Adult Bullies and their Enablers

Adult Bullies and their EnablersEvery Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s talks about adult bullying–have you ever experienced that?
Anti-bullying campaigns are all the rage in our schools today. What we often fail to remember, though, is that bullying behavior doesn’t stop the moment one dons a graduation cap.

Have you ever encountered an adult bully? I’ve been in social situations when someone has said something so outrageous and mean-spirited that I was temporarily rendered mute, a state which drove me absolutely bonkers as I was lying in bed later that night thinking of all the things I should have said. They eluded me at the time because the situation seemed so bizarre.

I think that’s why adult bullies can be so effective: the behavior is just so out of the ordinary. Sure, we may talk behind people’s backs (which is terrible, too), but in general we try to be polite to people’s faces. When someone violates that cardinal rule, we’re often so shocked that we say nothing. Perhaps it’s the residual British culture in us, but we’re not programmed to make scenes; we’re programmed to avoid scenes.

Bowling over people, then, becomes an awfully effective way at getting what they want. And they may genuinely not realize they’re pretentious jerks, although I think more likely they don’t care. They have such an inflated sense of their own self-worth that they keep at it.

We’ve been busy teaching children how to deal with bullies, but perhaps we need a refresher course for adults. You’re being bullied if someone constantly demeans you or says snide remarks about you. You’re being bullied if someone is constantly yelling at you or criticizing you. You’re being bullied if someone deliberately isolates you in social or work situations. And you’re being bullied if someone is constantly making helpful “suggestions” and laying guilt trips if you don’t take them.

I often find that adult bullies tend to be older, especially in families. They think they have the right to tell other people how to live their lives and demand things a certain way. And we tolerate it, because “that’s just Grandpa Joe.” Or we do our best to compensate, running interference if anyone opens their mouths and says something that may set him off. We spend our energy trying to placate or distract Grandpa Joe so nothing bad happens. What kind of family life is that?

Sometimes bullying, especially in families, is more covert. If you call them on it, they reply with incredulity, “I was just asking questions! I can’t believe you took it that way,” putting the blame back on you. And then you start to wonder if you’re the crazy one. Yet even if you turn yourself inside out to try to please the bully, you never will, because bullies thrive on the feeling of instilling fear. Meet one demand and they’ll come up with another.

Maybe it’s time our British, don’t rock the boat culture learned something from the Italians, who say everything. So let’s practice: “You are being inappropriate.” “I won’t sit here and listen if you talk to me like that.” “You are a guest in this home, Mom, so you should treat us with respect.” Or, better still, stand up for someone else. “Dad, you owe Jennifer an apology. You were completely out of line.” And if they start yelling or criticizing you, just repeat it. Then stand up and leave the room. There is no law requiring you to sit in a chair and be insulted.

If more of us just spoke up, bullies would lose their shock and awe power. And it’s time the rest of us had some shock and awe on our side instead.

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Comments

  1. I agree. We’re dealing with a culture of kids who are bullies because the adults are bullies too. I’ve seen this firsthand, working in a school. I bring this experience up a lot but it really taught me so much. I sat at the front desk and the treatment I received at the hands of some of the parents was absolutely deplorable. It was no wonder we had such a problem with the kids bullying.
    Melissa recently posted…Aging GracefullyMy Profile

  2. Bullies exist because of low self-esteem. You mention the bullies are often older, having “earned” the right to tell it like they think it is — because no one has ever called them on it before, or stuck to it. Ignoring a bully doesn’t work, unless you can ignore it long-term. They’re persistent. That’s part of their charm.

    I led a Girl Scout troop for several years and we role played and discussed until I was blue about how to handle a bully. The most important thing is to JUST SAY SOMETHING. It doesn’t matter if the bully is a kid or an adult, he or she does not expect to receive a reply. The bully has grown used to dropping bombs or throwing grenades that he just stands and smugly smiles, knowing the explosion will happen.

    It’s so satisfying to watch someone — especially a child who has learned how to handle the situation — actually step up and say something. It’s so worth it, and others learn from it.

