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  • Susan J. Leviton

Bullying - Beyond the Schoolyard

Adults can, and do, experience bullying whether in their families, in the workplace, or even among (so-called) friends.

Sad woman leaning back on a fence.
Sad woman leaning back on a fence.

When we hear the word "bully," the image that usually comes up is of a child on a playground being taunted by a group of classmates. This is a terrible situation with deep consequences. But the power dynamic of bully-victim exists in adults as well. Unfortunately, we don't always recognize it for what it is.

The Promote/Prevent website defines bullying as, "...a repeated aggressive behavior where one person (or group of people) in a position of power deliberately intimidates, abuses, or coerces an individual with the intention to hurt that person physically or emotionally. Acts of bullying can be physical or verbal." (

In the workplace, this may show up as a boss chewing someone out in order to exert their power, or to intimidate them into putting in extra hours. Within a family, there may be one member, or group of members, who constantly make another the butt of jokes or criticisms. This could be out of jealousy, insecurity, or a number of other reasons. If the victim protests, they are told that it was only a joke. However, hurting another person is never funny.

Sometimes the bullying is more subtle. I've had clients tell me of friends that make them feel uncomfortable with their passive-aggressive remarks or frequent jokes at the client's expense. When I hear this, I talk to my clients about friendship and the foundation of trust in all relationships. (See earlier post, "What is Trust?" Everyone messes up at times, but if someone you consider a friend is consistently hurting your feelings, it may be time to end the relationship.

So what can you do if you feel that you are being bullied? Obviously it depends on the situation. If it's happening at work, and you can't change jobs, your options are limited. Talking honestly with your boss when they are calm might help, if you express your feelings without attacking them. If that doesn't work, you might have to report it to the HR Department. It also helps to have an ally. This is true in all situations. If possible, talk to one coworker or family member one-on-one and let them know how you feel, and that you'd appreciate their support. Also, learn to set boundaries. Remember, bullies pick on the weak! Showing that you will not tolerate certain behaviors is an indication of strength. If the bullying comes from an intimate partner and talking about it doesn't change things, it's time to get out of the relationship. (If the bullying has escalated into physical violence, contact the Domestic Violence hotline for help: 800-799-7233.)

The best way to avoid being bullied is to have good self-esteem and confidence. A good therapist can help you grow, while offering you the support you need. You don't have to be a victim of bullies!

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