When we think of bullying, we often imagine classrooms, playgrounds, and other places where children dwell. We imagine name-calling and teasing. However, while childhood bullying is a pervasive issue that deserves proper attention, adult bullying is a conversation that also deserves more attention. We tend to overlook and even misidentify bullying when it happens to grown-ups. We label bullies as “difficult” or “confrontational” without ever actually stepping back and acknowledging their bully-like tendencies, which, in many cases, means that the behavior is permitted to continue.
Dictionary.com describes a bully as “a blustering, mean, or predatory person who, from a perceived position of relative power, intimidates, abuses, harasses, or coerces people, especially those considered unlikely to defend themselves.” StopBully.gov identifies three different forms of bullying: verbal bullying, social bullying, and physical bullying. Today, we will explore what these forms of bullying look like in the context of adult relationships.
Verbal bullying is exactly what it sounds like — intimidation through language use. Verbal bullying can sound like taunting or teasing, inappropriate comments that are sexual in nature, name-calling, shaming, constant criticism, making threats to do harm — whether it be physically, emotionally, socially, professionally — and aggressive verbal attacks.
In adulthood, this can look like a male colleague who attempts to wrangle his female peers into submission through sexist comments, a parent who threatens to make another parent and their family “sorry” through their connections in the town that they live in, or the unusual targeting and maligning of an employee by their superior.
Social bullying is one of the more common forms of adult bullying. It is essentially using social settings and circumstances to make someone else feel ashamed, embarrassed, or excluded. When adults resort to these antics, it can look like a person exposing the personal business of their partner with the intent to embarrass them or ruin their reputation, spreading rumors about a neighbor, and trying to turn other neutral parties against a relative. It can look like a subset of employees conspiring to make one colleague feel unwelcome or unworthy. Social bullying can also manifest through cyberbullying.
“There’s this saying: Some people want to feel tall by cutting off the heads of others,” Preston Ni, author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People, told CNN. “Many bullies actually don’t feel very good about themselves, and the only way for them to feel good about themselves is to put others down.”
While not quite as common as the others, physical bullying can look like aggressive or rude hand gestures, throwing or breaking things, violating personal space, making violent gestures, and sexual harassment. To physically bully someone is to make them feel physically unsafe. While all bullies likely suffer from some sort of underlying issue, as Better Help explains, those whose bullying turns physical typically have anger and psychological issues.
Realizing that you or someone you know is the victim of an adult bully can be a deeply distressing situation. Reporting the bully to the necessary authorities or confiding in others who can support you is a great place to start. However, if you feel that you are in physical danger, you should immediately notify police.