    Lastly, the “something” you can say in response can be one word. “Whatever.” Said in the right tone and with the right toss of the head, it speaks volumes. Bullies don’t want to feel ineffective. I tend toward sarcastic replies, but a “don’t waste my time” attitude with only a few words strung on does wonders.

    Bullies do raise bullies. I’ve told my kids, since they started public school at age 6, kids are mean because they are sad inside. They struggle at home, they struggle at school. But they come off as if loaded with self-esteem. It’s all a front. There’s pain inside — getting to it early helps, but Grampa Joe might just be an old dog and seriously has shut down on learning new tricks.

    Can you tell this is one of the soap boxes I hold dear?
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  3. I hate to say this, but I’ve seen church staff bullied by members. I wondered if some church members felt that they could speak up so forcefully and rudely because the minister couldn’t very well respond in kind and keep their reputation and position. I’m bringing this up because as Christians, we especially need to watch how we speak to one another and to even speak up on behalf of a minister who is being bullied. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen often, but it’s not okay that it ever happens.

    Thanks for the great article, Sheila.
    J (Hot, Holy & Humorous) recently posted…All for One, and One for All: Advocating Godly SexualityMy Profile

    • Hi, J — your mention of Christian bullying of church staff got me thinking of other instances of Christian bullying.

      Christians sometimes take a crusader’s approach to their convictions, inflicting them on others and, in the end, bullying. They use the Bible as back-up in their bullying efforts, in effect, disgracing themselves and causing people to ignore the Word because a believer has just shown what the Bible is really all about — forcing people to believe and behave a certain way.

      I have also seen pastors on the aggressor’s end, and even using the Bible as a chastising tool on an entire congregation. We left our former church for that kind of behavior, which was sanctioned by the hierarchy of a mainstream church.

      When we see bullying in these circumstances, it seems right to speak the truth in love … even though I’d like to choke someone!
      Amy recently posted…Are You in Control? Weekend Challenge!My Profile

  4. Jane Harris - Zsovan says:

    The post is good, but bullies often found at work, in churches,and especially political organisations. I also don’t think it is okay to label any ethnicity. The British are no more likely to accept bullying than Italians. In fact, I think there is a fair amount of South European bullying, at least as much as in Northern Europe or in Canada. It’s not polite to bully. But your point that we accept too much adult bullying is right on.

  5. I was about to agree with Jane above (and still do — I don’t really like these stereotypes, and think taken seriously they give groups of people the kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that Sheila was just talking about) but got to laughing thinking about my Italian-American husband and his family who do indeed say whatever is on their minds. While I think that this in itself can sometimes be hurtful, and that bluntness sometimes needs to be tempered with thoughtfulness, I heartily am thankful for the way that knowing him and them has helped me to be more straightforward about what I think and feel, and to stand up for myself. So really, this comment isn’t about ethnic stereotypes at all, but thankfulness about what I have learned from my new family’s way of doing things.

  6. Anonymous says:

    There are bully’s no doubt, always has been and always will be…but we also live in a nation of wimps and political correctness. Just because someone says or treats you in a way you do not like does not make them a bully…that’s call life, or reality, or them responding to a nation of people who lives selfishly. Half the things we call bullying aren’t.

  7. Half the things we call bullying are simply lack of common decency, self-control and social etiquette, all of which are victims of “modern society.” Comment sections are often loaded with what sounds like short-tempered, reactionary and pious Christians offering judgement of someone else’s opinion (offered gently!) in the name of endeavoring to increase the Kingdom of God. These people paint a Kingdom that seems really preachy and inhospitable many times!

    Very soft-hearted people might define bullying differently than someone with a tough-as-nails personality. Some very abrasive people actually have hearts of gold, they simply do not express themselves in a way that reflects their true heart.

    I come off as argumentative and self-righteous at times, when really, I have a passionate feeling for a topic or ideal that I can’t express without some fervor and want desperately for others to understand.

