Do you know a bully? You probably have one in your midst – at work, in your social group, on your sports team, maybe in your family. You know who I’m talking about. This is the guy or gal who is quick with snarky comments, often covered with laughter, that are really thinly-veiled insults. Aren’t you just tired of putting up with their nasty attitude, and of them getting away with it? Me, too.
As a child, I dealt with bullies by retreating. As an adult in the military, I learned to stand and fight. Unfortunately, neither of these natural “fight or flight” responses resolves the issue, and the bully will continue undaunted, often escalating over time. Retreating can be a helpful response in some circumstances, certainly if you are being threatened with physical harm. But it is also a cue to the bully that their methods are effective in “getting under your skin.” When you retreated, you probably gave off other non-verbal cues that aided in their conclusion – the look on your face, a heavy sigh, etc. Alternately, challenging the bully by dishing their nastiness back to them or engaging their insult also encourages them to continue, clearly signaling that they found your vulnerability and can now proceed to ratchet up the pressure. They derive pleasure from making you squirm. Over time, when repeatedly faced with the same bully, both of these responses will serve to encourage them. So what to do?
Somewhere between the fight (aggressive) and flight (passive) is a calm, reasonable answer to the problem (assertiveness). Yes, that’s right, you have to put on your parent hat to deal with these people. Despite wanting to kick some ass because they deserve it, you have to treat them like children and set boundaries. “I was hurt by what you said. It was rude. Please don’t speak to me that way.” Now, of course, most bullies will respond to this boundary-setting by calling you names (whiner, baby, etc). But remember, you can’t control them. You can simply let them know that you are no longer volunteering to be their proverbial punching bag. Then you can exit the scene with your head held high, having defended yourself appropriately. Over time, they will leave you alone and move onto other targets who will engage them in their ego-stroking battle.
I struggle with this type of assertive response, because it is a new concept to me. When putting it into practice, I find that my heartbeat is rapid and I may even break a sweat despite trying to maintain a calm exterior. But that’s just me getting comfortable in my new behavior – it gets easier the more I practice it and the jitters are fading. I have been known to give them “the hand” once I have called them on their behavior and they haven’t backed off. You know, just extend your arm fully in front of you and put your hand up in a “stop” gesture. Then walk away.
You may ask, “If this strategy doesn’t “fix” the bully, why employ it?” The answer is simple. You do it for you. You respect yourself by not letting the bully succeed in chasing you away or dragging you into a conflict. You honor yourself by being honest (“That hurt my feelings,”) – a quality that the bully does not possess. It may not shut him down on the spot, but it will make him shy away from you over time. If he can’t get to you and yank your chain, he will leave you alone. The bully tries to disguise his attacks, so when you pull back that thin veil and call it what it is – rude and hurtful – you blow his whole strategy. If you admit being hurt by his words or actions, and he jumps on you for your honesty, his true colors are out there for everyone to see. The pretense of joking around, or whatever ruse he is using, evaporates.
Once I have dealt with a bully in this fashion I find that their ability to annoy or hurt me fades away. Unlike the fight or the flight, this is a positive resolution that is rooted in self-respect. It’s over for me. That freedom is the ultimate payback – I am no longer concerned about or affected by them. I drew my line in the sand and defended myself in an appropriate manner. I took away their power over me. It feels really good.