Relationships

How to Stand Up to Bullies As a Grown-Up

Almost one in three Americans say they’ve been bullied as adults, a recent survey shows. Thankfully, our experts share the confidence-boosting strategies that’ll help you defuse aggressive behavior whether it’s targeting you or the people you care about.

Take Back Your Power

Affirm your strength. When we feel bullied, we tend to ask ourselves what we’ve done wrong. Instead, tell yourself, ‘They’re not doing this because of anything I’ve done — they’re choosing to be hurtful,’” says bullying expert Carrie Goldman. How to combat the negativity? “Create an affirmation like, ‘I’m worthy of respect. I’ll reach out to the people who love me and I’ll get through.’ It’s important to remind ourselves that we deserve better.”

Say this in the moment. The anxiety triggered by bullying makes it hard for us to think, let alone know what to say in response — which is why preparing a short script can help you communicate assertively, say Goldman. “If, for example, someone tells you they were ‘just kidding,’ but you’re not laughing, the best response is, ‘Kidding means both people are having fun. Now that you know I’m not, you won’t do that again.’ Most bullies will stop right there because they’ve been called out on their behavior.”

Strategize with kindness. Even if you can’t cut a bully out of your life, you can still protect yourself with what’s known as “detached contact,” advises therapist Shannon Thomas. “Simply share less with them by giving, say, vague highlights of your life at the next get-together to keep them at a distance.” And on the job? “When workers reach out to colleagues just three times a day — such as by sending encouraging emails — they have significantly higher rates of peer acceptance,” adds bullying expert Nancy Willard. And when the office is on your side, bullies are typically peer-pressured into stopping.

Support Others

Ask a caring Q. When you see someone being bullied, rather than rush to their defense, which may embarrass them, simply let them know what you’ve observed, suggests Thomas. You might say something like, “I saw that, and it made me uncomfortable — what did you think?” It’s often a huge relief to hear because it makes people feel seen. If they brush it off? Respond with, “If you ever want to talk, just let me know.” Says Thomas, “Next time it happens, they may see the situation differently and reach out.” 

Uplift the target. A mistake well-intentioned folks often make? “They band together to attack the attacker, especially when it comes to cyberbullying,” Goldman reveals. “Friends of the victim might flood the aggressor’s Instagram with messages — but that only perpetuates unkindness. A much more effective tactic is to support the target by sending her a ton of kind messages. It’s an uplifting way to signal that bullying is never okay.” 

Strengthen connections. Research shows having just one supportive friend significantly eases the damage bullying does to our emotional well-being, says Willard. So reinforce loved ones’ connections. For example, invite them to activities like your book club or church group. Similarly, if a child in your life is struggling, encourage her to join extracurriculars she’s passionate about to help her see just how big and full of potential her world truly is.

Our Expert Panel

Carrie Goldman is the author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear ($10.25, Amazon). Visit CarrieGoldmanAuthor.com.

Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse ($9.99, Amazon), is a counselor at the award-winning Southlake Christian Counseling in Southlake, Texas.

Nancy Willard, author of Be Positively Powerful ($22, Amazon), is the director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age. Learn more at EmbraceCivility.org.

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This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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