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4 Ways to Deal With an Adult Bully and Take Back Your Joy

We often think of bullies as the mean kids who tormented us on the playground — but as adults, they can be disguised as co-workers, friends, and even family members. Here’s how to deal with an adult bully, reduce stress, and take back joy!

Why do people bully others?

Already nervous about giving a presentation on Zoom, you feel belittled when a co-worker makes a ″joke″ at your expense. This type of ″undercover undermining″ can make us question our judgment, and sometimes our worth. But when a bully comes in the form of a colleague or loved one, it’s even harder to avoid or confront them — so they tend to go unchecked, making us feel stressed, insecure, and powerless.

Understanding that most bullies are often bullied themselves can help us put emotional distance between their toxic behavior and our sense of self, reveals Preston Ni, a professor of communication studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, and author of How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People. ″But it’s also important to remember that you’re not responsible for their happiness, and you can set strong boundaries to restore your peace.″

″I’ve learned the best antidote to bullying is finding tangible ways to remind myself of my power,″ reveals journalist Gretchen Carlson, author of Be Fierce (Buy on Amazon, $9.95), who led the charge against workplace harassment. ″For example, I got three bracelets with the words fearless, brave, and carpe diem to remind me of my strength.″ Read on for more strategies on dodging stressful bullies and reclaiming your power.

The Joker

A friend puts you down under the guise of ″humor,″ leaving you uneasy and unsure how to respond. These bullies pass off their behavior as ″just joking″ to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, observes Ni. ″It’s all a game to them,″ adds Mabel Yiu, director of the Women’s Therapy Institute in Palo Alto, California. ″Everything is about eliciting a response from you.″

After a hurtful ″joke,″ simply refute it in your mind. It can be as easy as picturing one piece of evidence that disproves their claim. This helps you realize that you’re not the problem, freeing you from self-doubt, reveals Ni. Questioning the validity of their remark also guards against gaslighting — when lies get repeated so often, victims begin to believe them. If you feel comfortable, consider following the joke with, ″I don’t get it,″ suggests Yiu. Comedians — who have to learn to deal with hecklers — know that the quickest way to defuse a taunt is to ask it to be explained. Doing just that puts the focus back on the bully, deflecting their so-called humor.

The Troll

One of your Facebook posts has been hijacked by a former classmate who’s questioning your beliefs. ″The relative anonymity of online platforms means bullies have less fear of consequences,″ confirms Ni. Being criticized on a public forum, where hundreds of others can witness it, further compounds your stress.

To tame trolls, arm yourself with a mantra. If you’re on ″home turf,″ like your Facebook page, remind yourself that the majority of folks here support you by repeating the phrase: People are on my side. ″Whenever I’m dealing with someone who’s mean, I repeat a silly monologue,″ says Anne Bonney, host of the Ignite Your Influence podcast (formerly known as Igniting Courage). ″I think, Imagine how tiring it must be having to act this way to everyone in the world. I’m sure glad I don’t treat people like that. Who has the time?″ This takes the sting out of their attack without confrontation, so you can go on with your day.

The Critic

While enjoying Sunday dinner, a friend of the family criticizes your cooking, calling the biscuits ″tasty … but dry.″ ″Passive-aggressiveness is hostility in disguise,″ explains Ni. This type of behavior — delivered in small doses — can be hard to call out because bullies will deny that any transgression ever took place.

Keep your spirits up by labeling this behavior for what it is. ″When it comes to people you can’t avoid, I advise a strategy called ‘engage and disengage,’″ says Ni. Interact as little as possible with the bully, then remove yourself from the conversation. At dinner, for example, you might excuse yourself to get something from the kitchen. During this time-out, affirm to yourself that you’re worthy of healthy relationships. ″With that simple declaration, you’ll exude the confidence to attract only people who have your best interests at heart,″ he promises. ″The beautiful thing is, we have a lot of power to set our own boundaries in a variety of ways, without needing ‘permission’ from the bully.″

The Loved One

Ever since your sister’s difficult divorce, she’s made little digs about your marriage. Though it hurts and feels very personal in the moment, it’s important to remember that bullies often lash out because of their own emotional wounds that have nothing to do with us.

To break free of this dynamic, just remind yourself that it’s not you … it’s them. For example, She’s behaving this way because she is in pain. Shifting your focus like this helps you let go of resentment and open to empathy. ″Showing understanding in no way excuses their behavior, but it does reduce their intimidation factor,″ says Ni. If they continue, try disrupting their train of thought with an unexpected sound, like loudly placing your cup on a saucer or sliding your chair on the hardwood floor. ″Others might miss it, but the bully will hear it,″ promises Shane Kulman, author of From Anxiety to Ease (available for free on Kindle Unlimited). And if they still don’t get the hint, consider repeating aloud the last word they said, letting it linger in the air. This linguistics trick makes the repeated word temporarily lose its meaning and sound ridiculous. As a result, the unkind remark loses its power allowing you to regain yours.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.

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