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What is adult bullying and how can we address it?

We typically associate ‘bullying’ with childhood. But, unfortunately, this insidious behaviour can be found in adult life as well. It’s time to call it out, and explore ways to challenge it

What is adult bullying and how can we address it?

There are very few people in the world who haven’t experienced bullying at some point in their lives.

Adult bullying is often subtle, may be difficult to detect, carried out under the radar, and can make you question yourself. This can be discrimination, micro aggressions at work or in a relationship, racism, homophobia, or anything that makes an individual feel unsafe or excluded.

How bullying impacts a person

Targets of bullies often report a significant impact to their mental, emotional, and physical health, and ability to engage socially.

On an emotional level, the impact could include:

  • Low mood
  • Tearfulness
  • Anxiety attacks
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Reduction in self-esteem and confidence
  • Long-term impacts include agoraphobia, and more

The physical symptoms of bullying include:

  • Becoming hyper vigilant to threats of danger
  • Palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Stress
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Appetite increase or suppression
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

As a psychotherapist and coach, I’ve frequently seen clients present with trauma and PTSD as a result of prolonged exposure to stress and fear.

Trauma can be caused by any significant or negative repeated event throughout a person’s life, and is often as a result of feeling helplessness and powerlessness in a situation. This could be direct trauma (such as experiencing a life-threatening situation, witnessing death, being attacked or abused), or indirect trauma (witnessing someone else being threatened with harm, or injured, or killed, either in-person or on the news, or in a film). Such situations activate the body’s autonomic nervous system, which prepares us for fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. This is absolutely natural; we are programmed to respond like this. We are incredibly resilient human beings, and a trauma response is proof that our minds and bodies are working as they were made to.

These natural responses become problematic when the biofeedback system is activated by other threats, or by rumination over what happened. The brain doesn’t know fact from a remembered memory, and so behaves as if the incident is happening again.

Where does adult bullying occur?

Everywhere there are people, is the short answer. At work, we experience gossiping, rumour mills, micro aggressions with racism, sexual harassment, being overlooked for promotion, or intentionally excluded – the list is endless.

At home, there could be an overbearing spouse with demands, criticisms, or verbal or physical violence – please note, help is available if you are in this situation. Then there are family members who lie and cause fights, then sit back with the popcorn.

You might find yourself in public being heckled by strangers, or getting body shamed on social media – we all know about those ubiquitous, insidious, and impotent trolls. Sadly, bullying can and does happen everywhere.

So, how can we deal with bullies?

Here’s the thing: bullies are usually frightened, fearful, manipulative, malicious, and inadequate human beings. I’ve heard too many times, ‘They just had a bad start, it’s not their fault.’ Actually, no, a lot of people have had experiences that have impacted their lives, but still don’t make life a misery for others. It is that basic.

As adults, we all have the capacity to choose how we behave towards others. If an individual can behave well in front of bosses or others they respect, then they can control their behaviour at other times. When someone chooses to disable their capacity for empathy, they become beings of little substance with little or no integrity, or self-respect. Their attacking and belittling nature is often an adapted behaviour to powerlessness at some point in their lives. However, this is not an excuse for unleashing their toxicity onto others.

If you have a bully in your life, don’t suffer in silence. Tell someone you trust. Speak to a colleague or manager at work, but if they are the problem, speak with HR. If necessary, use the full extent of workplace grievance procedures, and try to document everything when it happens.

At home, raise it with the person, if it is safe to do so. Share it with trusted family members, and ask them to support you when you are being bullied, or if they see it happening.

In public, don’t put yourself at risk; if someone is threatening you in any way, dial 999.

One positive avenue to explore is journaling. Writing about your feelings can be a huge help to get the situation and your feelings out of your head, so you can make space to think of a solution. Alternatively, you could try writing ‘unsent letters’ to the bully – give them a piece of your mind and express yourself, for your eyes only. This is a powerful way to speak your mind safely. It is also a great way to reflect on the situation, and practise what you would have liked to say – then shred it.

Above all, you have a right to be safe, and to enjoy your life. If you are being bullied, tell your tribe and advocate for yourself wherever possible and safe to do so.



If you need support, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.