I reserve my emotional energy for things I can control. As a result, I don’t experience anger very often. However, there is one thing that always bothers me, and I have a hard time ignoring it when I see it—abuses of power and bullying.
By definition, any abuse of power is a form of bullying, but it’s not restricted to the domain of power imbalances. Bullying is the repetitive and aggressive behavior that deliberately intends to hurt, intimidate, exclude, or humiliate another person physically or emotionally. The three components of bullying are:
- Power Imbalance. An actual or perceived unequal power distribution exists between the bully and the target, and this makes it difficult for the target to defend themselves. I had to bite my tongue so hard I could taste blood at two instances of bullying I witnessed in the Army that went beyond training. I have a heart, but discretion is the better part of valor.
- Intent to Cause Harm. The bully acts to physically, emotionally, and/or socially harm the target. They go beyond teasing or horseplay. Everyone joking is cool; everyone trying to take each other’s heads off is cool. What’s not cool is one person thinks it is a joke, and the other is out for blood.
- Repetition. Incidents are not isolated. Bullying behavior repeats over time toward the target. If you act like the prey, you tend to get treated like prey by predators. No one understands this dynamic better than a bully.
Bullying isn’t limited to physical confrontations. There’s also emotional and social bullying. Because of how wired into the internet, social media, and smartphones everyone is these days, the latter is now more commonly described as cyberbullying.
I won’t be addressing cyberbullying in this article, but not because I don’t think it’s real. I have two reasons.
- It’s because parents have a responsibility to protect their children from the internet. I was a tutor for high schoolers. I’ve seen it done in multiple households, so I know it’s possible to protect developing minds from the uglier side of the internet AND keep them up to date with the latest technological trends.
- If you are an adult, you understand how to use blocking functions on all platforms. If that’s still not enough, spend less time on the internet. It’s good for you.
For everyone else, today’s newsletter will teach you how bullies think and how to deal with them. This advice is for more than just kids in school. They are more protected from bullying now than they were in my day. This newsletter is for everyone else dealing with bullies personally and professionally.
Read on to learn how bullies think and how to squelch them, regain your power, and keep your sanity all at the same time.
Checking minor disrespect today and keeps bigger conflict away: The psychology of bullies
The best remedy for any problem is prevention. Bullies of all types select the weakest member of a group to single out for their attacks. In the same way that hyenas target the weakest and most vulnerable animals to feast on, bullies go after the people who are the most:
- Socially isolated
- Mentally fragile
- Physically weak
Whether it’s physical or emotional harassment, a bully is often looking for an easy target. They detest anyone who isn’t afraid to fight back, and they avoid anyone who looks like they might be capable of mounting a decent defense. So, our first step is not to look weak.
The late comedian Patrice O’Neil tells a story about his time in jail, where an inmate told him, in front of everyone, that he looked really good that day. Patrice didn’t like it and just ignored him. It seemed like an innocent compliment, but an older inmate warned him to aggressively warn him not to talk to him like that for two reasons.:
- It was a test. While a compliment seems innocent, in jail, complimenting a man like that is a problem. It would be awkward on the outside, but you could ignore it and keep on with your day. However, inside prison, you have to respond to it.
If you aren’t gay but not willing to check a guy feeling you out to see if you are, then you invite more aggressive overtures. If the guy got away with a small compliment, next time, he’s gonna grab your butt, and then before you know it, he’s trying to force himself on you. This potential situation leads to the second point.
- Other inmates are watching to see how soft you are. If they know you won’t stand up for yourself, then you get marked as an easy target for all types of harassment. It’s about sending a message to the perpetrator—or anyone in the vicinity looking for someone to victimize—that you aren’t the one to try.
It’s easy to say that this is just prison behavior, but we’ve got some compelling research that once a person has been marked as a weak victim by their social group, they’re more likely to be victimized by others in the group.
In the wake of the atrocities of World War II, psychologists wanted to understand how genocide could happen on such a large scale. From this desire to understand the dark nature of humanity, we got the following lessons:
- Stanley Milgram’s infamous electroshock experiment showed how quickly people cave to authority.
- Philip Zimbardo’s “prison experiment” showed how easily people in positions of power can abuse others.
- Albert Bandura showed that when participants overhear an experimenter call another study subject “an animal,” they’re more likely to give that subject a painful shock.
The difference between bullying that leads to physical and emotional harassment and dehumanization that leads to mass genocide is one of degree, not type. There is something in human psychology that, if left unchecked, doesn’t come to the rescue of mistreated groups but, instead, joins the side of the aggressor.
The lesson here is that you MUST deal with disrespect immediately when someone treats you in a diminishing or disrespectful manner. Otherwise, the disrespectful behavior will gain momentum and escalate. It will also behave like a virus, infecting the minds of those who don’t have a strong enough value system to resist the allure of groupthink and mob mentality.
Here’s a dirty secret about people:
Most of them don’t know what to think, and they’re waiting for someone to tell them. This unpopular truth underpins everything from politics, religion, street gangs, and advertisements. It applies to how we treat other people as well.
Take matters into your own hands. Make it clear as soon as possible that you are not the person to victimize. Prevention of this behavior is half the battle.
It’s never too late; Just harder than if you stood up for yourself earlier
If you’re already dealing with someone bullying you, then more drastic measures are required to remedy the situation. At this point, you are marked and living on tortured time.
Let’s address the most obvious case first. Physical bullying is the easiest to deal with it. I grew up poor in a dangerous part of town. If you haven’t been there before, you know an area like this as “The Ghetto.” I’m partial to calling them “The Projects” or “The Hood.”
