being taught to “kill ‘em with kindness” as a kid? This can really work! “Flip it to a compliment,” Kaiser suggests. “Say something like, ‘I see you’re trying to protect your kids or I get that you’re trying to share your point of view.’ This will diffuse the bully.”

4. Change the subject. “Talk about the weather, jump up from your seat and suggest you go grab a bite to eat … get the bully off of whatever she is saying.”

5. Keep it neutral. “If you have a friend that bullies about specific topics,” Kaiser says, “Such as parenting or your appearance, avoid those topics at all costs!”

Have you ever had to stand up to a bully well beyond your playground days? It happens to all of us at some point, and I say that just to note that if you’re currently struggling with a bully in your own life, you can stand up to them! You can get through this! They are a grown adult who goes through life living as a caricature of childhood lore, and you are a smart, nuanced, functional grown-ass woman who has far more important things to do than be pushed around by that nonsense. You can do it!