    So yes, it’s potato/potahto on the bullying idea, many times. A gruff person isn’t necessarily a bully, nor is someone who appears physically menacing and rarely speaks. Conversely, a soft-spoken, seemingly genteel lady can rip the soul right out of someone with a forked tongue.

    Go figure.

    One last thing on the “stereotyping” — many nationalities are known for certain tendencies, and that’s not stereotyping, in my book. Having friends and relatives of varying ethnic backgrounds and also having a husband who works in an international company and the “stereotypes” usually fit. I agree — Italians say everything they think, often with a bit of conceit and a strong serving of self-indulgence (in our experience with folks from various regions of Italy). HOWEVER, familial self-esteem plays a large part in forthrightness, too. My husband’s family (Eastern European with a tad of Irish) have great need of attention and have low self-esteem … my in-laws were not wanted at birth, either of them. They lived feeling needy for affection and attention and learned to command desired behavior in their offspring, as well as call out “base” behavior as they saw it. To me, as a WASP in the 4th generation, their ways are rude, self-seeking and needy.

    How do we judge? Sheila is right to take pieces of what we see, societally, and mesh them to strain out the bad and let the good flow through.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment!
    Amy recently posted…Are You in Control? Weekend Challenge!My Profile

    • But don’t get me wrong — bullying abounds, it’s getting worse, and we need to stand up against it, rather than sit down and take it.

      Leaving now … really. Leaving!
      Amy recently posted…Are You in Control? Weekend Challenge!My Profile

      • Anonymous says:

        All I know is women seem to be much more concerned (in my opinion much too concerned or downright blow things out of proportion in my mind). I really think this is part of the feminization of our society…sorry if it’s not a popular view. I wonder what some of you would think of some of the prophets, disciples, even Jesus…would they be considered bullies…we often sanitize or warm and fuzzy up our Bibles but go read it again and put today’s bully “eyeglasses” on. Guarantuee a great many of them would have been considered bullies.

        Don’t get me wrong, there are bullies (I think the word is just over used) or downright mean people. I am punched a guy out at the gas station last week because of the way he was screaming at his wife.
        I think we just need to not blow things out of proportion.

        • Anonymous says:

          It should have read I just about punched a guy out last week because of the way he was screaming at his wife last week at a gas station.

  8. Amen. I’ve been in two situations. The first time, the woman was the type of person who, if she wasn’t happy, NOBODY would be happy. Broken family, etc., etc., so she took her miseries out on her inferiors. I was young, stupid, naive, and let it get to me. What should have been an enjoyable workplace became the pit of despair. I was out of there a little less than a year latter, a lot worse for wear. Took a lot of time to build my self esteem back up.
    The second time? I knew what I was facing, and had grown. I smiled and nodded at her tantrums, continued to go about my business, and left shortly after she was hired. She’s still there, making everyone miserable. I guess her skill set is worth the PR hassle.
    But it most certain can, and does, happen. About time someone said something about it!

  9. My mother is the bully of all bullies!! She was always nice enough if you went along with her I guess, until we had her hospitalized for mental illness because she went crazy. I’m about to get a restraining order on her. She dictates how I can talk to her, what I can think about her, etc. I’m not “allowed” to voice my opinions to her about what I think. She gives me lists of things I have to do to make her happy. She calls me all the nasty, awful things she can come up with, and I’m just supposed to take it. Then she tells me to “respect your mother”. I’m 28 years old! She’s in jail right now, obviously she got herself there, and she writes me all these nasty letters telling me how awful I am for letting her rot in there and not posting her bail. Haha!! Keep dreaming!! She is this way with ANYONE she ever gets close to, she thinks she is always right, and she thinks people need to listen to her. She told her last BF that he needs to do what she tells him and listen to her because she’s the woman in the relationship. Thankfully he got away from her fast! I only wish they would keep her in jail longer, or take her back to the hospital…..

