Features

Working with adults who bully

By Lisa R. Rhodes

May 2023

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Everyone can remember being bullied. Maybe someone teased you relentlessly about your name because it “sounded funny” or they made fun of your physical appearance. Maybe someone pushed you around in the schoolyard, gossiped about you behind your back or made sure you were never invited to a birthday party. Unfortunately, some children don’t outgrow these bullying behaviors, and the tendency to bully others can continue into adulthood. “Children who bully other children are more likely to bully as an adult,” says Tony Grace, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and co-owner of Second Growth Counseling in Portland, Oregon. “They are five times more likely to have a criminal record, 10 times more likely to deceive others, six times more likely to fight other adults and three times more likely to harass.” Research shows that adult bullying is common and many people are affected by it. A survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association in 2017, found that 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. And approximately 48.6 million Americans were bullied at work in 2021, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI). “Adult bullying behavior can take many forms and it can happen in any social arena where there are two or more people involved,” Grace says. “That means bullying can not only happen in the workplace, but also in places of worship [and] spiritual settings, mission-driven organizations, PTA committees, parent-child playgroups and the home.”

The impact of adult bullying

Since most adults don’t usually physically threaten or attack other adults, adult bullying is often covert, Grace says, but it is no less violent in its effect on a target’s psyche and well-being. For example, a spouse in a marriage may require that only their needs are met, resulting in a relationship that is not authentic or equitable for the other spouse, he says. The bullying spouse may insist on having an open marriage — but only for themselves — or they may refuse to pay any bills and make extravagant purchases for themselves, leaving the other spouse to handle a constrained budget. “The negative impact of bullying can be overwhelming and long-lasting,” Grace adds. “Bullying can cause anxiety, depression, panic attacks and/or disorders, suicidal ideation and somatic disorders, among other issues,” for the person who is the target of the bully. It can also have a negative impact on the person with bullying behaviors; for example, bullying may lead to recurrent loss of meaningful relationships, a sense of loneliness and a feeling of always being on edge. Jessi Eden Brown, a licensed mental health counselor and LPC in Lake Forest Park, Washington, who works as the professional coach for WBI, says bullying is “truly a global problem.” It affects people of all races, ethnic groups, socioeconomic backgrounds and religions, and workplace bullying can be experienced at any time during a person’s career. “The lingering effects from a bullying experience can be remarkable,” Brown says. “It may take years to recover from an experience like this.” Adult bullying can be so detrimental that it can unhinge the self-esteem of the person who is being bullied and ruin their close relationships. Bullying in the workplace can also lead to absenteeism and poor performance. For example, Brown says a supervisor may transfer an employee to another department to isolate them from the rest of the team or to remove the resources they need to do their job. A supervisor may also unfairly criticize an employee’s work performance or hold the employee to a different professional standard than others on the team. Melissa Spino, an LPC at Life Transitions Therapy in Lowell, Michigan, says clients who bully others in the workplace may engage in aggressive, passive-aggressive and hostile communication, or they may use personal attacks, false and hurtful rumors, and insults to target employees of a specific gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. Adults who bully others may have also been negatively affected by bullying. Spino says these individuals have often experienced trauma in childhood and have been bullied by others. They may have learned their harmful behavior from their family of origin, where they used the behavior as a coping mechanism and it became a behavioral norm. Research shows that children who were not only targeted by bullies but who also bullied others, also known as “bully-victims,” have negative experiences as adults. In an article published in Psychological Science in 2013, Dieter Wolke and colleagues stated that victims of childhood bullying, particularly chronic victims and bully-victims “are at increased risk for adverse health, wealth and social functioning in adulthood.” Spino has also found that adults who bully others sometimes struggle with mental health issues such as narcissism, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, substance use disorder, impulse control issues or depression. They may also exhibit low self-esteem or self-worth or even be on the autism spectrum. Some of her clients have also presented with suicidal ideation. Adults who engage in bullying behavior often feel powerless in their personal lives, Spino adds. “They may be living with someone that is very controlling, have a mental health disorder or [are being bullied by someone they know],” she says. “Some engage in displacement and take this out on co-workers or those they supervise in the form of bullying behaviors.” Whether in the workplace or at home, bullying always involves an unequal power dynamic between the bully and the person being targeted. “All bullying involves a person with power,” Brown notes. An adult bully “demeans, humiliates or harms someone they feel may be vulnerable. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, there is harm.”

