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Q & A Today: Standing Up to an Adult Bully

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC

Posted on August 1, 2020

Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.

Q: Q: I’m 22 years old, and have been best friends with Camille (not her real name) since 3rd year. We always used to have fun together. In the last two years sometimes just she and I will hang out, and other times we include our boyfriends. But since she broke up with her boyfriend, I’ve noticed a change in her.

Whenever we’re together for an evening of fun it starts off great, but then it deteriorates as the evening progresses. Sometimes she embarrasses me around others by bringing up mistakes I’ve made in the past. Sometimes I find Camille making sarcastic remarks and insulting me by saying my comments are ‘stupid’. Most recently, and perhaps the most hurtful, she emailed my boyfriend to say that I was flirting with the waiter when she and I were at dinner.

I’ve confronted her on this behaviour and she responds that I’m thin-skinned. She says if she can’t joke around with her lifelong friend, then with whom can she joke? Last week, when she cancelled plans to go hiking at the last minute, I complained. She rolled her eyes and told me to get over it.

I hope it’s just a phase Camille’s going through. But I’m irritated, wondering what I did to cause her to become so mean to me. – Jenny

A: Hi Jenny, I’d say that your childhood friend has grown up to become a full-fledged adult bully. Adult bullying looks different to that demonstrated by children. It’s more subtle. They’re less likely to push, kick or hit you. Or try to stuff you in your school locker. Adult bullying is more sophisticated, and is often masked with a smile and denial of intent. But the goal is the same: to control, shame and criticise the other person.

Bullies don’t just happen. They have a past, being a victim of bullying or having learned to treat others with disrespect. As a result, bullies don’t make good friends, because their intent is to diminish another person. Friendship is about trust. It’s about being comfortable with one another. Friends build us up when we’re unsure of ourselves, rejoice in our happiness and comfort us when we’re sad. They listen to our concerns and validate our feelings. We feel good about ourselves when we’re with true friends.

Camille may think that she’s your friend, but her changed behaviour says otherwise. Good friends know our vulnerabilities and will loyally protect us, rather than weaponise them against us. She tries to poke fun at you and humiliate you in front of others. Being disrespectful of plans she made with you and then rolling her eyes is a manipulative effort – with both words and behaviours – designed to position herself in a place of power. It even appears she has begun to cyber bully you.

While I do not know the reason for her hurtful conduct, it’s important that you not feel responsible or guilty for her behaviour. Bullying is always about the other person, not you. She clearly feels inadequate about herself and the only way she knows to feel better is to pick on someone else, and in this case, it is you, her longtime friend.

What you must do, starting now, is to begin establishing boundaries. Start by deciding that you are not going to allow yourself to be a victim of her intimidating behaviour.

Don’t bully back by being angry, sarcastic or threatening. You will accomplish nothing. You’ll just be joining Camille at her level and she’ll likely out-bully you. Rather, you can learn to view her with pity, instead of anger. This is not to excuse the behaviour but it does reduce the power the bully is attempting to exert.

Assertively let Camille know that when she engages in a hurtful comment or behaviour towards you that it is not acceptable, you will point it out to her, and that you expect her to not repeat it again. Bullies will typically respond well when they learn that they will suffer consequences if their behaviour continues. In Camille’s case, the consequence will involve you exiting the relationship.

By remaining cool, you’ll be better able to respond to her bullying behaviour. If you should start to feel yourself becoming angry, remember that bullies feel more powerful when they sense the other person’s self-control is compromised.

Bullies want the other person to be reactive. And besides, I really don’t think you want to compromise your own integrity and become someone like Camille, who verbally inflicts hurt on others.

I hope for both of your sakes that Camille changes her behaviour towards you. But if, despite your efforts to set limits, Camilla’s abuse doesn’t stop, walk away. This is an unhealthy relationship. To stay is to enable her. She may stop bullying when she sees that she is unsuccessful at controlling you and reducing your sense of self-worth. But remember that bullying is Camille’s coping strategy of feeling good about herself. So you will have to keep a constant vigil on boundary setting otherwise she will likely resume her domineering and aggressive behaviour towards you. I can imagine how conflicted you must feel, being encouraged to potentially pull away from your lifelong friend. But removing yourself from an unhealthy relationship is an act of self-kindness as bullying can, in time, negatively impact on your physical and mental health. Like the water torture technique used centuries ago; continued bullying comes drip by drip by drip, slowly wearing us down. By being the recipient of constant bullying, you may find yourself suffering over time from a loss of confidence and sleep, high blood pressure, headaches and stomach aches.

I recommend that you not only stop from allowing Camille to make you unhappy, but do everything you can to develop a broad supportive social network for yourself. You can achieve this by engaging in activities and relationships that enhance your self-confidence, self-esteem and overall happiness.

Wishing you well, Eileen

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