4 Strategies That Can Help You Handle Being Bullied as an Adult

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When we think of bullies and how to survive them, our minds typically go to childhood (especially middle school).

I think that’s because we’re – rightfully – extra concerned about the mental health of kiddos whose minds are still developing, and who typically don’t have the experience and life skills to cope.

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Even if we do have that experience and those skills as adults, though, dealing with someone who is bullying us at work or in our personal life still really stinks.

If that’s something you’re dealing with now – or feel like you might in the future – here’s some advice from clinically-trained marriage and family therapist Roger S. Gil on how to handle it effectively (and with class).

1. Separate yourself as much as possible

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You may not have the option of telling the “teacher” for one reason or another, but you can employ what Gil calls “avoidance strategies.”

“Avoidance strategies can be as simple as upping the privacy on your social media, ensuring you’re not alone around the bully, or devising an escape plan should the bully try to corner you.

While the passive approach may not be the most popular one, it may be the only course of action for some people who feel that they cannot address the bullying directly.”

If you’re comfortable, you could do something like ask your boss to reassign your workspace or to be switched to a different team or project.

Basically, if you have the chance to put physical space between the two of you, do it.

2. Refuse to play the victim

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Bullies look for people who they think are vulnerable and weak, because the last thing they want to deal with is someone who fights back, says Gil.

“Bullies might go after the “short” girl, “fat” guy, “ugly” kid, etc. because they feel they can target the person in the area where they are the most insecure. Some bullies will target someone who they perceive to be an “alpha” (e.g. the popular girl, the good-looking guy, etc.) to boost their ego. This strategy serves a social purpose in that the bully is trying to establish power so nobody else will try to push them around.”

Basically the old, “act like it doesn’t bother you and they’ll probably stop” works with adults, too.

You can try laughing when they make jokes at your expense, thanking them for sarcastic compliments, pretending you don’t hear them when they’re being rude, and keeping your cool if you do something embarrassing.

All easier said than done, but if you can manage it, definitely an effective tool.

3. Stand up for yourself

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If the bully keeps pushing after you’ve tried some more indirect routes, you can try standing up to them. Gil recommends pointing out their bad behavior as a great way to get under their skin.

“Assuming the bully is nonviolent and unlikely to find some other way to harm you, confronting them by pointing out that their behavior is bullying is sometimes a good start.

Avoid provoking them but, at the same time, question their motives and what purpose going after someone who has done them no wrong serves them.

This shows that you’re not afraid to call them out and, if necessary, put them on the defensive.”

Some tips for getting the most out of the confrontation include:

  • Prepare for the encounter by knowing what you want to say, as well as where and when you’d like to say it. Having a plan can definitely ease your anxiety.
  • Be calm and self-assured, but don’t attack them. If you get emotional, they may take that as a sign of weakness and turn the tables.
  • Be specific about what they’re doing that you need them to stop.
  • Do it in private. That is, unless you think having backup might be necessary for HR reasons.

4. Loop someone in who can help

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If you’ve done everything you can think of on your own, or if things are going too far and you can feel yourself getting beaten down, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Your safety and mental health have to be a top priority, so Gil says not to let your pride prevent you from getting the help and protection you need.

“It goes without saying that any perceived physical threat should be handled with the assistance of local law enforcement or other community resource.

Some bullies are dangerous and may need legal interventions (e.g. restraining order, police report, etc.) to reduce the risk of harm.”

If this is happening at work, there are protections in place to help. Reach out to your HR department and ask about policies on bullying and a hostile work environment – most employers will act quickly to avoid being implicated.

There you go!

These are some great ideas on how to handle adult bullies, so though I hope you never have to deal with one, now you have ways out if you do.