Bullying is a tricky concept to deal with.
It can range from someone simply being too sensitive to some light and very reasonable teasing, all the way through to the targeted destruction of a person’s self-worth by a sadistic psychopath. There are many ways to be bullied, and there are different types of bullies.
What is more consistent and easier to tackle are the typical bullying victims. In my podcast Blood in the Water, I talk about how to deal with bullying if you’re one of those poor souls who just seems to attract it no matter where you go or what you do.
This post is an additional resource to that podcast, where I will now discuss the types of bullies. After nearly 7 years working as a Probation Officer and Senior Advisor for the NZ Department of Corrections, I was exposed to a huge range of bullies (and I’m not just talking about the criminals we managed!)
Adult criminals are often great representations of what a school bully grows up to be. Not all bullies remain the same when they grow up, but many do. Not all of them become criminals either, yet criminal offenders do give us some great insights into what adult bullies look, think and act like.
So, without further ado, let’s explore the different categories of bullies, and the best way to manage each type.
Note that applying the wrong technique for the type you’re dealing with can be counterproductive, for example: trying to banter with a psychopath will simply validate their manipulation, whereas a jock will probably ease up on you. That being said, “Calling it out” is the one strategy I think works with anyone.
#1: The Psychopath
When the bullying is: targeted to a specific individual over a long period of time; is particularly sadistic, personal, effective and cruel; and is done in such an intelligent and subtle way that you can’t even be sure it’s happening (or cannot prove it), you may be dealing with a psychopath.
Psychopaths (people who score highly on the psychopathy spectrum) are incapable of love or empathy, and are particularly prone to deception and manipulation. This devastating combination can lead some of them to engage in an extremely warped kind of relationship, where they target and destroy an individual, for the sheer thrill of control.
As a Probation Officer, I was amazed to find myself successfully manipulated time and again by psychopaths for no other reason than they wanted to control me. Psychopaths are not all criminals – many of them do well in legitimate careers where aggression, ruthlessness and game-play allow for progression. So, they can often become managers and CEOs. If you’ve ever been bullied by a boss, this may be why.
Trying the standard bullshit advice of just walking away, or trying to somehow connect with a psychopathic bully, is pointless. They are incapable of connection, and any avoidance will simply give them a more interesting challenge while providing proof that they got through to you.
There’s only one way to successfully moderate a psychopath’s behaviour – make it impossible to get away with. Report them to authorities; openly admit you are successfully being manipulated; constantly call out the bullying for what it is (and keep a detailed record); never let it go without a confrontation or consequences.
Make it too hard to bully you, and they’ll move on to someone else. Psychopaths are strong in self-preservation – they’ll stop something that gets them into too much trouble or gets them recognised as a psychopath.
Do NOT try to out-manipulate them – you’ll never be as good at this game as they are; they’ve been practicing their entire lives.
#2: The Alpha Show-Off
You know this guy. He’s the douchebag at the beach who makes fun of your man-boobs; the jock who knocks your lunch out of your hands; that one friend who always tries to steal the girl you’re talking with; the site foreman who plays endless pranks on the poor new apprentice.
The wannabe Alpha is not psychopathic; they are simply desperate for validation and attention, and they know the “best” way to get it is to successfully embarrass someone else.
Unlike psychopaths, these guys won’t necessarily target one person, instead they’re more likely to just be a dick to almost everyone outside of their inner circle, particularly anyone who reacts defensively or is easy to intimidate. They don’t care who the bullying victim is as long as they can get a reaction and have a laugh.
They always need an audience to play up to (other types of bullies don’t consider this a priority unless it helps with control), and often pass off their bullying as teasing, to make you look pathetic for being affected by it. They are performers seeking approval and status.
These guys are everywhere, and they are the bane of shy, introverted or socially awkward people. These guys know what to say to get you – though it won’t be particularly sophisticated – and they can spot someone who’s easy to provoke. Controlling you is not their mission; they just want to put on a show – they’re using you to control the validation of others.
I’ve found there are two unique bullying prevention strategies you can implement with these guys, depending on your psychological strength and wit.
