Bullies Are Everywhere These Days—Here’s How to Respond to Them
Elizabeth Bernstein, a writer for the Wall Street Journal and author of this article about bullying, had something to say recently to the guy who pulled up behind her VW Beetle in a jacked-up pickup truck, honked furiously while she waited for a pause in oncoming traffic to make a left turn, then followed her for blocks so close on her tail she could see the sweat on his brow while he yelled obscenities at her out the window.
You don’t scare me, Bernstein thought.
People tried to push each other around before the pandemic, Bernstein said. However, lately it seems as if bullies are taking over, certainly in person—as was the case with me and the guy in the truck—but also online.
The move of many interactions to the virtual world has led not only to less face-to-face communication but also less empathy, while anonymity—or the illusion of it—has made it easier to misbehave, said Bernstein. “And in a time of deep polarization, the tone of public discourse has grown more antagonistic, producing more bullies than ever before.”
If you’re looking for helps with bullies, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.
Who is a bully?
A bully is someone who tries to intimidate another person, often repeatedly, whom he or she sees as weak or vulnerable. According to psychologists, bullies have four personality traits—called the Dark Tetrad—that often occur together:
- Machiavellianism, which is a tendency to calculatedly manipulate others for your own good;
- Psychopathy, an attribute that includes a lack of empathy and a willingness to take risks;
- Sadism, the propensity to derive pleasure from inflicting pain on someone else; and
- Narcissism, an obsession with self and a feeling that you are better than other people.
When we think of narcissism, we think of the extreme—someone loud, blustery, and grandiose who feels superior to others and needs constant admiration. These folks typically have narcissistic personality disorder, which is a formal diagnosis in the primary handbook for diagnosing mental disorders, the DSM-5.
Yet, narcissism—an excessive interest in oneself and sense of entitlement—occurs on a spectrum, and most of us have some of this in us, said Brad Bushman, a professor of communication at the Ohio State University in Columbus, who studies narcissism and aggression. “Have you ever rushed into an open spot in a busy parking lot before someone else can grab it?” Bushman said. “That’s narcissism.”
Bullies = Narcissists?
In a yet-to-be-published review of 26 studies on bullying [as of September 2020], with almost 17,000 participants, Bushman and his Ph.D. student, Sophie Kjaervik, found that the more narcissism a person has, the more likely he or she is to be a bully. People who have relatively high levels of narcissism are 20 percent more likely to bully than those with low levels of narcissism, the analysis showed.
This is because people who are very narcissistic display a trio of behaviors called the Triple E: exploitation, entitlement, and empathy impairment, according to Craig Malkin, a clinical psychologist, lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and author of Rethinking Narcissism.
‘They exploit others, doing whatever it takes to feel special,” Malkin said. “They feel entitled, acting as if the world owes them and should bend to their will. And they lack empathy, often becoming so fixated on the need to feel special that they stop caring about the feelings of others.”
These people don’t want to be told what to do. When someone tries, they lash out.
“They’re trying to shore up their sense of importance,” Malkin said. “Bullies are motivated by fear—fear of feeling insecure, fear of being unconfident, fear of being exposed. The more stressed or threatened they feel, the more they bully.”
Bernstein herself has heard stories of people being bullied by family members, co-workers, and strangers. In Florida, a doctor described being screamed at by the husband of a patient. In California, a college student related a 20-minute bombardment of hostile texts from a former friend, accusing her of being a terrible person. In North Carolina, a writer told Bernstein of an acquaintance who sent emails threatening to disrupt a meeting the writer was planning to attend.
How to respond to bullying?
How should we respond to being bullied like this, or in any way? Bernstein has some advice.
“First, determine whether you are safe,” Bernstein said. “If you aren’t safe, call security or the police. Also, remember to document the bully’s behavior. This will help if you need evidence, and it will keep you from doubting yourself.”
Laurie Helgoe, a clinical psychologist and author of a book about narcissism called Fragile Bully, agrees, and adds: “Do not engage. The only winning move is not to play the game. Engaging will encourage the bully, who will respond to feeling threatened by attacking more.”
Helgoe also cautions against letting the bully take up space in your head. Instead, limit how much you think or talk about the person to others, Helgoe said. Block the bully on social media. In doing so, you’re establishing a boundary, telling the bully that you’re not going to let them take over your life.
It’s also important to accept that you’re not going to change the person, said Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and author of Don’t You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement and Incivility. “Don’t blame yourself and don’t personalize the behavior,” Durvasula said. “You’re just the one in their line of fire at the moment.”
Imagine your reaction. Do you want to tell the bully off? Pummel him senseless? Picture all of it, including the look on the bully’s face. Just don’t act on any of this, said Malkin.
If you must respond—if the bullying is ongoing and destructive—make sure you offer a meaningful consequence,” said Malkin. “You’ll probably need an authority—the police, a human resources department, a lawyer—to do this.”
“Consequences shape behavior,” Durvasula added. “A rat goes down a maze to get cheese. And remember what my grandmother, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, taught me: ‘Don’t get in the mud with pigs. The pigs love it. And you just get dirty.’”
If you’re looking for help with bullies, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.
“Why It Seems Like Bullies Are Everywhere—and How to Stop Them,” Elizabeth Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, July 15, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-it-seems-like-bullies-are-everywhereand-how-to-stop-them-11594743348