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Adult Bullying and Mental Health

By HERWriter
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Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

Prevention of bullying at a young age is currently a focus of many educators and programs. The White House even hosted a bullying prevention conference in March 2011, but the spotlight is always on children and teens and never adults it seems. Adults are generally more able to resolve conflicts through talking, and mature enough to avoid bullying. Or are they?

Harassment could be considered the grown-up word for bullying, and it’s still a problem for many adults that can affect mental health.

Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor at Bridgewater State University and the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center, said in an email that whether an incident is defined as bullying or harassment depends on the state.

“Here in Massachusetts, harassment refers specifically to incidents targeting protected classes,” Englander said. “Bullying refers to the intentional, repeated abuse of someone with less power, by someone with power over them. In many places these would essentially be the same thing.”

It’s convenient to think that children won’t continue their bullying ways when they’re older, but some still bully other adults or even become bullies as adults.

“I think the focus is on children because it’s presumed that children are less able to defend themselves if someone with power over them were bullying them – a boss, for example,” Englander said.

Although it’s uncertain how common adult bullying is, just think of your own life and you might have some answers. Because of the nature of bullying, it can have some negative mental health effects on victims.

“Victims of all types of abuse tend to suffer from similar problems: anxiety, depression, and heightened possibility of violence or aggression,” Englander said. “Most abuse victims, however, are never violent.”

Although becoming a bullying victim in work or social situations can seem hopeless at the time, there is a way you can fight back for the sake of you and your mental health.

“If possible, reduce or eliminate contact with the bully,” Englander said. “Document instances of bullying and if possible, be sure to report them to supervisors. Be sure that the bully knows exactly what you object to. If they know what is objectionable and they continue to do it, that may be grounds for supervisors to take action against them.”

She suggests that it’s easier in social situations to prevent bullying.

“In social situations, it is usually possible to avoid or ignore bullying among adults,” Englander said. “Do not permit others to take advantage of you.”

In my personal experience, if you have friends or family members who are bullying you, confront them about the issue, and if they still continue the bullying, then cut off contact with them and talk to other friends and family for support.

Erik Fisher, a licensed clinical psychologist, wrote in an article on www.divinecaroline.com that bullies are everywhere in society and don’t just pop up in childhood. He said that bullies are allowed to continue in society because people, including victims, are afraid to speak up.

“I believe that this action of not confronting only reinforces this behavior in all of us,” Fisher stated. “In the bully it reinforces the idea that he/she can continue to act as he/she does. In his ‘victims’ it reinforces the belief that they are powerless. The truth is that no one can take our power away unless we give it to them. I believe that we can be victimized by others, but I believe even more that we often remain victims by choice.”

Bullies have their own mental health issues, including their own fear or even a past of being abused.

“People bully others because they have something to hide: insecurity, inadequacy, lies, fears, failures … and too many times we do not see through them,” Fisher said.

Have you been a victim of bullying as an adult? How did it make you feel, and what did you do about it? Share your stories in the comments section.

Englander, Elizabeth. Email interview. June 15, 2011.

Reviewed June 16, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton

Add a Comment2 Comments

This article sounds like good advice, but in most situations, it's not that simple.

For example, in the overwhelming majority of cases where friends and people I know have been bullied in the workplace, the bullying has existed within a framework of an unsupportive workplace. Sometimes, reporting to a supervisor is not an option because the supervisor may have a good relationship with the bully. In fact, many people, out of self-interest, only bully when they have a strong sense that they can get away with it.

I think there are other approaches to stop bullying. As someone who was bullied a lot as a kid, I find that gaining self-confidence is the most important thing. If you are truly self-confident, you cannot easily be bullied. Why? For one, you will be more assertive in your current work situation, which will discourage bullying, but for two, you will be less likely to stay in a job. Your confidence will help you to obtain other job offers, and leverage them in your current employment situation so that you obtain better treatment.

Bullying is a complex problem. The bullies themselves are typically often victims. In every case where I have actually known the details of the life of someone who was bullying others in a workplace, that person felt highly threatened by the people they were bullying, and was also under a lot of stress in their own life, both from within and outside of work. These people deserve compassion too...they are struggling, and they are just dealing with their struggle in a way that is harmful to others and not constructive. Avoiding contact with the bully will do nothing to solve these problems. Often, what is more constructive is to find some way to build a positive relationship with the bully.

Most people actually want to have good relationships with others, they just don't know how. Bullies don't really enjoy putting others down, deep down they're just afraid. They're not bad people. They're just in a bad place. And seeing this is ultimately very empowering.

June 17, 2011 - 11:23am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to cazort)

@cazort; Some of what you say is true bullies are afraid and live in a dark place as well as had some some pretty horrible childhood experiences. So did I! But while its easy to find compassion and empathy for these individuals ( I am not a bully) most often the situation at work is being played with 2 different sets of rules. On one side is compassion and empathy and on the other side is narcism and sociopathy. The latter does not have any rules other than to fill there needs at the expense of all others and the organization that has unknowingly put them in a position of power.
End result because you are playing life with rules You will Lose! .... and they continue to wreck havoc on the unsuspecting masses.

June 24, 2011 - 6:06am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.