Were you ever bullied, humiliated, harassed, or treated with contempt? Were you ever called names, such as fatso, baldy, geek, retard, or ugly? When you tried to fit in at a new school, job, or neighborhood, did someone or some group make racial slurs, belittle your religion, make fun of your appearance, ridicule your opinions, mock your speech, or deride your beliefs? When you tried to express yourself, did they show appreciation or show disdain? When you arrived, did they cheer or jeer? Did they celebrate you or denigrate you?
If you spoke up after being taunted, did they try to blame you, the victim, by saying, “What’s the matter? Don’t you have a sense of humor? Don’t be so sensitive, we were just kidding. Don’t be a sissy!” When you complained to your boss, parents, or teachers, did they help? Instead of doing so, they may have compounded the problem by brushing it aside and saying something like, “Don’t let it get to you. You’ve just got to learn how to get along with people!” I wonder which is worse, to be made the brunt of jokes or to have one’s pain trivialized?
Intimidation of others takes many forms. It could be physical violence or verbal abuse. You may be prevented from doing what you want to do or forced to do what you don’t want to. You may be shunned, ostracized, or given the silent treatment. The abusers may steal your property or your reputation. You may be criticized, insulted, or threatened. The result of it all is considerable emotional and physical pain.
What can we do about such abuse when it happens to us? First, we can learn to understand the causes. Once we do, that may be enough to, if not end the pain, at least lessen it. Understanding the causes will also point out options and possible solutions. So, why are some people so belligerent?
They ACT tough because they’re WEAK. They have little or no confidence. They feel like losers. They feel unsuccessful and incompetent. They feel that they have no power over their lives and are desperately looking for a method of filling this vacuum. Then along you come. If, somehow, they can make you feel bad; if they can control your emotions, they will have redeemed themselves, for now at last they will have some CONTROL and POWER. True, it is destructive rather than constructive power, but any power is better than none. Granted, it is control over the lives of others rather than over their own life, but in their eyes some control is better than no control.
Because of the complexity of life, there is not one explanation of hostility, but many. However, there is a commonality. In all cases the aggressor is weak. He or she may wear their belligerence as a shield. They may be afraid of being laughed at because of their own incompetence, so they lash out at others in a preemptive attack. Also, because of feelings of worthlessness, they seek ways of becoming the center of attention and ways of gaining recognition. After all, if late night TV hosts can earn millions and win respect by insulting the President of the United States, why can’t bullies become a local ‘hero’ by making fun of you?
Other reasons for indulging in malicious behaviour include peer pressure, jealousy and envy, not knowing any better, and the glorification of violence on TV, in the movies, and in video games. The instigators themselves may also be victims. Perhaps they’re being abused by a sibling, a parent, or a neighbor and are now striking out at others to release some of their pent up hostility. Politicians sometimes exemplify yet another reason for insulting others: candidates running for office with a weak platform will often slander their rivals to divert attention from their own lack of ideas.
It is also helpful to understand that the pain we feel when insults are slung our way, is not caused by the insults themselves, but by our internal reaction to them. This important lesson, (that it is not outside events, but our reactions to them that causes our suffering), is a major tenet of modern psychology. Yet, this teaching is hardly new. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epictetus taught, “It is not he who gives abuse that affronts, but the view that we take of it as insulting; so that when one provokes you it is your own opinion which is provoking.” We may not be able to change the abuser, but we can change our mind. We can decide that the frail attempts of a weakling trying to hurt us can be ignored. What better revenge can you enact than to deprive the abuser of the satisfaction of seeing you get upset?
Another point to ponder is a harasser cannot change the truth. A shrill little man may call Luciano Pavarotti “fatso,” but does that diminish in any way the quality of Pavarotti’s voice or his magnificent accomplishments? Of course not. Here’s how Samuel Johnson advanced the same argument, “A fly may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.” So, why let the pathetic attempts of an insecure person irritate you? In fact, try to feel their pain. Who knows, if you act compassionately, you may be able to heal their wounds as well as your own.
Did you know that Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, and Michelle Pfeiffer were all bullied in school? Who’s laughing now? Doesn’t this demonstrate that things change? Just because you’re in an unpleasant circumstance today, doesn’t mean that it will remain that way indefinitely. Also remember that bullies are not really attacking you, but attacking events that occurred in their lives.
Can anything positive be said about insults? At least it is far better to have someone hurl insults at you than to stone you to death! Which is why Sigmund Freud wrote, “The first human being who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” Changing from physical abuse to verbal abuse may be a step in the right direction, but it offers little consolation to those suffering mental anguish.
What Can We Do about Being Bullied?
Now it is time to discuss the options that are available to us when we are the victims of aggression. Let’s say a co-worker, schoolmate, or neighbor makes fun of me and treats me with disrespect. What can I do about it? Let’s look at three options.