Hell, by any other name, is still hell.
The violence in public housing projects is legendary. In fact, over the past two decades in public housing projects across the United States, violent crime has fallen everywhere except low-income public housing. There, it continues to rise.
In the hood, there’s always someone looking for a fight. Running isn’t an option because housing projects are constructed like prisons, many being walled or gated, and everyone knows where you live.
Choosing to fight wasn’t much better. If you won the fight, your defeated opponent would return later with a group. If you lost the fight, you’d invite more bullies and find yourself in the same situation because losing a fight displays weakness. It was a choice between the lesser of two evils.
It’s effectively the prison environment that Patrice O’Neil was in, and similar rules apply.
“Life’s catching up to jail. If you from an old project, a new jail ain’t that bad!”
-Chris Rock, “Bigger and Blacker”
When I was younger, I thought I had a sign on my back for fights. In retrospect, I only fought more than a slightly above-average amount. “Slightly above average” means about once a week.
Once I realized the person intended to hurt me, I threw the first punch and committed to violence. I didn’t go overboard, but I intended to come out of the fight clearly as the victor. Breaking even was still a loss.
This approach accomplished something fundamental that made my life a little easier: whenever a person decided I was a target, they knew the encounter would get violent. They had to determine if it was worth it. Even if I lost, I made sure it wasn’t worth it.
The conventional advice for dealing with bullies is to stand up to them and show that you aren’t afraid. What most parents are too politically correct to teach their kids is that until you exchange blows, all you’ve shown is that you’re too lazy to run. Whether you win or lose, standing up to a bully only counts if you get into a fight. The message you send is loud and clear—even if you kick my ass, you’re going to suffer, so it better be worth it.
As a corollary to this, never let someone aggressively get within arm’s length of you. Never let yourself get surrounded. Initiate the fight if that happens. In the worst case, you’ll face charges, but most states consider an aggressive intrusion of personal space a case for self-defense (Not legal advice; know the laws where you live).
With that out of the way, let’s deal with the bullying in the civilized world—emotional and psychological.
Dealing with emotional bullies
Non-physical bullying is the most challenging type to deal with. The effects aren’t obvious, and most people will tell you to ignore it. However, the hallmark of bullying—the feature that sets it apart from other types of harassment—is that it is prohibitively difficult to escape from.
Running away isn’t an option if it’s a place you work or the bullying is from family members you live with or have to interact with. Even if you can run away, the internet has become the weapon of choice for harassment.
Another challenge is that some bullies who use this indirect aggression are strategic enough either to avoid leaving evidence of their harassment or to have enough ambiguity in their actions to deny any wrongdoing. This plausible deniability is how passive aggression works, and it’s a common tactic of emotional bullies.
Passive-aggressive behavior attempts to get the benefits of a confrontation without taking the risk. Though not common, this can be a subtle form of bullying. Passive-aggressive behavior is anything critical or negative but not directly expressed. The passive-aggressive entity puts the burden of interpretation on the message’s recipient rather than clearly stating what’s wrong.
The passive aggressor does this to initiate a confrontation while maintaining plausible deniability. The hope is that they can say what they want, but if you react harshly, they can protect themselves from a direct conflict by blaming your reaction on misinterpretation.
The hallmarks of passive aggression are using backhanded compliments, sarcasm, diminishing language, or pretending they’re joking while actually criticizing you. It avoids direct confrontation but still gets the criticism across through subtly snide comments.
"Must be nice" is the most passive-aggressive hater shit you can say to someone who shares good news with you.— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) July 19, 2021
For example, “Must be nice” is often said by people who are jealous of your accomplishments and can’t bring themselves to congratulate you but want to maintain a thin veneer of sensibility.
Another typical display of passive-aggressive behavior is “If you say so” during a discussion. Rather than outright disagree with you, this remark is said to push you to respond by diminishing your perspective and opinions.
The good news about passive-aggression, when used as a bullying tactic, is that it’s easy to diffuse. If someone in a leadership or power position relative to you uses it, force the person to clarify their meaning. Fortunately, the type of person who has learned to rely on sarcasm and passive aggression as a bullying tactic is usually only passive and rarely aggressive. They fold and fall in line when a little pressure is applied.
To win against the emotional bully, you must wage a war on two fronts. First, you can not acknowledge their attacks. This tactic doesn’t work for physical bullies because you can’t ignore someone trying to kick your ass.
However, for a person trying to demean you, you must never react emotionally because the bully lives for this reaction. Your stoic reaction starves their antics for the oxygen required to keep it going.
Often, pretending they aren’t there or what they said or didn’t register will take a lot of steam out of them. However, we’re only human and will eventually have to respond, and how you do it is critical. And when I say “ignore,” I don’t mean you don’t confront malicious rumors. If a person spreads lies or misinformation, you have to deal with this immediately, but it’s a matter of how you do it.
The response should be direct, immediate, and free of emotion. If it’s one person doing the bullying, confront the person publically. If it’s a group, laser in on one person and force the person to deal with you directly, ignoring everyone else. No matter the environment, the overall strategy is the same: isolate and publicly confront your tormenter and do so in the most non-reactive way possible.
Don’t miss another issue!
I’m a former heavyweight pro-boxer (13-1-1) and alcoholic (Sobriety date 12/23/13), current writer, and aspiring chess master. I was raised in the projects by a single mom and failed high school, but I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics.
More Stoic Street Smarts Newsletters!