On Adult Bullying

In the last 24 hours, I've had to address two instances of social bullying from people who used the good manners and good will present in professional and personal situations to say wretched things. Both instances were perpetrated by repeat offenders, and both happened because they thought that nobody (and certainly not a middle-aged woman) would have the courage to call them on their bad behavior.

I did. Both times.

For me, it's important to remember that people who engage in social bullying of this sort are engaging in emotional violence, and they succeed when I remain silent about it. Further, the bullies are counting on my need to preserve the professional or personal situation over my need to preserve my dignity. Women can be especially vulnerable to this tactic, since we're often socialized to do just that. But when I cave to that impulse and say nothing, my strength is sapped and my self-worth is compromised. I am made small. There have been times in my life when I allowed that to happen, too many times, and I just don't have the emotional currency to spend recovering from that smallness anymore.

In short, I have to say something. I can't afford not to.

It strikes me that it can be difficult to see this sort of bullying for what it is. The bullies are adults, not children or teenagers. The bullying is sometimes couched in humor or hidden behind authority. Victims of bullying are dismissed, if not because their concerns are belittled by the bullies themselves, then because excuses for adult bullies abound. And when a person's self-worth is already compromised, it can be far easier to internalize the dismissal and the belittling, which perpetuates an outer and inner cycle of emotional violence.

I think the most important thing I cultivated while learning to deal with this phenomenon was a willingness to listen to myself. If I was feeling emotionally violated, I needed to find out why, no matter what the cause turned out to be. Then I learned to examine the feeling critically; was I, or was I not being bullied? If I was, then how? After that, I had to decide whether or not to address it. (The answer to this is easy: Always respond, even if you can't be as eloquent as you'd like. Don't let the bully go unanswered.) Finally, I had to refine my responses, and that's what I'm learning to do now. It's the hardest part, because there are as many ways to respond as there are people who bully. For my part, I tend to either address the behavior calmly and directly or with humor that points to the behavior without straining the social environment. In a pinch, however, I keep a She-Hulk suit in the closet, and I'm not afraid to wear it.

Ultimately though, none of us should have to fight this fight alone. A First Nations woman of my acquaintance once told me that among her people, there's a custom in situations of bullying whereby the community supports the victim by showing up and physically standing behind her while she addresses her grievances to the bully. The community members say nothing themselves, but their combined, silent presence lends strength to the person struggling to overcome her vulnerability and reclaim her power. I think we can learn from that custom not to be victims and not to be bystanders, but to speak when we're being bullied and to offer support when it's happening to someone else. No social situation is so worth preserving that we should do it at the expense of our human dignity. I'd rather have my workday or my party ruined than have my self-worth compromised or watch while it was happening to someone else.