Are Bullies Just Like Us?

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” 
― Thich Nhat Hanh

The Thich Nhat Hanh quote above is a popular idea about what makes bullies tick. We have been taught that people who bully are the way they are because they are troubled or anxious. We seem to believe that people only attack other people if they are feeling threatened themselves.  We want to believe if we are kind, compassionate and understanding that bullies will not bully. We want to believe that we can help. But can we?

In George Simon’s book,In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, he says:

Even when our gut is telling us that somebody is attacking us and for no good reason, or merely trying to overpower us, we don’t readily accept the notions. We usually start to wonder what’s bothering the person so badly “underneath it all” that’s making them act in such a disturbing way.”

George Simon goes on to discuss how thinking about bullying and other toxic behaviour patterns in the above way actually prevents us from being able to appropriately respond to an attack. Instead of moving into self-protection, we instead are side-tracked into trying to make sense of or respond to the other person’s presumed hurt or anxiety.

Whilst I do not want to fall into the trap of asking why bullies bully – I do want to note that current research seems to be giving us a different picture of bullies and their behaviour. There is evidence that bullies are different. They lack conscience and are unable or unwilling to be self-reflective – this means that they are not thinking about or concerned with the impact their behaviour is having on other people. Bullies are self centred and willing to pursue their own agendas with complete disregard to the rights and needs of others. They don’t feel guilty or ashamed about their behaviour and they aren’t remorseful. Bullying is not something that is done defensively – its something done consciously, deliberately and repeatedly  in order to manipulate other people, to gain power, to hold control, to win.

Valerie Cade in her book, Bully Free At Work, notes that “the normal interpersonal expectations we have of one another – kindness, empathy, care and concern, inquisitiveness and general interest – are not met when interacting with a bully.”

Our job is not to sympathize with the bully, or to try to analyse why they are doing the things they do. Our job is to acknowledge that not everyone thinks or feels the way we do. Not everyone has the capacity or interest to be empathetic, caring, supportive. Not everyone is searching for mutually agreeable outcomes. Not everyone wants problems to be resolved. Some people do not care – their behaviour is toxic, deeply impactful and ultimately dangerous. Bullies may expend some energy to image manage, but they do not change their behaviour for long, and their intention to control, manipulate and hurt others remains consistent.

Our job is to recognize bullies for who they are and bullying for what it is and to then take significant, swift action to protect ourselves. There is often no real consequence for those who bully and they continue to bully for no other reason than they can. We may not be able  to stop a bully from being a bully, but we don’t have to be sitting ducks either. By all means be compassionate, but do so informed with knowledge. Knowledge is power. If you are a person who cares about others, who carefully considers how your behaviour may be impacting others, who seeks win-win outcomes and who tends to think the best of others … know that a bully is not thinking what you think, feeling what you feel or wanting what you want. In short, a bully is not  ” just like you”.

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13 Responses to Are Bullies Just Like Us?

  1. pamela says:

    I agree with George Simon and take the attitude that I must let this person know they cannot keep doing what they are doing. I have managed to say calmly that ‘this is not good for me and I will be doing ‘such and such’ in future to prevent any repetition”. “Such and such” might be anything, from not visiting anymore even at Christmas to moving my desk to face the other way. Whatever it takes. To me it is important to be a calm rational person as I say this, so that I can walk away as an equal, saying “good luck”.

    That leaves the bully to sort out their own problem, whichever explanation for their behaviour is correct

  2. edward says:

    I am not responsible for what people think of and about me especially if it is erroneous. A bully is not far from being a controller and manipulator, often the latter will utilize intimidation and bullying to get his/her own way.

    I have read that book, prompted by an individual very close to me to enable me to better empathize and understand her experiences with the herd. It was profitable in application to my own situation as well.

    I have solved most of my problems with toxic people by dismissing them out of my life whenever and wherever I see them. Those of that sort that are still in my life, such as SOME family members, I tolerate but do NOT allow their mechanisms to be utilized with me.