    • Mrs. Mac says:

      Leah, I’m so sorry your mother has not treated you fairly or lovingly. Children need stable parents that are willing to put their child’s needs before their own. Please forgive your mother for her selfishness before it ruins your adult life. As an adult, you get to choose how to respond when treated unfairly, and you get to choose whose voice is ” inside your head”. The voice of manipulation and revenge doesn’t have to live there anymore. Seek peace and pursue it.

  10. I used to work at a residential/teaching facility for adults with MR/DD. To call the administration bullies would be to da** with faint praise; to call them abusive would not be outside the realm of reality. We were supposed to promote the rights of the residents at all times and against all foes (except for those in the administration). We were not supposed to negatively re-inforce the residents’ habits, actions etc, but the admins could bribe residents with chocolate ice cream and sodas in order not to be assaulted or scared by a resident. Three years later and just thinking about it turns me into a blithering idiot. I bucked that system as long as I could – until the combination of a mini-stroke and a swift kick to my knee let me know it was time to stop and return to taking care of myself and my family.
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  11. My inlaws who are devout Christians bullied me relentlessly for two years prior to my wedding. The problem is that I didn’t have a “voice” to tell them to stop. I am a kind soul who just wanted to keep the peace. Finally, after about a year of marriage, I was able to tell them that I would not put up with it anymore. We now no longer have a relationship and I am blamed for that. The blessing is that I am no longer bullied by my inlaws. I wish them well but no longer have to deal with insult after insult.

    • How has this affected your marriage? I have in-laws who have bullied me for going on three years now and I, too, am just a kind soul who likes to keep the peace. Any time I’ve even tried to create space between us my husband seems so hurt and disappointed and I end up feeling bad. He doesn’t seem to see exactly how they act and how it affects me negatively because he grew up with them. I don’t know what to do.

  12. A,,,,,,MEN!!! I have close family members who are “bullying” me right now to do things there way or they won’t talk to me. They have set the rules but I told them they have one big problem – I will not play their game! They still aren’t talking to me, but I feel that is their loss – not mine. And, I don’t have a problem with them – they have it with me so they will have to figure out the solution. Thank you for writing this!!! I have seen this happen SO many times (and am afraid I have even acted like this myself with my husband!) but I don’t want to be a part of it. Wonderful stuff! Keep writing!
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  13. Someone sent this in anonymously:

    We are dealing with this situation w/i our church. The woman “in charge” of our women’s ministries is a bully. And she has BIZARRE and ridiculous rules for our women’s retreats. She’s super disrespectful. And she is old enough to be my mom. NO ONE calls her on it. When I tried to question something, everyone got really uncomfortable and quietly, said, “That is just the way it is” – they are terrified of her. WHAT?! I’ve never experienced this in women’s ministry. I’ve been in charge of it. I would NEVER treat women like she treats us and our pastor is oblivious to it. When he’s been approached he hasn’t been inclined to listen. Is she financing the church or something? Well, I have called her out on the things she has done to me at our retreats. And we will be meeting next week for a face-to-face and if that doesn’t help, I will go to the pastor. And if that doesn’t help, I’m going to call others into talk to the pastor. This is not okay. Women shouldn’t be afraid to speak up, to go against someone telling us what we are “allowed” and “Not allowed” to do. We’re grown for heaven’s sake. Maybe God put me in this church to finally stand up to her? I don’t know but I’ve prayed for 3 years about it, and I didn’t want to make waves but I feel like I can now. I’ve always been the stand up girl, even as quiet as I am, I won’t allow someone else to bully. Because no one spoke up for me as an abused child, I can’t sit by and watch it happen. Thanks for discussing this subject. It’s one I can’t find a lot on.

  14. I have been bullied all my life. I was bullied at school & the teachers could only suggest I move classes (which I thought would only single me out more). My mum told me the best way to deal with it is to not let the bullies see they upset me. Sadly, this left me woefully inadequately prepared to deal with the adult bullies I encountered including my line managers at two separate jobs and worst of all my husband. After 17 years of hell with him, I finally broke free & realised once it was all over that I had perpetuated his behaviour by never calling him on it (the few times I did in the early days, he yelled & I got too frightened to do it again) & by always going down the least said, soonest mended route. Now I am in a wonderful marriage, with a husband who is just amazing – yet I (we) are now being bullied by my 12 year old.who

  15. Oops, pressed the wrong button!

    …12 year old daughter, who of course learned from her father how to treat me.

