The ‘Accidental’ Bully
By Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA
In this article I discuss some of the unique traits that emotionally manipulative, bullying adults exhibit; the various kinds of damage such bullying in the workplace can cause to others who are exposed to them for any length of time (the emotionally sensitive, conflict-avoidant person, especially); and my strategies for dealing effectively with adult bullying at work.
Definition of Bully: A person who is habitually cruel or overbearing, especially to smaller or weaker people. -freedictionary.com
Bullying doesn’t just happen to children. It can happen to adults as well. I created the term Emotionally Manipulative Adult Bullying to describe a very specific kind of bullying behavior that can occur both in and outside of the office, yet often goes unrecognized and unaddressed. This form of bullying, whether it occurs between bosses and employees, colleagues, spouses, or in any adult relationship, can cause traumatic stress that is toxic to one’s emotional well being and overall health in cases where the energetically aggressive bullying behavior is repeated and chronic.
As hard as it is to imagine, these types of emotionally manipulative, aggressive adults are usually oblivious to how their actions upset and negatively impact the people around them – especially those they may specifically and intentionally be targeting. Often the ‘target’ is an emotionally sensitive person who has trouble setting clear boundaries and will do anything to avoid or reduce conflict, which allows the emotionally manipulative bully to act out aggressively or passive-aggressively in an unimpeded manner. In fact,these types of bullies usually see themselves as the ‘victim’ if someone sets a boundary and refuses to tolerate (and/or call them out on) their egregious behavior.
The ‘Accidental Bully’
Unlike the types of workplace bullies described by self-help websites such as workplacebullying.org, the typical emotionally manipulative adult bully is often completely unaware of the distress and confusion they cause those around them. Based on my years of working as a licensed psychotherapist, and now as a Therapeutic Life Coach, it is my experience that an emotionally manipulative adult who chronically exhibits disrespectful, overbearing, intimidating behavior is likely suffering from one or more personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder) and as such, can be very difficult for even a trained mental health professional to effectively relate to and work with, for the following reasons:
Emotionally Manipulative Adults Tend To:
- Abuse positions of authority and power
- Frequently dish out undeserved criticism
- Use sarcasm and jokes to disguise their emotional abuse of others
- Hold others to unrealistic standards based on their needs and wants
- Use overt insults and covert threats to control others
- Are completely oblivious to the fact that they abuse the rights and dignity of others while demanding that they themselves be treated fairly at all times
- Play by their own set of ‘rules’ and use guilt, martyrdom, threats, and other forms of covert or overt intimidation (e.g., passive-aggressive behavior) when others fail to comply and play the game their way
The Negative Impact Of Being Bullied By An Emotional Manipulator
As stated above, It has been my experience in my work as a psychotherapist and coach that the people who seem most negatively impacted by the emotionally manipulative, bullying behaviors are those who describe themselves as being ‘trusting’, ‘highly sensitive’, ’emotionally aware’, ‘intuitive’, ‘caring’, and ’empathic’. This is likely due to the fact that these more sensitive personality types have difficulty recognizing, then standing up to, the extremely manipulative and emotionally and energetically aggressive behaviors being displayed toward them by the bullying adult. Such caring, empathic types may even feel bad or sorry for the person bullying them, and will often engage in codependent behaviors in their misguided attempts to calm the bully and keep the peace for the sake of everyone on the team and/or in the office. Unfortunately, such intense one-on-one exposure to the aggressor not only can make them a target of the bully’s focus in the workplace, but has additional repercussions for the person trying to help.
Chronic Adult Bullying and Emotional Manipulation Can Cause:
- Anxiety and depression
- Loss of trust and confidence in self / Poor self-esteem
- Compulsive worrying and ruminating over just what is happening and why it is happening, and who to tell and what to tell in an effort to get help (especially true when the bully is one’s boss)
- A pervasive sense of fear and hyper-alertness
- Various losses from missed work (financial losses due to lack of attendance; loss of credibility; disappointed team members; loss of one’s job)
- Sleep disturbance and/or full-blown insomnia
- Paranoia / Fears of “going crazy” or being seen as “crazy”
- Mysterious aches and pains with no known cause
- Stomach upset / Digestive disturbances, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Seven Strategies For Effectively Addressing Bullying Behavior In The Workplace
Ignoring the emotionally manipulative adult bully in the workplace won’t help, and will simply result in the egregious behavior continuing. While direct confrontation of the person bullying you is not always possible, effective, or even recommended, if the situation is not addressed in some manner the bully will simply continue to act out in an emotionally aggressive manner, to the detriment of all concerned. If you are an especially sensitive person, you may even become physically ill and/or rush to quit your job to get away from the harmful behavior. Instead, try these seven strategies I designed that have helped many of my therapy and coaching clients successfully put and end to bullying behavior experienced at work:
- Awareness is the first step. Acknowledge that you may be the victim of workplace bullying and that you may need help and support from others to arrange for an intervention of some kind to end these negative exchanges.
