Everyone knows a bully.
It could be a co-worker or boss, a family member, a neighbor, a stranger. When it comes to adults, however, we don’t call it “bullying.” Instead, the toxic behavior is often ignored, rationalized, suppressed, or tolerated.
Bullying by adults in the workplace is often justified and rationalized. “He/she is just having a bad day.” “He/she is under a lot of pressure.” If a workplace bully is in a position of authority, the destructive behavior is usually tolerated because no one can call them out on it for fear of retribution.
Bullying by adults in families often goes unrecognized as bullying because the behavior is so ingrained in the family system that it is normalized. Whether created by parenting choices, birth order, or inter-generational dysfunction (to name just a few causes), the family member bully uses weaknesses in the family power dynamic for his/her own gain and to stay in charge.
An excellent recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the typical personality traits of an adult bully. The author describes these personality traits as:
1) “Machiavellianism, which is a tendency to calculatedly manipulate others for your own good.”
2) “Psychopathy, an attribute that includes a lack of empathy and a willingness to take risks.”
3) “Sadism, the propensity to derive pleasure from inflicting pain on someone else.”
4) “Narcissism, an obsession with self and feeling that you are better than other people.”
Many times all four traits exist but, in my clinical and personal experience, an adult can be a bully with just a couple of them. Narcissism is one many of us already have a lot of experience with in people we know. As the author of the article so eloquently explains, “They [narcissists] exploit others, doing whatever it takes to feel special. They feel entitled, acting as if the world owes them and should bend to their will. And they lack empathy, often becoming so fixated on the need to feel special that they stop caring about the feelings of others.”
The end result? “These people don’t want to be told what to do. When someone tries, they lash out. ‘They’re trying to shore up their sense of importance,’ Dr. Malkin says. ‘Bullies are motivated by fear—fear of feeling insecure, fear of being unconfident, fear of being exposed.’ The more stressed or threatened they feel, the more they bully.”
The author of the article also does an excellent job of discussing how to respond to a bully. In short, don’t respond. Responding to a bully is like handing them fuel for their fire. In the clinical world, we focus on creating strong boundaries to help others learn how to protect themselves from the bully. I encourage you to read the article for more suggestions of how to handle an adult bully (including what to do if you do not feel safe). I can also be a resource for you and welcome the opportunity to dialogue on this important topic.
Be well, my friends,