  3. JustMe says:

    Hey Edward, I made that same decision at 13, and by 15 I was begging to talk to some type of professional, so confused by the messages I was getting from my (bullying) family, school mates, & neighborhood kids. I still do not understand why kids picked on me… I was small for my age, or uhh “petite”, I didn’t butt in, I mostly kept to myself, but still was outgoing believe it or not. As a divorced adult entering corporate America for the first time years later, I discovered not much had really changed with people since middle school. I was sooo disappointed! I thought when we grew up, that being “grown up” meant everybody would treat everyone else fairly and we’d all be… well… nice to each other. Doh! Naive, naive, naive. I had married right out of high school, partially to escape having to deal with people. Then the kids came and well, I didn’t know much about being an adult in the “outside world”. It was such a surprise to me, the amount of bullying employed in the workplace, and encouraged my (and apparently your) belief that when it comes to friends, quality is more important than quantity.

    Thus at 15, by choice I went to a psychiatrist. I told the guy everything. Bared my soul like I’d never done before. Let it all hang out. He nodded and scribbled on his pad, didn’t really say much. I was shocked when he told my parents I suffered from a type of “social disorder”. Yeah. Me. Because apparently, making the decision to stand up for yourself, be choosey about your friends, that having opened my heart to people (including family) I thought cared about me, only opened the door for a knife to be shoved in my back, that this somehow makes me antisocial…. What a load of crap. I knew it then too. I was quick enough to figure out that the dude was just trying to make some cheese, when after only one session, he also told my parents I was suicidal (huh? I never mentioned anything like that, anything even close to that, quite the opposite, I told him I loved life and I just wanted people I could trust 100% to have MY back too) and that I needed to be admitted to a facility for “troubled teens”. My pee test was negative. Sorry! No drugs! Hate to disappoint doc! Now, this was what he told my folks, what he told me was a completely different story. He said he knew a place where I could “get away”, receive therapy, meet some “great kids”, and oh! There would be HORSEBACK RIDING and a POOL! He made it sound like a resort, lol, where do I sign up? So I voluntary committed myself without knowing what I was doing. Based on BS. Never once did “treatment facility” enter the convo. I was spontaneously “cured” when my insurance ran out 2 months later. Some of the kids there would be there indefinitely, as they had much better insurance than I. Ha, well imagine our surprise when about a year later the state shut the place down. My doc lost his license too. Apparently, he owned the “facility” and was acquiring patients through false means and milking their insurance for profit. There he was, the jerk-ola, on the evening news, trying to hide his face leaving the courtroom. Oh yeah, baby, I got me some betrayal and trust issues alright. Bullies? Oh yeah, I know them too. Usually they’re the same people who betray you.

    Fi, it took me years to realize that my mom and sis were just bullies, so caught up in their own fears or jealousies, and took it out on me, a super easy target who threw her trust around way too freely. If being careful who you’re friends with makes me antisocial then I’m happy to be so, lol. I think it’s just being sensible, but what do I know…heh. I do know it’s no reason to have someone committed…..

    • edward says:

      Hello JustMe

      I first would like to pay homage for the idiots who hurt you.)_(*&^&*_*()&%^)_&*()$^%^&*+_*()&$^%&^*()+&$%&^*())_(*&%^&^%^&(*)%^$#^%@$#^%&*())&*)&@#$$%&^*()*&%$^&+_(*)&&(*_)*(&@#%$&%@#%$^%$@#%$^%(*

      Your problem is my problem and a lot of other peoples’ problem and it is called the mindless grazing manipulative selfish foolish herd.

      I regret the insanity and the insane ignoramuases you were exposed to, you did not deserve it. Ironic isn’t it that the people who need help are the rest of society, not the ones who they hurt. There was nothing wrong with you at all, and if you look around here you will find other quailty people who suffered as you did.

      Karen has had a lot of trials as well if you read her posts. Sue is not here anymore but has the same…and a lot of others here so do not feel alone, and for sure, feel understood and cared about here. You are a good gal.

      I have a few friends, and I mean real ones and I can count em all on the fingers of one hand.

      I have found them after decades. I tend to be alone except for these few.

      At least being alone one is always in good company.

      Always Edward

      • JustMe says:

        Thanks, Edward, for your kind words. And back atcha, you’re not so bad yourself! You know, I actually like being alone, and often prefer it. With 3 boys, I don’t get much alone time, but when I do…. hooo-eeeee look out! I relish it! Grab a book, a soft blanket, and curl up on the couch with my “friends”. It’s funny, whenever the characters eat in my books, I get hungry too! I love books, and have to read series because single tomes make me depressed, I feel like I’m losing a friend, heh. With a series, my “friends” keep coming back for more.