- Realize that emotionally manipulative bullying is sometimes not obvious to others if you are the one being specifically targeted. This is why it is especially critical that you document the bullying behavior as well as you can in case you need to go to higher levels of authority for help, such as human resources or an appropriate authority figure. Once you have reported the bullying, it is their job to assist you in finding solutions to what could be a complex situation (e.g., the bully is your boss); if the authority figure you approach says that they cannot help you, ask them who can. Do not accept ‘I don’t know’ for an answer. You shouldn’t have to handle this on your own.
- Are there people around you at work who witness the emotionally manipulative bully engaging in inappropriate behavior, such as harassing you or putting you down? Consider asking them to act as your witness. Ask if they are willing to document what they observe in case you do decide to seek help from those in a position to intervene.
- Release the idea that you did something to deserve this poor treatment. Emotionally manipulative bullies often target sensitive, kind, empathic, and helpful people. Remind yourself that you did nothing to cause the bullying, and you can’t control the bully’s behavior. Nor is it likely that you will be able to put a stop to the aggressive behavior on your own, or that the bully will just stop one day without intervention. Get help as soon as possible.
- Recognize and accept that you can not ‘help’ the bully to become a reasonable, nice, sensitive, and caring person. Remember, even specially trained and licensed healing professionals are challenged to help these types of emotionally manipulative and aggressive individuals.
- Decide if you are up to confronting the person bullying you – but never confront without a witness.If you decide that you would like to directly address the situation and confront the person you are having difficulty with, it is imperative that you do so with the support of an appropriate third party authority figure at work – Especially if the bully is your boss, or a team member you must work with regularly. Do not ever attempt to confront the bully on your own!
- If you’re not getting the support you need from an appropriate authority figure at work, consider seeing a therapist, life coach, or employment consultant who specializes in bullying in the workplace for further suggestions and ideas. You should not ever have to quit your job in order to escape being bullied in the workplace. If you decide to work with a therapist, counselor, or coach, make sure they have a good understanding of organizational systems and have experience in helping people address workplace bullying and dysfuncational organizational dynamics.
IMPORTANT NOTE: In extreme cases, you may feel you have no choice but to quit your job if appropriate help from an authority figures is not available. Although no state has as of yet passed an anti-bullying law, that doesn’t mean bullying is legal in every situation. Therefore, prior to quitting your job due to somebody else’s inappropriate, manipulative, and possibly even abusive behavior, you might consider contacting The United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and/or a local Labor and Employment Attorney to find out if the kind of bullying you are experiencing is illegal due to violating federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment.
Some Final Thoughts
Documenting is critical!
Whether you are the one behaving inappropriately with others in the workplace or the one being emotionally and mentally harmed by someone else’s bullying behavior, it is important to recognize what is actually happening and take steps to stop it. If not, the distressful dynamics will continue to fester and grow, affecting the emotional and perhaps even the physical well being of anyone who must have sustained and repeated contact with an emotionally aggressive bullying personality, as well as negatively impacting the overall productivity of the office.
Remember, the authority you seek out for assistance in ending the bullying will depend on your particular situation. Check to see if there is an Employee Handbook. It is the Human Resources department job to identify the best person at your workplace to help you put an end to the emotionally manipulative bully’s destructive and toxic behaviors, and to intervene on your (and others) behalf, if warranted.
Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, is a licensed Psychotherapist, Transformational Life Coach, Author, and former High-Tech Executive Employment Consultant. You can learn more about her ‘Whole Person’, ‘Whole Life’ Coaching practice by visiting her at ChainFree Living.