When we think about bullying, most of us think about school-aged children or teens who are targeted by mean classmates. However, the truth is we don’t age out of being bullied, and many adults suffer from being intimidated, teased, and criticized. As Renee Exelbert, PhD, a licensed psychologist, puts it: Adult bullies are everywhere. “They come in the form of our children’s friends’ competitive parents, strangers on the street, abusive romantic partners, shaming mutual friends, disgruntled work colleagues, bosses, unruly neighbors, high-pressure salespeople, and even business owners,” she says.
You might shake off these experiences and attribute them to personality differences, someone having a bad day, or something other than bullying entirely. But according to a 2017 survey by the American Osteopathic Association, adults are being bullied nearly as often as adolescents. Of those surveyed, 31 percent of Americans admitted to experiencing “repeated, negative behavior intended to harm or intimidate,” with 43 percent saying the behavior has intensified in the last year.
So how can you spot the key signs of adult bullying behavior at work, at home, and in your community? And how can you protect yourself and cope? We asked mental health experts for their best advice.
Look for the telltale signs
Bullying has many levels and manifestations, but regardless of how subtle or passive-aggressive, or overt and intense it may be, it can have a damaging impact on self-esteem. According to Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a New York City–based psychiatrist, bullying includes actions like making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. It can also take forms of aggressive physical contact, speech, written text, and snide, subtle actions. In many ways, Dr. Ivanov says adult bullying behavior identically reflects that of childhood bullying, since it methodically targets someone with the intention of intimidating, undermining, and/or degrading them.
One of the places where bullying is often rampant and tolerated is in the workplace. Workplace bullying can look like a boss constantly over-correcting, requiring more work out of one employee, making you feel guilty about taking a vacation, or belittling you, either in private or in front of others, explains Arolyn Burns, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California. It can be scary to stand up to your manager, which means the behavior only continues or becomes worse. And bosses and figures in superior leadership positions aren’t the only ones who can bully others. Workplace peers can definitely exhibit bullying tendencies—pettiness, rumor-spreading, insults, cliquiness, intimidation, threatening comments, and more.
Within your family and friend circles, Burns says bullying can take form in excessive criticism, gaslighting, mind games, or threats of physical, financial, or emotional harm. But no matter where this torment happens, it isn’t easy to recognize the signs while you’re in the thick of it, especially within close, intimate relationships and friendships. Sometimes the only way to know it’s happening is to trust your gut. “If it doesn’t feel comfortable, there’s probably some sort of bullying happening,” Burns explains. “It’s just that unsettling feeling of something not being right.”
Learn the best ways to cope
To protect yourself from inevitable bullies—and feel empowered to live a full, happy life—you need to address the situation when it’s happening. Again, it's easy to shrug off being on the receiving end of this type of behavior, Exelbert warns that bullying can significantly impact both physical and emotional health. When we allow it to infiltrate our daily routines and relationships, she says it can cause headaches, poor concentration, muscle pain, sleep loss, anxiety, depression, frequent sick days, and decreased work productivity. Plus, chronic stress can lead to more severe health problems, including self-harming behaviors, high blood pressure, and gastrointestinal issues too.
Below are some good ways stand up for yourself, take action, and get the bully to leave you alone.
Try as hard as you can not to take it personally.
While it’s definitely easier said than done, try your very best not to react to their comments or actions. Dr. Ivanov says, first and foremost, to always, always, always remember that it's not about you. It’s about them and their need to feel overpowering. “Somehow, they have got it into their head that by making others feel bad, they can feel better themselves,” he says. “This is a reflection of their insecurities, not your flaws. Very often, they are threatened by you and want to make you feel more insecure.”
Dr. Ivanov says getting upset or angry only fuels their aggression. To help yourself calm down, he suggests doing all that you can to be kind to yourself. “Eat healthily, move daily, and get plenty of rest, so you feel healthy and strong. Take long baths for relaxation, light some scented candles, and watch some feel-good films,” he continues. “Do whatever you need to do in order to connect to yourself in a loving, nurturing way.”
Remain kind and calm, but keep your boundaries.
You’ve heard of The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Well, “others” includes your bully. Part of keeping their attitude in check is remaining kind and not retaliating against their comments. “It can be incredibly difficult not to fight back when they attack you, but you have to do your best to be the bigger person and not descend to their level,” Dr. Ivanov says. “If they launch another attack on you, ask them to stop. If they don't, just walk away. Do your best not to engage. At all times, use polite, unemotional language.”
If it's a workplace bully, talk with a supervisor.
In a professional setting, you still need to remain composed so you can complete your job responsibilities. But there’s no need to take it from a bully and force yourself to grind through it. Instead, it’s necessary to document their behavior and report the abuse to a supervisor, preferably in human resources.
Unfortunately, adult bullies aren’t typically interested in working things out or finding a compromise. “Rather, they’re more interested in power and domination,” explains Michelle Chung, PsyD, licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “They want to feel important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down.”
So how can you potentially expose their behavior? By saving each and every aggression—no matter how large or small. Dr. Ivanov says to save emails and take screenshots of comments left on social media that document cyberbullying activities. “And do this right away: A bully will rarely leave threats or offensive comments posted on social media up,” he adds. “Take a screenshot at the moment.”
Then, to protect your mental health, block them everywhere: Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, you name it. Limit all interactions to your work email and team collaboration tools, like Slack, so there will always be a record of the conversation.
Know your legal rights—and exercise them.
If you feel genuinely unsafe around someone, don't delay seeking advice from a therapist. They can help determine your level of threat and the best path forward without prompting further physical or emotional harm. And remember: harassment is a crime, and it can be reported. Dr. Ivanvo reminds those being bullied that they're not powerless and have rights. Dealing with your own bully? These resources are readily available to you right now:
Stop Bullying Now Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255