        Yes, at first my solitude was sort of by default, per force. But, I grew to like it, then love it, and now I nearly prefer it altogether. It’s odd, my few close friends & I are nothing alike, except on the really big’uns like politics & religion, for the most part. But, for whatever reason we clicked, they know I’m loyal to a fault, and even if we don’t talk for months at a time, we can pick up whatever we left off as if no time had passed at all. Those are the best kind of friends for me, not invasive, intolerant, pushy, or judgmental.

        But…rejection hurts. Badly. To me, bullying, betrayal, it all comes from the same place, just different responses, and they both are taken as forms of rejection. Growing up & feeling rejected by my folks, set me up for a lifetime of fear from it. At least I know it’s sort of an issue for me, that’s half the battle, right? My advice to others suffering is also similar to yours. We are not alone when we have ourselves, & if you want to know someone who has yo’ back 110%, then just look in the mirror. I know some religious folk tell others to look to God, but being a firm agnostic, I like to think we are in control of our own destiny. We are the captain of our ship. Looking to God may be helpful to others, but for me, I feel you have to learn to solace yourself, as I was forced to as a small child. We have it within ourselves, we just have to look deep. Sometimes I feel similar to a schizophrenic or a sufferer of MPD, as I keep my hurt little ID, my little girl self in a part of my soul. She hides in there, reminding me to be careful & mindful. She hurts a lot, so often I will take her “out to play”, & I tell her I’M here for HER, always, that she IS deserving of love & kindness in return. I wipe her tears and hold her hand. Sometimes that’s all she needs. All I need. Yes, we are one & the same, but she does “exist”. Heh, no she doesn’t really “talk”, she just “feels”. No “voices in my head” scenario here. lol

        I also feel that the “they’s & them’s” of the world don’t consistently practice self exploration, meaning, they don’t examine WHY they feel what they feel, or WHY they do what they do. It’s as if they have such faith in themselves (arrogance??) that they operate on auto pilot and give no thought to how their actions can affect others. Maybe I think about that too much, I dunno. Not that I care what people “think” about me (ha!), but that I DO care how my actions affect others and do my best to take that into consideration in every thing I do no matter how big or small. The whole ripple in the pond theory and karma to boot coming into effect here. Basically, I don’t want to leave a negative footprint if I can help it. Others? Most. Don’t. Care. Why, I don’t know….but if they did, I think they would treat people better, instead of just looking out for número uno all the time….. Oh, but wait, that would be a Utopia…..

        Any who, I’ve learned life is all about CHOICE. everything is choice. Even feelings. I make the choice to not let things get me down, and it’s really hard sometimes. I’ve learned to always look for the silver lining. When I found out I had brain tumors, I decide they would be good for one thing: excuses! Lol! I forgot the milk at the store? Darn tumors again! Heh. There’s always a silver lining, sometimes ya just gotta dog for it!

      • JustMe says:

        Whoops, that’s *decided & *dig LOL, dang tumors….

    • Fiona says:

      Hi JustMe,

      Thanks for sharing a bit of your story – I really connected with your comment, “I discovered not much had really changed with people since middle school. I was sooo disappointed! I thought when we grew up, that being “grown up” meant everybody would treat everyone else fairly and we’d all be… well… nice to each other.”

      Many people who experienced bullying as part of their school years, desperately hope that when the school books close at last, the bullying will be over. Alas, bullies also grow up, and not surprisingly, in absence of an appropriate response that focuses on the BULLY and on the BULLY being accountable for their behaviour …. these same kid bullies go on to become, adult bullies.

      Many bullies start bullying when they are young, and have had many, many years to refine their bullying tactics, how best to pick a target and how to get away with their bullying. Many of these bullies are in our community in key and critical roles … they are teachers, police officers, social workers, therapists … they are our bosses and our work colleagues …. and they are just as dangerous and just as toxic as ever.

      Having betrayal and trust issues (and a whole range of other more clinical diagnoses) is common for those who have been bullied. I am often bemused by this pathologizing of natural, legitimate responses to toxic and abusive behaviour. It’s a questionable system that stigmatizes the legitimate, NORMAL responses of a person being targeted for abuse.

      Being careful with who we invite into our lives and who we choose to maintain relationships with is not antisocial – it is self protective and just plain sensible. Many of us have to sort through trust issues, and learn to realistically assess who we should invite into our lives and who we should kick to the curb.

