“Look into your own heart, discover what it is that gives you pain and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.” (Karen Armstrong)
Even the best of us can have a bad day and act or speak unkindly. I’ll bet even Mother Teresa had her snarky moments. But consistent, repeated, and unrepentant unkindness is more than a slip or a slide. It’s often the sign of a bully.
In general, people who chronically act unkindly do so out of a terribly misplaced sense of entitlement, or uncontrolled anger, or—as often as not—out of fear. They may feel threatened, or they may be afraid of rejection or embarrassment, or of appearing weak or stupid.
Many, many years ago I worked with an angry man who boasted quite openly that his philosophy of life was what he called “I.O.” It stood for “instant offense.” In any interaction, this gentleman wanted to have the upper-hand, so he immediately sought ways to put the person he was interacting with on the defensive.
He was a large man, a former ball player, and he knew his size could intimidate. But if that wasn’t enough, he’d ask questions to put someone on the spot, or he’d dismiss their words with a derisive comment and a roll of his eyes. He knew how to look a person up and down and convey to them that he found them lacking. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was simply a bully. All these years later, I find myself wondering what he was afraid of. Did he fear that someone would see through his façade and recognize the insecure man inside? Had he not lived up to expectations—his own or someone else’s—and decided to cover up his disappointment by attacking others before they could recognize what he knew? Perhaps he had been hurt deeply and decided he could avoid a repeat of that experience by inflicting hurt first. Maybe he had been taught that this is how “real men” behave.
I avoided him whenever possible and fortunately didn’t have many occasions to interact with him in the company we worked for. It would be interesting to encounter him today and see if the passage of time—more than three decades—has mellowed him. I’d like to understand what was behind his unkindness; I’d like to see the likable qualities in him. Maybe, after all, he’s just a pussy-cat at heart. And maybe there are no calories in Ben & Jerry’s peach ice cream.
According to the website www.bullyingstatistics.org, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children.” The site further describes the typical adult bullies:
- Narcissistic Adult Bully: This type of adult bully is self-centered and does not share empathy with others. Additionally, they feel little anxiety about consequences. They seem to feel good about themselves, but in reality have a brittle narcissism that requires putting others down. [It’s probably unkind of me to say this, but doesn’t this describe Donald Trump to a tee?]
- Impulsive Adult Bully: Adult bullies in this category are more spontaneous and plan their bullying out less. Even if consequences are likely, this adult bully has a hard time restraining his or her behavior. In some cases, this type of bullying may be unintentional, resulting from periods of stress.
- Physical Bully: While adult bullying rarely turns to physical confrontation, there are, nonetheless, bullies who use physicality. In some cases, the adult bully may not actually physically harm the victim, but may use a looming threat of harm, or physical domination. Additionally, a physical bully may damage or steal a victim’s property, rather than physically confronting the victim.
- Verbal Adult Bully: Words can be quite damaging. Adult bullies who use this type of tactic may start rumors about the victim, or use sarcastic or demeaning language to dominate or humiliate another person. [Trump again?]
- Secondary Adult Bully: This is someone who does not initiate the bullying, but joins in so that he or she does not actually become a victim down the road. Secondary bullies may feel bad about what they are doing, but are more concerned about protecting themselves.
The website contends that there is little one can do about an adult bully, “because adult bullies are often in a set pattern. They are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise. Rather, adult bullies are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down.”
I’m not willing to concede that easily. I think there must be ways to stand up to bullies and let them know their behavior is not acceptable, and to do it without resorting to their own tactics of threatening or berating—which only shows them the power of bullying. Trying to shame a bully by embarrassing or berating them will probably have the effect of increasing their bullying tendencies. Like my office colleague from so many years ago, they will go into “instant offense” mode and strike wherever they see a likely target.
I don’t think kindness would have been an effective deterrent to that colleague’s bullying. He would probably have equated kindness with weakness and flexed his muscles all the more.
What might have been effective would have been for witnesses to let him know his behavior was unacceptable. Instead of remaining silent, colleagues and peers should have stepped in and calmly said, “Not cool, buddy.” Most bullies will back down—or at least back-off—if they see witnesses rallying to support the bully’s victim.
Perhaps the smartest thing to do when one is thrown into a situation with a bully is to get out. Don’t engage, don’t react in kind. Simply exit and avoid future interactions. But, of course, that’s not always possible. Sometimes the bullies in our lives are people we cannot avoid.
I keep thinking about the old adage that “the best revenge is a good life,” and that’s probably a good way to look at bullying in the long-term. But when one is actively being bullied or harassed, it does little good to think, “Hey, sport, in ten years I’ll have a great life and you’ll still be a colossal jerk.”
If we are not the bully’s target, but find ourselves in the position of witness or bystander, we need to step in and let the perpetrator know—in no uncertain terms—that such behavior is unacceptable. There is a place for kindness here, because if we can step in without expressing our anger or contempt, we can defuse the situation. Psychopaths and maniacs are to be seriously avoided, but your garden-variety bully might be tempered with judicious kindness.
Kindness requires action and it sometimes requires courage. When we witness bullying, we can’t ignore it and just be a bystander. Bullying is fostered by silence. We need to step in, speak up, and stand for what we know to be right.
Easier said than done, but kindness isn’t always easy … it is, though, always right.
It’s one thing to be an adult dealing with bullies—we have more options, more experience, more perspective, and more power—but children facing bullying can be devastated by it, and face lifelong consequences as a result. Let’s explore that next time. Please share your thoughts on bullying, at any age….
“Tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but manifestations of strength and resolution.” (Khalil Gibran)