Adult bullying is a social and mental health issue. Regardless of the reasons why a person is targeted by a bully, research shows that its impact can be disastrous to a person’s health and well-being.
According to a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association in 2017, 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. Of those adults who are targets of bullying, 71% report that they suffer from stress, 70% struggle with anxiety and depression, 39% experience loss of sleep, 26% experience headaches and 55% deal with a loss of confidence.
Characteristics of bullying behavior
Sometimes the more exemplary a person’s character, the more likely they are to be bullied at home or in the workplace. Melissa Spino, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Michigan, says although anyone can be demeaned by a bully, a person who is highly skilled in the workplace or socially authentic and admired by others can often (unknowingly) arouse feelings of inadequacy and jealousy in a bully that can fuel their harmful behavior.
“Someone that is respected and popular often infuriates a bully into action because it brings to the forefront that the adult bully is lacking in these areas and it’s a hit to their self-worth,” says Spino, who has counseled people who bully or those affected by bullying for more than a decade. “To feel better about themselves, the adult bully may target the person, [which results in] a short-term ego boost, helping them feel superior. It’s a short-term fix that has to be repeated often and becomes a vicious pattern.”
Jessi Eden Brown, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Lake Forest Park, Washington, says having a positive personality, a strong ethical code and a committed work ethic can often make “good employees” susceptible to bullying by their supervisor or manager, who may view their noteworthy character as a vulnerability or weakness.
If an employee is “nice and goes along with the rules,” then the bully may view them as “someone they can mess with,” Brown notes. In addition, people who are more susceptible to bullying behavior tend to be nonconfrontational and value professionalism and diligence over office politics and “game playing,” she adds.
“Aggressors detect these traits and seize the opportunity to break the target’s spirit, knowing the target will take the criticism to heart and will be unlikely to confront the bully’s behavior, especially when the bully outranks them,” Brown explains.
In addition, someone who is engaging in bullying behavior in the workplace may attempt to belittle or put down a subordinate or co-worker to make themselves look better to the company’s leadership or their other colleagues, says Brown, who is also an LPC in Colorado. These bullies “need to be the most respected, honored person in the room,” she notes. “They tend to be driven by status, opportunity and power; in myopic pursuit of these goals, bullies consistently rank their needs and desires above others’ merit and rights.”
Brown says with an identity so tied to self-importance, “many workplace bullies feel injured by criticism or defeat, which gives rise to the defiance, anger and sabotage we see them unleash onto their targets.”
Tony Grace, an LPC with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, says a person’s vulnerabilities can also attract the ire of a bully. Bullies often look for people who “tend not to fight back, exercise their ability to say no and are under-resourced in some way,” Grace says. For example, people who don’t have many social connections, have trouble setting personal boundaries or recognizing personal boundary violations, have low self-esteem or self-worth, are too trusting or are emotionally wounded may be more susceptible to being the target of bullying behavior, he notes.
“Bullies are looking to take the least amount of risk for the maximum amount of benefit. The benefit, of course, is a sense of power and control,” Grace notes.
Natalia Tague, a licensed professional counselor and director of clinical operations at the Western Tidewater Community Services in Suffolk, Virginia, stresses that while it is important for counselors to keep in mind that bullies are hurt people who have not learned healthy ways to handle their pain, a bully’s behavior is their sole responsibility — and never the responsibility of the person they are targeting.
The personal strain of workplace bullying
In addition to the health impacts of bullying, an adult may also experience struggles in their personal life as a result of the harmful behavior of bullying in the workplace. Brown, who works as the professional coach for the Workplace Bullying Institute, says some of her clients report that being bullied at work added significant strain to their lives.
“Coping with bullying at work consumes valuable resources in terms of energy, compassion, motivation and time. Many targets invest additional time and effort into their work, with the hope that an improvement in performance or output will solve the problem” Brown explains. “This approach rarely works — remember bullies target high performers — and it saps reserves the target would normally have allocated to other life pursuits.”
As a result, a target’s family, friends and community ties may also experience strain and stress that originates from the workplace bully’s conduct, Brown adds. “Numerous clients have reported the ripple effects of being targeted by a workplace bully eventually damaged their personal relationships to the point of divorce, dissolved friendship and other painful estrangements,” she notes.
Workplace bullying can also affect a person’s finances and career. The person being bullied may be forced to quit their job as a result of a bully’s actions, or they may choose to leave a harmful work environment that is affecting their mental health and well-being.