      I wish you all the best in your healing, and your ongoing efforts to protect yourself,

  4. Susan says:

    That is a new concept for me. I put up with my brother’s bullying for years because he was my “baby brother” and surely if there was a problem, the root of it was something that was wrong with me.

    Having closed the door between us, and bolted and locked it, I have found that I have the energy to deal with the difficulties that are a part of being human. Occasionally, I take inventory to see if I miss him, or if I think I should try to mend the relationship. So far, I have no regrets. I no longer have to wait for the manipulative, bullying tirades to which I had become accustomed from him. I’m pretty sure he will never apologize.

    • Fiona says:

      Hi Susan,

      It’s amazing the ways we can turn ourselves inside out wondering what is wrong with US when we are being targeted by a bully. I’d like to see a good deal more public education on this subject because we all need to get really clear and really aware .. that bullying has nothing to do with anyone other than the bully.

      It’s sad that it seems often the only way to resolve our relationship with a bully is to end it. All that said, many of us feel much healthier, safer and happier once we do break those ties.

      Best wishes in your efforts to look after yourself and heal!

  5. Karen says:

    I’m glad that you reference George Simon’s book, In Sheep’s Clothing. I’ve recommended to so many people–those who are open and willing to listen. It’s served as an invaluable resource, one that I often turn too and frequently re-read. I actually found it on the Rick Ross website, which deals with cults. I also felt so validated reading the passages–someone expressing in words what I’ve lived and experienced. I’ve had too few resources–people to turn too for help, other than books by authors who have dealt with these issues too. It helps so much to ease the emotional pain and the isolation.

    I agree that the above quote seems to echo a popular them in both literature and movies–of characterizing bullies as doing so because they are hurt or troubled. The focus then is on helping, understanding or feeling sympathy towards them, rather than self-protection strategies. I found that Simon was one of the few authors that I’ve read that really seemed to address the problem in a way that felt was accessible. Unfortunately, I could relate to his examples all to well, because I’ve experienced it myself, but lacked the ability to put the feellings into words. I also don’t have his credentials, which some people place a lot of significance on before they will even consider your observations.

    What stood out for me was when he said that viewing them as hurting or vulnerable was a set-up for victimization. I can’t begin to tell you how often when I’ve tried to discuss difficult people (and not just difficult people, but out right examples of bullying)–that a focus on taking care of oneself is lacking. The focus always tends to be on viewing perpetrators as hurting themselves and then how we should understand them.
    This has been my experience of professionals too. Simon cetainly was one of the first few author’s that I’ve read who called out mental health professionals for failing to see the agressive agendas and actions of others for what they really are. That was one of my problems wit the so-called “help” community and it really created a lot of problems for me.

    Everything you state about bullies is correct–they are self centred and they don’t care about people other than to manipulate them to get their own way. It is exactly how I experienced my in-laws as well as my sisters.

    • edward says:

      Hello Karen

      I am sure that you felt alone in your hurt but reading the book lifted you up high and helped dispel the lonelines you felt that nobody understood you.

      You have things well sorted and aligned, and I do very much care about your well being.

      As usual, hurting women are precious and I would communicate to you as well as others here that I see you as unique and special. Do not ever de-emphasize who and what you are, but cling to the reality that a man who is perhaps thousands of miles away, does care about you.

      I can at least touch you emotionally and glady do so.

      Always Edward.

      • Karen says:

        Hello Edward,

        I just read this and thank you for your kind words of support. Yes, I felt validated, but it also goes much deeper than that. I’ve read so many books and I’ve been the route of seeing mental health professionals too and it is frustrating to encounter, especially among that group of people, to have them pathologize natural, legitimate responses to toxic and abusive behavior as Fiona in her response to JustMe states above. So here you are at risk and basically vulnerable and it creates even more problems.

        These posts on bullying have been extremely retriggering for me. I appreciate your comment.

  6. edward says:

    Hello Justme

    There is a little girl part of every woman and it is very cute and adorable. I note this in many women I have as clients but when you make reference to same, it saddens me that you were hurt by toxic people, as many of us are in our separate existences.

    You are a precious gal, as all are here, and I want you to know that I care about you, and want to see you happy. You did not and do not deserve the pain you were subjected to, and give your little girl a warm and soft caress from me, and tell her she is sweet and precious. Look after her well.

    Always Edward

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