    My ex is a Christian & it was quite hard when we split because everyone in church thought we had the perfect marriage because they only saw his public persona.

    I wish my mother had equipped me better to deal with bullies, perhaps then I would have learned to stand up for myself.

    Thanks for reading, sorry to ramble on! :-)

  16. Great post …. although I was hoping for more in the way of practical tips! :) And don’t worry about everyone saying you shouldn’t stereotype, we know you are speaking in generalities and the fact is different cultures do react to things differently. All you have to do is travel a little to know that!
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  17. I was bullied throughout my life. As long as I desperately needed approval, I was an easy target. Being bullied and beaten up in school wasn’t a lot of fun. I had nobody to talk to about it either. When I told my mother, she’d spin it so it seemed like it was my fault or not a big deal. Mind you, she enjoyed bullying me too. That is, verbal abuse just for the fun of it.
    Thanks to therapy and a lot of hard work, I’m not bullied anymore. I just ask myself, do I care about this clown’s opinion? If so, why? Are they being serious or just a jerk? I sometimes even take them to task. One of our children was enrolled in a soccer skills group and some loud mouth started complaining about it and bad-mouthing it. I told him off saying it was worthwhile to my daughter. He told me to keep my opinions to myself. Well, buddy, you just shoved your opinions down all our throats! He had no reply and looked real angry. I was ready to to re-arrange his face and told him we’d better get away from each other which we did.
    Lastly, not all bullies suffer from low self-esteem. Recent studies, (I can’t quote them) show they do it because it pays off. It gets them attention from the opposite sex and social status. It works. A way to tackle it would be to make it cost them something because comes with no cost otherwise.

  18. The biggest difficulty with bullying has come from my parents, both my grandmothers, and my in-laws. I didn’t look at it as bullying when I was growing up, but as an adult, married, with a child, I realized it for what it really was. When my daughter was just born, my mom and dad came to visit my daughter. She was almost three weeks early and struggled to nurse and take a bottle. The nurses instructed me to take her down to the nursery if she wouldn’t eat after four hours. My mom so badly wanted to sit and bottle feed her, she kept putting me off till my daughter hadn’t eaten for almost five hours and was crying like crazy. The nurse on duty gave me the best advice I could ever receive as a new mother. She said,

    “You are your daughter’s voice. You have to stand up for what you know is right for her, no matter what and no matter who else tells you it’s wrong. It is your job to keep her safe and healthy and when you know what’s best for her, you need to make it happen.”

    While in the grand scheme of things, she was probably overstepping her bounds as a nurse, I am so glad she did! My husband and I have had to step in and do what is best for our daughter in so many things; my mother’s alcoholism, my in-laws’ extreme yelling in front of my daughter, my brother-in-law’s pornography trying to come in our house when he was living with us, my grandmother’s lack of care for what my daughter eats, my grandmother’s racism toward my uncle and cousins…the biggest thing we’ve had to take a stand for is our faith in God.

    If that nurse hadn’t shared her wisdom, we might be neck deep in areas we don’t want our daughter to be exposed to at this point in life.

    Standing up to bullying is crucial, especially if it affects your spouse and children; the small family unit you are building together is so very important!

  19. Anonymous says:

    My struggle with this one is when it’s Biblically sound to just walk away from a parent. As far as it depends on us, we’re supposed to be at peace with everyone, but true peace doesn’t mean be a doormat either. My mother is overbearing and critical, and she always has been. I just don’t call her anymore because it hurts too much. She doesn’t call me either so it’s not like I am ignoring her. Most of the time I’m okay with this, but sometimes I’m not sure if I should still be trying for reconciliation, or if those thoughts are just sadness. She is the only other Christian in either my family or my husband’s and this is what is being modeled for my kids? She’s also my only living parent. My father and stepmother have both passed away.

