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I'm Rubber and You're Glue: Handling Emotional Bullies

By Edel Jarboe

What is Emotional Bullying?
Emotional bullying is when someone tries to gain control by making others feel angry or afraid. It is characterized by verbal abuse such as name-calling, sarcasm, incessant teasing, threatening, mocking, putting down, belittling, ignoring, and lying. Also known as adult and workplace bullying, emotional bullying also includes such abuse as exclusion from a group, tormenting, ganging up on others, or humiliation. Moreover, this type of bullying also extends to racially or sexually abusive comments and behavior.

Because emotional bullying can be the most difficult type of bullying to cope with or prove, its effects can be devastating. In a recent study, researchers at the University of South Australia found that for males and females, frequent peer victimization and low social support contributed significantly and independently to relatively poor mental health. Experts say that the victim may be encouraged to feel shame, embarrassment, guilt and fear which can result in depression, low self-esteem, shyness, poor academic or job performance, isolation, or threatened or attempted suicide.

Emotional bullying takes a tremendous toll on your health and self-esteem because such behavior and attacks are as damaging to the mind and body as if they were physical. In other words, emotional bullying is a form of social violence.

In an article on bullying which appeared in the July 20, 1998 edition of the Toronto Star, experts pointed out that over 50% of the adult population have experienced this form of violence at work, at home, and in society. According to this article, "research evidence is showing that childhood bullies become adult bullies, and that adult bullies far too often become people who systematically harm those around them with impunity due to misunderstandings about its causes. Research has clearly shown that unless social intervention stops the bullying process, the bully is rarely motivated to change themselves because the social rewards for obtaining personal power seems to encourage this behavior."

Moreover, according to Peg Burr, MA, MFT, bullies exist along the same continuum as personality disordered persons who have anti-social tendencies and sociopaths. "While they may never exhibit criminal behavior, their inability to have compassion and understanding for others links them to these more severely affected persons. Psychologically, the root of all of these self-serving traits along this continuum is an internal lack of selfhood." She explains.

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Coping: What Works?
When it comes to bullying, often the first advice given is to just ignore the bully. However, is this realistically possible when a bully keeps targeting you repeatedly? Perhaps what "ignoring" means should be clarified.

"If you keep in mind that the bully's aggression comes from an internalized lack, such as insecurity, anxiety and depression, you may become less personally affected by however this lack presents itself. The intrapsychic damage, terror or pain which is being exhibited through aggression has nothing to do with you nor with anyone else," states psychotherapist Peg Burr. "That said, his or her bullying can be viewed matter-of-factly," she continues, "like any other symptom of emotional damage, or even, like a physical illness. It may help you to view the bully as emotionally crippled and sociologically hindered, so that you can see how desperate and ineffective all his or her anger and lashing out is."

In other words, it becomes easier to ignore a bully once you understand that they are acting out of their own pain and insecurities and that to take it personally doesn't do you any good whatsoever. Furthermore, by looking at bullying in this manner, you may be able to notice some positive attributes of this person's character. "Even a tyrant, for instance, can have admirable strengths, such as persistence, drive and perseverance," Ms. Burr points out.

"An emotionally neutral reaction to the abusive acting out may allow you to confine the relating you do with the bully to his or her positive areas (where he or she will feel less vulnerable and threatened). This is a good way to manipulate a difficult situation with a volatile boss or coworker so that their acting out does not escalate. By doing this, you are performing a healthy manipulation of the bully's narcissistic tendencies to get what you need and want (i.e., a paycheck)," she suggests.

Can Bullies Change?
Experts say that the best way to address bullying is to take a strong, proactive stance. In other words, stand up to bullies. If enough people stand up to a bully, the reasoning goes, eventually the bully will be forced to change. However, according to web counselor Burr, "it depends on what you mean by 'change'."

"If you mean a slight to moderate improvement, so that the bully appears to have some awareness of others and is willing to make some compromises, then confrontation may be effective. On the other hand, if you are suggesting that confrontation will make a bully [always] show consideration for others and be respectful of their needs, I don't think this is a realistic expectation." She states. In other words, behavioral change is not a one-shot deal.

"What's assumed here is that aggressive tendencies can be nipped in the bud. What might be more helpful is to remember that personality traits do not change significantly, even over the course of a lifetime. People change only when they want to change." Peg Burr goes on to explain.

"Passive persons, though, may have a much greater chance of learning to become assertive, because they are usually very aware of the socialization problems they have (while bullies may never be). A passive person's sensitivity (to others) may allow him to ask for help, take direction and make behavioral changes, while a bully's aggression will usually keep him from seeking any kind of counsel."

In other words, "the passive person can easily learn and adopt emotional tools to become assertive and improve your own self-worth. Then, your own improved self-esteem may affect your bully so that he or she becomes motivated to get into therapy or counseling, or it may not. Either way, the way you feel about yourself will be improved," Peg Burr concludes.

Help Yourself First
Therefore, while it would be in everyone's best interests for the bully to recognize and change their behavior, it isn't always possible. In other words, it is up to you to change your behavior and your response to the bully. How do you do this? Peg Burr advises shifting the focus to what you need and want, along with the options you have for getting your needs met, and spending as little time, energy and attention as possible on the bully and his or her antics. "Remember that his or her actions have nothing to do with you. If you want or need proof about this, just watch him or her interact with others in a similarly abusive way, and don't take it personally," she reminds us.

Regain Control
- Recognize what is happening to you as bullying and that it is the bully who has the problem, which he or she is projecting on to you.

- Be confident and look bullies in the eye. Speak in a calm and clear voice and name the behavior you don't like and state what is expected instead. For example: "Stop teasing me like that. I want you to treat my feelings and opinions with respect."

- Create a distraction or change the subject. Try using humor or a well-chosen word to disarm the bully - the important thing is to say something confidently back to them.

- Use your head. Think about different responses and select the ones that will improve the situation.

- Practice being more assertive. (See "How You Can Be More Assertive in the Face of Verbal Bullying")

- Support those who are being bullied. According to a study that appeared in the August 1999 issue of Journal of Adolescence, peers spent 54% of their time reinforcing bullies by passively watching, 21% of their time actively modeling bullies, and 25% of their time intervening on behalf of victims.

- Assess the situation. If physical harm is a possibility, protect yourself and others by going for help immediately.

© Edel Jarboe


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