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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Can I Stand Up To Bullies?

Respecting yourself means respecting your boundaries.


Most of us have either been the victim of bullies ourselves, or cared for someone else who has been hurt by bullying. Here, our experts share smart ways to reclaim your confidence and stand up for your needs in the face of ridicule.

Meet our expert panel

  • Dawn Johnson, author of Outwit the Workplace Bully: 8 Steps You Need to Know to Reclaim Your Career, Confidence, and Sanity, is a speaker, entrepreneur, and bullying prevention expert.
  • Dorothy Suskind is an assistant professor at Longwood University. Over the last three years she has conducted a study in which she collected the stories of over 200 victims of bullying across 27 states and eight countries.
  • Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, psychologist and author of Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has a clinical practice in Haverford, PA, where he provides treatment to adults with anxiety and related conditions.

Release self-blame.

Bullies typically target highly skilled people in a misguided attempt to feel superior, says expert Dawn Johnson, explaining that the average age of a bully’s victim is 42, and they are usually well-regarded and respected by their peers. Adds expert Dorothy Suskind, PhD, “I interviewed more than 200 people who’ve been bullied, and their stories are shockingly similar: They’re very productive or have shaken up the status quo somehow by calling out bad behavior.” Rather than beat yourself up, remind yourself you don’t deserve to be mistreated and none of this is your fault.

Spot tactics.

“One sign of subtle, ‘stealth bullying’ is that you feel worse when you walk away from interactions with the person, but you don’t really know why,” says expert Seth Gillihan, PhD. “They might do things that question your abilities, but in a way that is hard to put your finger on. And if you contradict them, they go to friends or family members to preemptively get them on their side.” Just being able to recognize this toxic behavior helps you find the confidence to stand up to it.

Savor your successes.

“Bullies try to replace the good feelings you have about yourself with the false, negative things they’re saying about you,” says Johnson. She advises building up your confidence with a “smile file.” “Just jot down your accomplishments and traits you’re proud of, and keep this list with you.” When you’re having a rough day, look at it to help silence the bully’s false narrative and remind yourself of all your great qualities and just how much you’re capable of.

Repeat these phrases.

Aggressive people rarely respond maturely to being confronted. That’s why “deflection phrases” are useful for getting a bully to back off, notes Johnson. “Try statements like, ‘Thank you for that feedback,’ or, ‘I’ll take that under advisement.’” Bullies want to knock you off balance, so when you respond with neutral phrases, they’re more likely to leave you alone.

Lean on people you trust.

Toxic people often try to turn others against you through gossip and gaslighting. To counter these tactics, take comfort in your support network, urges Suskind; feeling seen and heard sparks post-traumatic growth. “When we share our stories, it becomes so much easier to identify ways to heal,” she adds.

Let yourself move on.

Respecting yourself means respecting your boundaries. “If the bully is in your personal life, you might write them a letter that you never send with all the reasons you have to sever your connection — this acts like a separation ‘contract,’ making it easier to stick with,” says Suskind. “Or if you’re bullied by a superior at work, instead of saying, How can I make my boss like me? ask yourself what kind of work you’d love to pursue and consider looking for a new job.” Focusing on how to make a fresh start on your terms will help you move on stronger.

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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