Firstly, if you have strong social skills and a thick skin, then just give as good as you can get. If they call you fat, tell them “Your mum didn’t complain when I rolled off her last night.” Tease them back, banter with them, and often you’ll find some of these guys will actually respect and connect with you for this (bullies often respect courage and resistance as long as it isn’t defensiveness). Or they’ll feel challenged and get defensive, which will undermine their bullying and discourage them from taking you on in the future. These guys don’t like to lose face.
Secondly, if you’re not confident enough to play their game, however, then I prefer the “weary parent” routine: they are small children trying to show off to everyone, and it’s tiring.
As we’ll soon discuss in the “Calling it out” technique below, this is where you might say things like “It’s OK, you don’t have to impress your friends like this all the time,” or “Are you done yet? No? OK, come on now, get it all out of your system, there’s a good boy.” Roll your eyes, smile, and show them that you see through the act.
Do NOT, under any circumstances, defend yourself against what they say. You can respond, but never refer to anything they’ve thrown at you – essentially ignore it. This applies to all forms of bullying – as soon as you defend your worthiness as a person, you’ve already lost.
#3: The Random Lunatic
Sometimes you’re just unlucky enough to stray into the orbit of a crazy person. The kind of person who flips out at you for waiting a touch too long at the traffic lights; the kind of person who always asks to speak to the manager; the growling weirdo at the bus-stop who’s looking to pick a fight; the miserable old prick who has a chip on their shoulder and takes it out on everyone.
There’s no humour or jock-style teasing with these guys (and girls), there’s just misery, nonsense and negativity. They overreact to the mundane and have a bizarre way of taking offence to things that most people are unaffected by. They will attack you personally even when there’s no rational reason to do so. Nothing is good enough for them once they get going – they are completely unmoved by reasoning or placatory efforts.
These people are often one-time experiences in your life; you encounter them by chance and usually never see them again.
These kinds of bullies need to be treated for what they are: lunatics. You can’t reason with them. They will not make sense. Nothing will satisfy their insane desire to cause trouble and complain. There’s no pleasing them. Trying to talk and work things out with these people is an utterly pointless waste of your time, as is trying to stand up for yourself. Nothing they say has anything to do with you personally. To fight back is the equivalent of trying to argue facts with a conspiracy theorist.
There’s only one feasible solution: get the fuck outta there! Avoid the argument and save your energy. Realise that you don’t need these people in your life; exclude them as quickly as possible.
#4: The Unaware and Disordered
Some people have no social skills or awareness. Sometimes, what looks like bullying is just a person’s weird way of trying to communicate and connect. People with strong psychological disorders can sometimes interact in ways that seem negative, harsh or cruel. But they’re not intending to do this, they just can’t help themselves. They simply don’t know any other way.
Borderline Personality is a great example of this. Some Borderline cases will gossip and complain and turn people against each other, often with cruel and personal attacks, because this the only way they know how to interact. It makes them feel connected and important. They may stalk you, play hot’n’cold mind games, talk shit behind your back, and other nasty obsessive behaviours, while having no real comprehension that these behaviours are wrong or harmful.
When confronted, they’ll either genuinely be in disbelief that you are upset by their behaviour, or they’ll somehow turn it around so now it looks like you’re attacking them. They do not understand how what they do hurts people, or they’ll believe it’s fully justified and that they are in fact the victim here.
Whereas a psychopath will try to avoid detection when confronted or an Alpha wannabe might back down, people with psychological disorder genuinely won’t realise that bullying is taking place. Almost nothing you do will cause any change in them unless you’re a well-trained psychologist.
You’ve got two options with these people. Either get away from them (at least until they engage in helpful treatment) or accept them as they are without taking it personally.
For example, I have some friends and associates who have Aspergers, which means sometimes they blurt out judgmental statements (Aspie’s find it hard to be falsely polite or dishonest about their opinions). I’ve learned to both accept and appreciate this; they aren’t bullying, they’re just speaking their minds. If they call me fat, it just means that I’ve put on weight. As long as I don’t take it personally, no harm is done.
#5: The Non-Bully
It’s easy enough to mistake harmless behaviour as bullying, particular if you have a thin skin, or misunderstand someone, or unfairly judge them as having malicious intentions, or just have a tendency to make everything personal. To put it bluntly – sometimes you’re not being bullied, you’re just being too sensitive.
