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Understanding and Addressing Adult Bullying

As a society, we have sorely neglected to support the skills needed to mature emotionally and effectively address the root causes of emotional disorders and behaviors that can lead to bullying, generate interpersonal conflict, and cause distress for everyone involved.

With the help of Jennifer Fraser, Ph.D., author of The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health, we will work to explain what motivates someone to bully and how to deal with adult-to-adult bullying, which affects 31% of American adults, according to a survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association in 2017.

Why do people bully others?

Individuals who bully have a common objective: to feel powerful or get what they want at the expense of others’ well-being. Jennifer Fraser, Ph.D., explains that individuals who bully others “lack healthy self-esteem and self-awareness and thus build relationships that revolve around targeting a victim(s).”

These individuals do what is necessary to break down others’ self-esteem, perceived worth and integrity, and social image for personal gain and to bolster their self-image. This may be achieved through:

  • Public belittling — i.e., yelling, name-calling, insulting, mocking, humiliation, or embarrassment.

  • Gaslighting Getting others to doubt themselves or feel bad for doing or saying something justified or true to manipulate them.

  • Sabotage — A deliberate attempt to destroy, delay, or damage something or someone.

  • Intimidation or threats — i.e.:

    • “You better/better not ___ or else ____.”

    • “Don’t make me ______.”

    • “You really think you can _____? You thought wrong.”

    • “I’m watching you!”

    • “If you ____, then _____ will happen.”

  • Gossip – spreading rumors or lies

  • Political power plays — i.e., a boss who feels they have the right to demean or demand things of others because of their position.

  • Intentional exclusion — i.e., publicly inviting co-workers to a party or gathering while openly ostracizing specific individuals.

While the unkind or harmful acts of a bully should not be dismissed or justified, it’s important to understand that the amount of harm they inflict on others is comparable to the emotional pain and suffering that they are experiencing. We call this emotional projection, where our internal environment or perception is attributed to others. For example, if someone says “you are ugly,” they are likely judgmental of their own self-image.

However, there is a significant distinction between someone who bullies from that of someone who takes their frustrations out on others.

Fraser says, “Those who bully aren't unconscious of their behaviour. They cover it up because they're aware it's destructive, and they manipulate and groom higher-ups to facilitate their abuse. They are sure to establish favourites in order to create the illusion that the target gets what they deserve.”

Individuals who lack awareness or emotional intelligence may unconsciously say and do things that hurt others; however, they often lack the intention to do so, differentiating them from those who bully.

On the contrary, Fraser says that those who bully “are very well versed in emotional intelligence. They know how to be charismatic, compassionate, and charming - just not to the target. This creates the sense that it is the target who is at fault for how they are mistreated. This is the most damaging form of gaslighting.”

Indicators of bullying behavior vs. unaware and unmanaged emotions and insecurities:

Consistent Targets – Those who bully tend to set their sites on specific individuals. Whereas emotionally troubled individuals tend to project on anyone who interferes with them at the wrong time — even someone they cherish.

Strategy – Bullying is an intentional and methodical approach to causing harm to others. These individuals are aware of their actions and can control their behaviors, unlike someone who lacks emotional intelligence and is simply reacting.

Recruitment – Bullying typically involves a ‘leader’ and their posse (individuals they have groomed to support their abuse and harassment of others). While emotionally troubled individuals can gravitate toward others who are troubled, it is typically organic, not intentional.

Power hungry – Power is the primary driver of bullying because, as Fraser explains, “those who bully almost always have been bullied or abused. They have an inner emptiness that requires humiliating and harming targets to replenish the lack”. Whereas others who are struggling emotionally seek to control others because they feel a loss of control themselves.

How to deal with a “bully”:

First and foremost, realize it’s not about you:

How others treat you has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how they feel about themselves. Accepting this reality allows us to detach from others’ hateful words and actions and approach the situation with self-protection and empathy.

Empathy should not be misinterpreted as dismissal or justification of bullying behavior. Nor does it mean we must be passive in addressing the issue. You can simultaneously be assertive, compassionate, and empathetic — clearly stating your boundaries while also offering understanding and support.

“Addressing a bullying individual with empathy and compassion can restore them to feel they do belong. This kind of caring inclusion can only occur with transparency and accountability. The individual who is bullying must not be allowed to play the victim card. They must be confronted with the harm they have caused and take full responsibility. … Enabling bullying only reinforces the bully’s belief that the behavior is the way to fill their lack and construct a sense of self-worth,” says Fraser.

Understand their motives:

When addressing a bullying individual, it helps to try and understand their motives.

  • If they aim to embarrass you, ignoring their remark and redirecting the conversation to something light-hearted or neutral will take the fuel out of their agenda.

  • If they are trying to control you, establish clear boundaries with confidence and clarity. Stand your ground and believe in yourself. If you lack genuine confidence, they will see your insecurity and play on it—therefore, self-work is critical.

  • If they aim to make you feel weak or insignificant, stand in the truth of your strengths and worth. Do not respond to their remarks.

Remove yourself from the situation:

While this may seem easier said than done, it is essential for your psychological health and well-being to remove yourself from the situation by any means necessary.

If the bullying occurs at work, voice your concerns to HR and insist on arrangements. This may be being moved to another area of the building, the ability to work remotely, or request that the individual be addressed and consequences established.

Unfortunately, Fraser says, “targets have a history of getting revictimized when they go to HR. Institutions and organizations are frequently groomed and tricked by those who bully. They often end up re-victimizing the target.”

While this isn’t always the case, to ensure you have a solid case before going to HR, keep a detailed record of every account, and any other individuals you feel may be involved (their posse). If HR fails to act, this may require serious consideration about changing jobs. Ultimately, your well-being comes first.

Seek out a professional:

Whether you are currently dealing with bullying or are suffering from past trauma, it is best to reach out to a mental health care professional to help you work through the emotions and impact of this distressing behavior.

If you or someone you know is experiencing bullying, you may find help through bullying resources and partners. Or, contact Jennifer Fraser, Ph.D., at or learn more about the impacts of bullying in her book The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health.


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