1. When insulted, our first instinct may be to fight back. The confrontational approach is emotional, not rational. It is never the correct answer. All it does is escalate the tension and anger. It makes all future dealings with the same person that much more stressful. But what if, after being insulted, I punch the bully in the face and win the fight? If I do, doesn’t that make ME the bully? Besides, people don’t change their behaviour because of force or intimidation, but because of example. So, don’t try to right a wrong with another wrong.
2. Our second option is to walk away, ignoring the abuse. This choice can be correct or incorrect, depending on the circumstances and our motivation. If the only reason I walk away is because I’m passive, unassertive, and unjustifiably fearful, it is the wrong choice to make. For once I accept abuse, I invite more of it. Don’t become the type of person the bully is looking for. That is, don’t become an easy target, one who will not stand up for their rights.
Yet, sometimes, accepting defeat gracefully is the better part of valor. What’s the point of standing up to a thug if he shoots or stabs me to death? Neither the fact that I was right nor my heroic actions will serve as consolation to my widow and fatherless children. If we have reason to believe the abuser is violent, it makes sense to walk away. No one likes to be viewed as a coward, so it takes courage to admit defeat and walk away.
There is another reason for walking away. Perhaps I have pity for the bully who is desperately looking for attention and the control of others to hide their own feelings of inadequacy. In other words, I walk away in compassion and forgiveness. I rise above the pettiness of it all. That’s what Rene Descartes did, for he wrote, “Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.” There is also a commonsense aspect to this method, for if I do not accept the insults of another, who is there that will be offended? The spiritual approach of ignoring the insults and treating the abuser with respect can lead to their transformation. So, it’s worthwhile giving this method a chance.
3. But what if the abuser is coldhearted and doesn’t respond to my unconditional acceptance? Then it’s time to rethink the proper spiritual path. Consider the following two spiritual choices. I can retire to an isolated cave and meditate for ten years. If I were to do so, it may be helpful for MY spiritual development, but how much help would it provide to a troubled world? A second approach is the way of Mother Teresa. It is active involvement in the world, offering assistance where it is needed. Isn’t that a superior way?
How does this point apply when dealing with bullies? Well, if I walk away in forgiveness year after year, my actions may be fine for MY spiritual development, but what about the other victims? Perhaps their hearts are not filled with compassion, but filled with anguish. Why are there bullies in the first place? Isn’t it because not enough of us stand up for our rights? Therefore, the ideal action to take, which is not always possible, is to defend ourselves. This is the third option. It is the superior choice, for when we follow it, we help ourselves, help the other victims, and help the abuser.
The third option is not about standing up TO the bully. That is, it is not about becoming aggressive. Rather, it is about standing up FOR our rights. It is about being assertive. Failure to defend our rights has severe consequences. It leads to more abuse and causes us to experience the toxic emotions of anger, resentment, anxiety, frustration, and depression. We not only lose control over our lives, but also lose our integrity because we conceal our feelings. And we lose trust in others, lose self-confidence, and lose the daily pleasure of life. So, we have plenty of reasons to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!”
All right, a co-worker constantly insults us and we’re unhappy about it. How do we act assertively? We do so by following the four steps below.
1. Begin empathetically. That is, show you understand their feelings and are not trying to argue with them.
2. State the problem by giving the reasons why the bully should end their poor behaviour.
3. State what you expect.
4. Ask for feedback or confirmation.
Now, here’s an example of the four steps in use.
1. “I understand you just want to have fun and don’t have any bad intentions, but I don’t want you to have fun at my expense.”
2. “When you joke that way, it offends me, encourages others to act disrespectfully, and breaks team spirit.”
3. “So, I would appreciate it if you stop the name-calling. There’s no reason why we can’t respect one another.”
4. “Do you understand what I mean?”
As you can imagine, it takes time to arrive at such a thoughtful response. So, take the time to think things through. Write down what you wish to say, and practice saying it firmly, but not threateningly, in front of a mirror so you will be properly prepared.
Words may not break bones, but they can break a person’s spirit, so when you see someone being abused, step in, if you can, and come to their defense, but without becoming abusive yourself. Team up with likeminded individuals and support one another. Also, never lose sight of compassion, for in the end, the best way to destroy your enemies is to make them your friends.
Let’s continue by considering other ways to respond to the taunts of bullies. The more variations you know, the more options you will have, and the greater the likelihood of finding one to match your particular situation. So, here are some more responses that may help.
1. Without being confrontational, ask the bully to repeat what was said. For example, “What was that?” or “Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said, can you repeat it?” Asking a question reverses the situation, placing you in control. It’s like playing a game of tennis. When bullies taunt you, they are slamming the ball at you. When you immediately respond with a question, it is a volley, placing the ball in their court. It catches them off guard. They didn’t expect that. The question forces them to reconsider the vicious remark that they made. Embarrassed or befuddled, they will usually respond with a weaker version of the original remark. So, with a single question, you have lowered the level of intimidation by one notch. After they repeat it, what should you do? You could brush it off; laugh it off, or continue with another response, such as the following.