Just because someone is loud, extroverted, and likes to tease, doesn’t make them a bully. Just because someone confronts you about your poor behaviour, or expresses an opinion you don’t agree with, or refuses to support you, doesn’t make them a bully. Disagreement is not a harmful behaviour. Neither is banter, humour and teasing; provided the intentions are playful and the person is respectful.
Like I mentioned in the victim podcast above, if you have a tendency to attract bullying, there’s probably a good chance you’ll also occasionally perceive completely normal and harmless behaviour from others as bullying when it’s actually not.
I know; sometimes it’s hard to know the difference, like with Alpha wannabes – sometimes dudes are just messing around, other times they use teasing to mask nasty personal attacks. A bully will never say “I’m doing this to bully you,” but also take note that some people will have no idea that their normal behaviour affects you negatively.
If, for example, you start work on a New Zealand building site for the first time, you’re going to get some shit. It’s a cultural thing – apprentices are supposed to get a hard time as part of their initiation. They are welcome to give shit as well as take it. But they will get extra shit if they get defensive and testy. That being said, there are certainly a number of builders who use this tradition to screen truly nasty and vicious behaviour.
In the end, bullying is subjective and only exists inside the victim. If someone is confident and unaffected by attempts to bully them, then bullying cannot exist. Even if a psychopath targets you for destruction, they will find themselves up against an impossibly invincible opponent if you’re shameless, self-accepting, confrontational and unwilling to take shit from others (but not defensive).
Ironically, one great way to deal with bullying is to first assume that NO ONE is trying to be a bully, even if they are psychopathic. What they’re doing is just in their nature, no more a choice than sexual preferences or food allergies. That if they are behaving poorly, or your feelings are getting hurt, it’s merely because of insecurities and poor social skills.
This mindset covers you for the possibility that they are not actually bullies while also not allowing them to get away with harmful behaviour, and it will lead you to respond in the best and most effective way possible:
Call it out!
Bullying, and manipulation of any kind, cannot survive being called out. Bullying requires two things to survive: 1) for you to react defensively, and 2) for you to keep your mouth shut about it happening.
Psychopaths rely on you feeling too ashamed and confused to have the courage to report them – calling them out puts them at risk of getting caught, which they can’t allow. Alpha douchebag’s rely on you giving them a show, and buying into their “we’re just having fun, don’t be a pussy” frame – calling them out makes it look like they’re trying too hard, which is exactly what they don’t want to look like. All the rest are crazy, so just run away!
While you might feel defensive, rather than engaging in defensive behaviour (e.g. trying to prove yourself right, denying what they say, trying to get them to stop, violence and screaming etc) you can instead focus on just calling out the bullying for what it is: harmful and unnecessary behaviour.
“You know, when you do that, I get extremely uncomfortable. It feels like you’re bullying me. I don’t care if that makes me too sensitive, I’m asking you to stop.”
“I know everyone’s laughing, but to me this isn’t funny. It’s like you’re trying to get attention from others by attempting to embarrass me. Why would you do that? If you feel threatened by me or something, we can just talk about it. You don’t need to put on a big show.”
“Dude, I have no idea what’s got you so upset, but I can’t see this discussion going anywhere helpful. I’ll leave you to sort it out on your own.”
“You keep doing this and it really bothers me. I’ve been keeping a log of every strange thing you do to me and I’ve realised it’s something new almost every day. I’m not sure what’s going on here, so I’m going to discuss this log with our manager and we’ll go from there.”
The standard advice you get for bullying is to either walk away or tell an authority figure. Unfortunately, neither of these approaches is likely to work permanently for most cases, and neither of them build your resilience, courage and assertiveness. Worst of all, sometimes these approaches only aggravate and validate the bullying.
Calling It Out, on the other hand, will mean that at least you learn how to stand up for yourself, which builds self-respect. Confidence is the only true cure for bullying, so any attempt to deal with bullying should prioritise confidence building.
I hope this helps, and I’m open to feedback and suggestions. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts (and I specialize in coaching bullying victims to strong self-confidence if you want more intensive support).
For more on managing manipulation in general, check out this podcast: Managing Manipulation – How to Prevent Emotional Abuse.