Ever hear these lines?
“It’s not about you, it’s about them.” “Take it as a compliment that she is so focused on you still after all this time.” “Just ignore them.”
These are all things other people will say to you when you are the target of an adult bully. These are what they will tell you to think to yourself as you take deep breaths and “let it go” (thanks Elsa). But, the ugly truth is that engaging in this calming behavior, while helpful to you, doesn’t help address the continuance of the behavior of the bully.
Someone very smart once told me, “power and insecurity are a dangerous combination.” Power comes in many forms – physical size, career position, money, and/or social influence, to name a few. (Political power is the form currently reflected in the administration of our country, but I won’t get into that right now). This is the common ground underlying bullying whether age 2 or 92.
So, since I like to focus on solutions, I want to talk about things you can do to attempt to curb the behavior without sacrificing your own integrity and sanity (and ultimately avoid becoming a revenge-bully yourself). But first, a little bit of background:
I personally have been the target of a bully. This person has spent the last two years telling people various inaccurate and reputation-damaging stories about why I left my previous career to become a full-time financial advisor. More than a dozen people have told me some version of her story after they heard it. I won’t bore you with the details, but the most alarming untrue story she likes to spread is that I had post-partum depression due to my daughter’s emergency surgeries and couldn’t face returning to work.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, really. She had said rude, untrue things about many other people in my presence, and you know what they say – if someone talks sh*& about others, they will talk sh*& about you too. And even though I hope that the majority of people she said these things to realize there was no truth to them, the bottom line is: they might wonder if there is a kernel of truth in there. And as Señora Gibson told us all in high school, “You only have one reputation. Protect it with all of your might!”
So, what actually works to combat a bully?
Here are my tips:
- Find compassion. Remember that at the root of the bully’s behavior is insecurity. Start fresh with this thought, “I want to see this person for the first time.” (thanks Gabby Bernstein). Allow compassion to be your starting point. This won’t stop the behavior (remember, you can’t control what others do, only your own actions), but it might prevent your blood pressure from rising or result in screaming in their face like you want to. People who are happy and secure don’t feel threatened by other people’s success. They don’t find pleasure in or feel compelled to harm others or put them down. Picture them as a child themselves, experiencing bullying or their own trauma. It will potentially shift your view enough to give you the space to find empathy instead of anger in a challenging moment.
- Let go of the “why”. Asking, “Why??” is a waste of energy. We often create these stories in our minds about other people that are not helpful. There is a great kids book called Have You Filled A Bucket Today? that breaks it down. The basic storyline is that everyone carries an invisible bucket around with them, filled with love and happiness. Bullies have empty buckets. They think that by emptying other people’s buckets they will fill their own, but the truth is that every time they are mean to someone else, they not only empty that person’s bucket but they also empty their own as well. You don’t need to know “why” their bucket is empty. All that matters is that you remember that the bully’s behavior isn’t about you.
- Confront them calmly and kindly (over and over again if needed). Have patience and remember that this is a process. I confronted this bully after this first began and asked her kindly to stop spreading misinformation. She denied it was happening and carried on. No surprise. Doing it once usually doesn’t do the trick but you have to start somewhere. You have to be consistent and clear. Every time they say something rude or condescending to you, respond with a simple “What do you mean by that?” Interestingly, this usually stops them in their tracks (I swear, try it!). In a situation where they are forced to explain the meaning behind their comments, you will usually find that they backtrack or walk away altogether. If they alternately, explain an explicit threat – you then have grounds to take more formal action. Write it down immediately with date and time. This works in the workplace, in social settings, and at home.
- Be mindful of the record. If they send you something mean or rude in writing (like an email), do not respond in writing. If you feel you must, keep it short, without malice, and consistent with other communications. For example, “I am not sure exactly what you mean by this. However, I would prefer a face to face conversation to prevent any miscommunication and feel confident that you will treat me with respect.” Set the tone proactively. Stop the cycle of condescension.
- Don’t give their words life. When someone wrongs us like this, spreading rumors and causing heartache, you want to run around and shout from the rooftops- “Can you believe what this person said?! It isn’t true!!!” But when we do this, we end up giving their voices more power. We are further spreading the rumor!!! Don’t repeat it. Don’t give it life. Complain to your spouse, partner or besties, but leave it there.
- Allow your frenemies to expose themselves and then say goodbye to them. Perhaps the greatest gift a bully can give you is clarity around some of your relationships. If people believe the bully, or worse, if people participate in the gossip, they are showing you their true colors. Don’t make it a dramatic break up, just stop including them in your life. People with integrity will always stand up for what is right, even (and especially) when it is hard, no excuses. As my husband says, “Excuses are like buttholes. Everyone has them and they all stink.” Shoutout to Mrs. Driscoll’s banner in her classroom in 7th grade: “What’s popular isn’t always right, and what’s right isn’t always popular.”
- Spread your story, the truth, far and wide – with positivity. Send out a letter announcement or email saying your truth. Be your own PR agent – a PR Agent of Truth. While legal action is always an option, slander cases are rough on the accuser too. Consider this PR Campaign for Truth as a less costly, positive alternative to battling it out in a court of law (although that’s always an option if it gets bad enough to harm your potential or current relationships, particularly your professional relationships.)
- When they go low, you go high. Be the bigger person when responding to the rumor mill. I saw a mutual contact in a bagel shop a few years ago. She said, “Wow – Margo. Why are you so dressed up in a suit today?”. I looked confused and said, “I’m on my way to a meeting!” She, even more confused said, “She told me that you left your job to stay home with your kids.”. I smiled and said, “No, actually, I had been planning this career change for quite some time now – took my series exams the year before, …etc. But how are you?” Ultimately, I heard from a few others that this person, outraged at the lie, became an ambassador for my truth, without me even requesting that she do so. This is the absolute hardest one for me. My gut reaction is to want to fight back. But, in every relationship in your life, you are doing a dance with the other person. Don’t engage in a revenge-bully tango with the Bully. It will ultimately bring you down to their level. Before you speak about someone, ask yourself: “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?”. Keep your bucket full.
- Engage in self care. Go to yoga classes. Start using self-affirming statements. Seek counseling if you need it. Don’t let it harm your mental health. If anything, let this be a stimulus to Rise Up.
And when all else fails and you want to scream? Go for it (in the privacy of your own home). Call your besties, pour yourself your favorite glass of wine or grab your favorite treat and remind yourself that tomorrow will be a better day and that bullies never prosper. Because after all, living a life of unhappiness and insecurity is punishment enough. Thank goodness that’s not you, right?