I am going to get on a bit of a soap box here, folks. I hope this doesn’t offend anyone.
Teenage bullying has been a hot topic for the past couple of years as our culture has become increasingly aware of its impact on our youth and their peace of mind and quality of life. Something that we very rarely hear about, however, is adult bullying. This past week and a half I had the extreme displeasure of meeting (and accidentally becoming the target of) an adult bully.
I don’t plan to get into heavy detail at all here; my intent is not to vent, or even to make this incident public, but I do want to help make people aware that there are times in your life when you may encounter bullies as adults. I honestly had no idea they existed. I believed that every nasty little bully-kid grew up to be an enlightened and at-least-slightly-compassionate individual. My naivety knows no bounds.
My first encounter with the bully came after receiving many warnings from mutual acquaintances that I had made myself present on his radar. He and I had overlapping responsibilities at an event, and it basically ended up that we each believed the other was picking up more of this responsibility than ourselves so certain things were not getting done. Gosh I hope this isn’t too cryptic. I could’ve confronted him about the things he was not doing; he could’ve confronted me about the things I was not doing. When I realized that our “system” was falling short, I vowed to take more responsibility and that was that in my mind, until I was notified that he and I “had to have a serious discussion”.
Great, I thought. Just what I need. Some angry confrontation between myself and someone I’ve never even really met before where I hold my tongue about how he dropped the ball, while getting my face rudely rubbed in the ball that I had dropped.
See, I have a tendency to avoid confrontation in my business world. I have an incredibly short temper, an unhealthy dose of pride, a sharp tongue and a tendency to say intensely mean and offensive things when I get really upset. Oh, and sometimes I cry when I get super angry. That sucks. I recognize these characteristics in myself and over the past ten years have managed to form a system of checks and balances to keep myself (at least appearing) calm and understanding.
So. The confrontation happened and the bully used so many “You” statements and dropped so many names I lost count in the first few minutes. Oh boy, it was a whopper, and I was not prepared. He pointed at my chest with nearly every sentence. he talked with his head tilted back so that he had to look down at me. He held his arms planted firmly on his hips and he even did this scary little head-twisty thing while not blinking that was so over the top that it pulled me firmly out of the confrontation and into my head.
I realized I’ve seen this behavior before. I’ve seen it in horses and dogs that I’ve trained when stress is so high that they just can’t handle the situation anymore without becoming precariously poised on the edge of aggression. Once I became a little more aware of what was being displayed in front of me, I realized that this poor bully was wild with stress. he was beyond reason and had gone to that scary place that I know I am capable of reaching quickly when I feel threatened.
The rest of the conversation I attempted to diffuse, carefully, like a touchy bomb (or maybe more like a stack of sweating dynamite – it wasn’t quite as easy to navigate as a bomb). I spoke quietly and dropped my arms to my sides to open my body language, to remain confident but non-defensive. I became aware of my blinking and slowed it to a natural rate and I began to use “I” statements in a passive way, breathing deeply and taking the responsibility not only because I recognized that there had been a miscommunication and this bully believed the responsibility was mine, but because I realized that if this bully standing before me was not going to be rational, there was nothing left but to be hyper-rational myself. I didn’t really want to be stuck in a deadlock for the rest of my day, staring him down and telling him he was wrong, and the truth of the matter was that we were both wrong. And right. The conflict had arisen from one big communication meltdown and there was not real resolution but to accept that miscommunication. Ah well.
So the conversation diffused, we went our grumpy ways and I believed that for the most part things were done. However. The one piece of this story that I have left out is that this entire exchanged happened in front of some of his peers. These were peers who he had established relationships with, who he worked with and these were people who knew (and had experienced) his temper and they had expected a totally different end to the conversation. I had no frame of reference, so I didn’t know that it’s not often that confrontations with this bully end so peacefully.
The thing about bullies – any bully, whether adult or youth – is that they have established their bullying relationships with all of their peers, even friends. When someone publicly refuses to rise to a bait, it is nothing but the very worst loss possible to a bully. It questions your hold over your peers and makes you seem less effective as an authority figure. I get that now.
It has been a week and a half of this exchange and the bully has finally found a place where he could firmly stand as an authority figure over me. He has authority over a few of my students in a certain organization and began intimidating them here and there, ending in a grand finale where he got my students removed from this organization that they had been proudly and firmly involved in. It’s disgusting, and it’s not to be helped.
He won, we yielded.
Except he didn’t win.
That’s the thing I’ve learned in all of this. When dealing with an adult bully, the important thing to remember is that we, as humans, aren’t bullies by nature unless nature shapes us that way. A grown bully is an ugly thing, but it’s also a thing to think on – to be pondered. This bully’s life is structured around his bullying behaviours. It’s structured around his verbal and emotional abuse and I can now see how that abusive behaviour likely permeates everything that he does and is.
Youth bullies are children who feel threatened, and given the right support can grow out of their bullying and into compassionate, understanding and aware young adults.
Adult bullies feel threatened as well, but when that pattern has become so engrained in them that it becomes who they truly are, I worry that there isn’t much that can teach them to become self-aware and empathetic.
My advice to anyone who ever encounters a bully as an adult is to keep this in mind. Bullies feed off of the stress that they cause in others. They need to see this inflicted stress in others in order to feel like they’re validated. Even if you survive your bout of being bullied, it’s possible they’ll take it to the next level, but even then it is important to see, and to help others to see, that a bully is nothing more than a person who feels scared and trapped in their own little corner of negativity.
Breathe and let the river flow around you.
Bullying can create bullies of all of us, but they can also create compassionate and enlightened individuals.
Have you ever been the victim of adult bullying? How did you cope?