How To Stand Up To Adult Bullies

Bullying is supposed to be a junior high thing, but everyone knows it doesn't always end when childhood does. Today we have some tips for dealing with bullies, mean girls, and mean guys who are long past their cafeteria days.

Ask yourself, "how is this impacting my life?"

This tip comes courtesy of Cheryl Dellasega, author of Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees. She says that when determining whether to shrug something off or take action, you should consider how it's affecting you. If someone's sniping is a minor annoyance, let it be. If, however, you're losing sleep, you hate going to work, or you're feeling depressed or unworthy because of the way someone's treating you, then you need to do something. Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (an updated edition of which came out this August), says "I'm not a big fan of the 'ignore it' school of thought. I think ignoring it reinforces a sense of powerlessness in the target." So if someone's belittling, humiliating, or insulting you at work or in your friend group, and it's making you upset, it's time to address it.

Write it down.

I also talked to Megan Kelley Hall, co-editor of Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories, who says,

Document EVERYTHING. Even a simple journal entry works. If you are being cyber-bullied, print out all correspondence and keep it in a file.

Simmons concurs: "Documenting what's happening is key. Keep track of when, where and how it happens, along with who is present." This is important so that you can present an objective, coherent case either directly to the bully, or to an authority figure.

Seek help if necessary.

Once you've decided to do something about a bully, Dellasega recommends asking yourself whether you have the skills and inclination to handle the situation yourself. If so, you can confront the bully personally (more on that in a minute). If not, or if you just feel that someone else's help would be beneficial, you have a number of options. If you're being bullied at work, talk to an HR representative. And if the bully is someone in your personal life, Dellasega recommends recruiting "an ally or an advocate" to stand by your side. And, says Hall, "Talk to your spouse, your best friend, your boss, your therapist. Often sharing your problems and speaking them out loud helps you put things into perspective. Plus it's always good to get input from others." There are also online resources available to people experiencing workplace bullying: check out The Workplace Bullying Institute or Bully Free At Work. Hall adds an important caveat, though,

If you are going to complain about someone who is bullying you or your boss or workplace that isn't helping you out, just make sure that you realize that what it put out there on the internet is there FOREVER. Don't trash your co-workers or your boss because you never know who will see it. The same goes for putting your negative thoughts into an email. Once you hit the SEND button, your private thoughts are now basically in the public domain.

If you do confront the bully, be assertive, not aggressive.

Says Dellasega, "it's very touchy to confront an aggressive person, because they're already insecure." She adds that if you approach them emotionally, or with a big group of people (one ally is okay), things can go badly. So it's wise to prepare ahead of time — even rehearse in the mirror. When it's time to talk, choose a neutral, private place — not your office or your apartment, but a conference room or coffee shop. Consider starting with a few positive things about the person. Then talk facts, not feelings. This is where that documentation comes in. Discuss the behavior you've observed from the bully, and then give him or her a chance to respond. From there, have an open-ended conversation. Don't back down or let yourself be cowed, but "don't get carried away with emotions" either. Your goal is to get the behavior to stop, not to start a screaming match.

If you're a bystander, step in.

Says Hall,

The bystander definitely has the power to help change the climate — with adults and children. In bullying cases with children, almost half of all bullying situations stop when a bystander gets involved.
More than one-half the time, bullying stops within 10 seconds of a bystander stepping in to help.

She adds that helping "doesn't mean taking a stand or getting into the bully's face, sometimes just the simple act of not giving the bully an audience or just taking the side of the victim is enough to get your point across." Simmons also has advice for bystanders:

In many cases, bullying is sustained by the silence of those who witness it but say nothing. Cultural change occurs in small ways. When one woman refuses to gossip as a way to connect with another woman, or when another changes the subject when a group begins trashing someone not in the room, norms get redefined. But it's damn hard to do it — especially when you want your colleagues to like you or invite you out for drinks, and when it might be really fun and juicy to talk about someone else. Being more vigilant about conversation patterns can be very helpful. If your social or professional circle spends a chunk of its time talking about other women, it's worth asking what your relationship as a group is built on in the first place.

Get out of the situation.

This isn't always possible, and it shouldn't be your first response, but if bullying persists despite all your attempts to stop it, sometimes removing yourself from the situation is the best option. Says Hall,

The one positive thing about dealing with bullying as an adult as opposed to a kid, is that you have the choice to get yourself out of the situation. If that means getting a new job, moving to a new apartment or even a new city, adults have the benefit of removing themselves from the toxic situation.

Obviously it's not fair for a bullying victim to have to move because of a bully's behavior — and we hope you never have to exercise this option. But remembering that you're a grownup and have some choices (at least, more than you have as a kid) can make bullying less scary.

Remember it's not about you.

Dellasega says that often when someone experiences bullying, "the biggest burning question is, 'why is this happening to me?'" But, she says, most bullying comes from a bully's issues, not from any characteristics of the victim. "This isn't about you in particular," she says, "and you shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed." Bullying can hurt, but remember — whether you're in the lunchroom, the nursing home, or anywhere in between, the bully's the one with the problem, not you.

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Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, And Afraid-to-Bees
Odd Girl Out, Revised And Updated: The Hidden Culture Of Aggression In Girls
Dear Bully: Seventy Authors Tell Their Stories