  20. I have been bullied by churchgoers in my family and although I complained about it directly as well as to the church involved, not a lot was done and it was an uphill battle. I am a nurse who has had many patients complain about churchgoers and who want nothing to do with a church. The church culture can be a haven for manipulators. If schools and workplaces have antibullying policies, why can’t the churches? Abuse of all kinds, including sexual abuse, should be addressed right from the pulpit on a regular basis. Abusers need to know that you are not afraid to talk about abuse both personally and as a group. Parish nurses can be a resource, with specific training in abuse awareness and programs. Direct links with community agencies can be forged, and referrals can be available. Bullying awareness should also be a part of marriage preparation courses. I insist now that any church we attend as a family will have an anti-bullying program well in place. There are only a few out there, but ask for more!

  21. I talk about this so much. I grew up being taught to be respectful. Well when someone is being cruel or bullying, they are NOT being respectful and that needs to be dealt with. I won’t put up with it if it goes on for very long. We had a family member who would do this – a stepgrandmother – and it would infuriate people and yet, so many times they’d say nothing. When she told my daughter she was going to “beat her ass” because she was in another room playing with my husband – I confronted her and we left. The stories I have about this one, people have a hard time believing because they are so insane. I’m with you. We do not have to put up with adult bullies. I won’t subject my children to verbal abuse or cruelty to keep the peace. Sorry, that’s what was done when I was molested by a family member. Just sweep it under the rug and the message that sent me as a little girl was that I wasn’t worth protecting or standing up for because keeping the peace in the family was more important :( That’ll never happen with my kids.
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  22. Pamila Perkins says:

    Am I crazy? This type of behavior is ABUSE… when did we start calling it ‘bullying’?

  23. Im 31 and was employed by a bully boss who also happened to be my aunt. She has spread rumors that has made it impossible for me to find a job. She uses other family members to degrade me. I believe this came about because of some long standing fued involving my mom or my uncles middle child syndrome. Truth is i dont know.

  24. What you are describing is verbal abuse which should be confronted and never tolerated or accepted. Unfortunately, if you are being verbally abused, you start to blame yourself, feel less than and even crazy. You begin to do all you can to keep the peace and even become a people pleaser out of fear of conflict. This is a very difficult cycle to break…I can say this as a former verbal abuser who also was verbally abused and I actually accepted this as normal, enabling and tolerating it. In the mean, time it affected me, my marriage and my children. Thankfully, God has used therapy from a wise Christian counselor, Jennifer Degler, emotional work and books(The verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans, Boundaries, and No More Christian Nice Girl by Jennifer Degler) to help with healing and recovery.

  25. Cheryl T says:

    Tried asking my mom to treat us and our boys with respect…on more than one occasion. She would get offended and just leave — even though she was visiting us in another province!

  26. Yup, I have at least one major one in my life. My MIL…who just happens to be Italian and do they ever say what is on their minds. After 20+ years of it (and all you wrote is true) I’m done. Maybe it was answer to prayer or maybe I’m just so past it but now I just don’t care. She will never change and if she gets rude in my house I will kick her out. If she does it in her own home I will pack up the kids and leave. I don’t need her in my life and even my kids are seeing for themselves her poisoned tongue.

  27. Mrs. Mac says:

    My dad can be a bully – in a lot of different ways. Drawing the line or speaking up is difficult because he will happily ostracize whomever is in his way. I agree that some bullies are insecure, but many bullies have in inflated sense of their power and use it to get what they want. In our family, we have seen a decrease in Dad’s inappropriate comments and stories after he was told I would not tolerate racism or off-colour jokes in my house. He tested the boundary, of course. I quietly packed his suitcase and set it by the door where he could see it. He chose to restrain himself around us because the cost was too great. Wise choice. :)

    • That is awesome! I love that you stood for your own boundaries in your own house. That’s great, and a great witness to your kids, too.

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