2. After getting the bully to repeat the remark, say something nice! Such as, “I can’t believe you would say such a thing. It is beneath you. Such remarks are unworthy of you. Guess you’re having a bad day. Got to go now. See you later.” All bullies are deeply troubled. They wish someone would understand them. Your remarks suggest that you may not only understand, but also sympathize with them. If you repeat similar comments whenever you meet, you may change them into decent people.
3. Practice reverse psychology by turning insults into compliments. If the bully says, “My, you’re terribly ugly,” you could say, “What a nice thing to say! I didn’t think you noticed. Bye, bye.” When you refuse to be hurt by the comments of bullies, you make them become failures at their own game. That may make them uncomfortable enough to stop taunting you.
4. Redirect the insults back to the source. For instance you could say, “I’m so happy you’re practicing affirmations! Keep repeating what you said. If you say it often enough, you will come to believe it. That will make you feel better and give you more confidence. Next time you see me, you can practice some more.” A variation of this theme would be, “I apologize. I didn’t realize you have such low self-esteem that you have to belittle others to feel good. Next time I’ll try not to be so obvious.” This response may force the bully to face his or her weakness and bring about some change. But never say these remarks in a malicious manner. Instead of acting superior, act more enlightened.
5. Offer help. You could say, “Look, no one is this mean unless something is troubling them. If you ever want to speak about it, let me know. Perhaps I can help.”
6. Fogging. Fogging is a term used in assertiveness training. It means to agree with part of the bully’s statement. By expressing an area of agreement, you are being non-confrontational, yet remain firm. For example, the bully calls you a skinny moron and you reply, “Yes, I am skinny. In fact, I may even be a moron in your mind. But I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to know I’m not stupid. So, why are you insulting me?”
7. Reply with a sense of humor. But don’t act as though you’re looking down at the bully. You’re not laughing at them, but at the situation. This technique should be used with extreme caution because your remarks can easily be interpreted as an insult, rather than a joke. But under the proper circumstances, it can be powerful, even getting the bully to laugh. Here are some one-liners you can add to your arsenal:
- “Keep talking. I always yawn when I’m interested.”
- “Is your name Laryngitis? Because you’re a pain in the neck.”
- “Is your name Dan Druff? You seem to get into people’s hair.”
- “I hear you pick your friends — to pieces!!”
- “When you get to the men’s room, you will see a sign that says, ‘Gentlemen.’ Pay no attention and go right on in.”
- “We do not complain about your shortcomings, but about your long stayings.”
- “Sorry, I’m not John Edward; I don’t speak to the dead.”
- “You must be the arithmetic man — you add trouble, subtract pleasure, divide attention, and multiply ignorance.”
- “I used to think that you were a big pain in the neck. Now I have a much lower opinion of you.”
- “You must have gotten up on the wrong side of the cage this morning.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m busy now. Can I ignore you some other time?”
- “You used to be arrogant and obnoxious. Now you are just the opposite. You are obnoxious and arrogant.”
- “When someone cuts their finger, you cry over it just to get salt in the wound.”
- “I admire you because I’ve never had the courage to be so boring.”
- “You should do some soul-searching. Maybe you’ll find one.”
- “Before you came along we were hungry. Now we are fed up.”
- “The next time you shave, could you stand a little closer to the razor?”
The above retorts may be funny, but bullying is no laughing matter. It is not to be put up with. So stand up for yourself and others whenever it is possible. Remember that there is strength in numbers. When you hang out with friends, you can offer support to each another. The only reason there are bullies is that not enough people stand up to them. So, do your part. You never know; you may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You may be the one responsible for the bully changing their ways and returning to the flock. Try to be sympathetic and redeem the bully. But if you can’t, and they pose a risk, speak to the authorities. For example, if it’s a matter of bullying in the workplace, talk to your supervisor and the HR Manager, firmly letting them know that the intimidation must end. There are laws regarding safety in the workplace, so if your company doesn’t correct the situation for you, call the police. Finally, if you are less assertive than you would like to be, do something about it. Take an assertiveness course and learn how to gain control over your life and happiness.
- The Art of Persuasion: Winning Without Intimidation by Bob Burg
- How to Talk to Anyone with Power and Confidence: The Step by Step Guide to Learn How to Communicate Effectively and Efficiently by Rock H. Bankole with Cheryl Jerabek
- Bullying: Real And Lasting Ways To Stop Bullies, Stand Up For Yourself And Overcome Fear By Alice Caldwell
- Beating the Workplace Bully: A Tactical Guide to Taking Charge by Lynne Curry Ph.D.
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High By Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan
- Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny
- Roy Masters: Dealing with Intimidation
- Sherry Benson: How I survived workplace bullying
- Scilla Elworthy: How do I deal with a bully, without becoming a thug?