Grace and Brown both say they decided to become entrepreneurs after being bullied in the workplace.
“I took a job that I thought was my dream job [eight years ago] and it quickly became a living nightmare because I was being bullied by a colleague and eventually by my boss,” Grace recalls. “I had to repeatedly set boundaries with both staff members, but eventually I left the job and went into private practice. It was one of the best decisions I have made as it provided me a sense of professional freedom I had not experienced before.”
Brown says she was bullied out of two jobs over the course of her career and went into private practice in 2009. “Like most targets, I was a dedicated, skilled, high-performing employee. I poured my heart into these jobs,” she notes. However, Brown says she was “driven out” for “adhering to strong ethical principles and pushback on business practices that consistently placed profit over the well-being of clients.”
Helping clients recover from bullying
The counselors interviewed for this article recommend a variety of therapeutic approaches to help clients who have been bullied heal, including person-centered and trauma-informed therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), dialectic behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
It can take a while for people who have been bullied to build rapport and trust, especially those who have been bullied for a long time, Grace says. “Building trust will require the counselor to not only be patient but also transparent,” he explains. “Creating a secure attachment may require the counselor to model vulnerability and self-disclose their own humanity.”
For example, Grace says a counselor could disclose their own experiences with bullying, how they learned to set boundaries, how they became their own advocate or how they now give themselves permission to have their own wants or needs.
Many of Brown’s clients report having been bullied throughout their lives — at school, at home and within their larger community. People who have been continuously bullied often present with complex trauma, which is compounded if they also experience workplace bullying as an adult, she says.
Brown uses psychoeducation to help clients who have been bullied realize they are not to blame for the bully’s maltreatment. She also uses CBT techniques to help clients set goals for their recovery, which can include journaling to explore ideas for bolstering self-care, reframing their thoughts to find a sense of optimism in their lives and forming a robust support network.
“I teach targets how to compartmentalize their stress so that their time away from work can be less affected by the bullying and more intentionally directed toward self-care, spending quality time with family and friends, and engaging in other meaningful, restorative activities,” Brown says.
She also helps clients identify successful coping strategies that have worked in the past, acquire new coping tools and establish self-care routines. This process, Brown says, often leads to her helping clients develop an exit strategy, which includes exploring their interests, professional strengths and accomplishments, so they will be prepared to leave their job if necessary.
“Not only does this help to rebuild eroded self-confidence, but it also frames the client’s next steps, which could involve job seeking, obtaining specialized training, retirement planning, relocating, etc.,” Brown says. “Every exit plan is tailored to the client’s unique situation. The plan is intended to remind the client that they have choices and to weave the beginnings of a safety net so exercising that choice becomes less daunting.”
Brown also advises employees of workplace bullying to document the harmful behavior in case they decide to approach higher management or human resources to file a complaint or pursue alternative avenues for redress (e.g., involve a union representative, hire an attorney, negotiate a severance package).
Although every person’s experience is unique, it is possible for clients who have been bullied to learn to heal through counseling. Tague advises clients who have been bullied to remind themselves that “bullying is about the bully” and not about them.
“Bullies bully [others] to relive their own inner turmoil, not because the target of the bullying has done something to invite or deserve the behavior,” she explains. It can be helpful to reframe bullying behavior in this way, Tague says, because externalizing it allows the target to place the blame where it belongs — with the bully.
“Externalizing also allows the target to view the bullying behavior as separate from themselves, allowing them to feel compassion for the bully and reduce the power the bully wields over them,” she adds.
It’s normal to experience aftereffects from harmful bullying behavior, Tague notes. But sometimes people who have been bullied have a hard time moving past the hurt, and this, she stresses, is when they definitely need to seek help through counseling.
“Significant events such as bullying can change an individual. They will never be the same person they were before,” Spino says. But she adds that she’s seen that clients’ wounds can heal with time and work.
Just working through the negative effects of bullying can be “an indicator of their inner strength and resilience, which is something we focus on in therapy and it’s also a positive reminder of who they are at their core,” Spino says. “They need this reassurance that the person bullying them didn’t win and that they are not permanently damaged.”
Brown also recommends that people who have been bullied channel any unresolved feelings into becoming an advocate for others who have been abused or who cannot speak for themselves. For example, clients could volunteer on behalf of the survivors of domestic violence or another meaningful cause where they can help others. And over time, she says people who are targets of bullying can learn to “take back” some of what was taken from them.
Read more about working with adults with bullying behaviors in Counseling Today’s May cover story.
Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.