Reluctance to seek help

The counselors interviewed for this article acknowledge that although adult bullies engage in unhealthy behaviors and can experience unhealthy thinking patterns, they rarely, if ever, seek treatment for these mental health issues. Spino says that most of the clients who come to her practice for help with bullying describe being “forced” to come. “Most often adult bullies seek treatment because a spouse threatens to leave them or their employer mandates it as a remedy for problem work behaviors,” she explains. “For employers, it’s often a final attempt to avoid terminating a valuable employee.” Some of Spino’s clients have also been mandated by the court to be treated for anger management because of their aggressive bullying behavior. Grace says about 10% of his caseload is made up of clients who present bullying behavior, but he has found that these clients don’t self-identify as bullies or see their behaviors as bullying. “They may see their relationships as problematic, but I have never had someone come in saying, ‘Please help me, I am a bully,’” he notes. In fact, he finds that these clients are often reluctant to take responsibility for their actions or notice how their actions have negatively affected others or themselves. He says adult bullies can see themselves as victims, tend to have an external locus of control and often justify their behaviors or actions. “In many cases, the client will want to focus on changing the behavior of others, whether it’s partners, parents, siblings or co-workers,” Grace adds. “This desire to change others is the same emotional posture of bullying. [They want to] control others’ behaviors in order to gain something from them.” Grace says counselors can encourage this clientele to participate in therapy by advising them that a change in their behavior can help to protect their professional reputation and save the relationships that they profess are meaningful to them, such as ones with a romantic partner or their children. Counselors can also help adults who bully recognize the importance of their existential growth, Grace says. “Bullying clients can benefit from being reminded that everyone has something to process, evolve into or grow from,” he explains. “Anyone who claims they have life figured out and that they don’t have anything to work on is going to be a red flag for others in both personal and professional settings.” When adult bullies do come in for treatment, Grace recommends that they watch Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk “On being wrong” because, he says, it helps clients “recognize that being fallible is part of being human and bullying is often an attempt to never be wrong or wronged.”

Changing unhealthy thinking

Grace says clients who display bullying behaviors may also present with cognitive disorders. He has found that these clients usually demonstrate one of several distorted thought processes, which can include:
  • Dichotomous thinking: “Bullies tend to view the world with black-and-white thinking. They tend to have polarized thinking, for example, right versus wrong, good versus evil, strong versus weak and power versus helpless,” Grace explains. “Because of this polarized thinking, they tend to view themselves as good and anyone who opposes or disagrees with them as bad.”
  • Projection: “Bullies tend to project themselves onto others and attribute their own intentions, thought distortions, belief systems or values to others, and then respond accordingly,” Grace says. “For example, they tend to take criticism as a personal attack on their worth, value and competency because they often dispense criticism as a means to judge or attack others.”
  • Biased thinking: “Bullies also tend to overemphasize their target’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, mistakes and human characteristics while minimizing or ignoring the target’s strengths, power and other positive attributes,” Grace says. “They also tend to minimize their own faults or negative attitudes while highlighting their strengths and/or good intentions.”
Adults who bully often feel a greater sense of safety and security when they are in control and have power over others, Grace adds. Therefore, counseling work often involves helping these clients challenge their worldview and their beliefs about themselves. He often uses cognitive behavioral techniques to reframe clients’ thinking and negative distortions. A few examples of the thought patterns that Grace and his clients work to reframe include:
  • “I am more than the sum of my mistakes” versus “My mistakes reveal an internal weakness or defectiveness”
  • “Not every interaction is a competition” versus “Only the best, smartest and most keen survive”
  • “I don’t need to win every conflict to be safe” versus “My safety is conditional”
Grace tries to help clients see that intimacy, vulnerability and fallibility are a part of being human. “Their worth, power and reputation are not tarnished by having these characteristics,” he says. Spino acknowledges that although the ideal treatment for adult bullies would be to stop their unhealthy behaviors and replace them with healthy ones, this isn’t always realistic. “Especially when the majority don’t want help, won’t acknowledge they are the problem or accept any responsibility for their actions,” she adds. Spino says she uses schema-focused cognitive therapy with these clients because “it integrates cognitive therapy with other psychological treatment approaches.” She finds it is especially helpful for clients with personality disorders or deeply ingrained patterns, which she says is often the case with adults who display bullying behavior. During the intake process, Spino also uses counseling assessment software to learn about her clients’ personality, home of origin, and thinking and anger patterns. Spino once worked with a client who was engaging in bullying behavior in the workplace. Through assessment, she learned that this client had experienced parental neglect during childhood and had a high propensity for antisocial and narcissistic traits. This client had been bullying one co-worker because he felt this colleague was more popular than he was and was advancing at a faster pace in the company, Spino recalls. The client tried to sabotage this co-worker’s career by using aggressive behaviors and spreading untrue rumors about them at work. During one session, she also discovered that the client had negative thoughts underlying his bullying behavior. He told her he felt that he was more intelligent than his co-worker and that he should be “the one to bring this person down” because “everyone else was too stupid” to see that this colleague really was “a nobody.” The client, however, refused to explore any underlying issues and would often shut down when Spino brought up his bullying behavior. He refused to accept that he could be terminated for his behavior because he believed he was “irreplaceable,” she says. When Spino suggested that they end therapy because the client wasn’t making any progress, his disposition changed. Then they were able to make some therapeutic gains by helping him to accept the company’s policies and procedures to prevent his sabotage against the co-worker. He also eventually managed to stop spreading rumors.

Bullying as a social norm

Part of the reason adults who display bullying behaviors don’t consider their behavior to be harmful or inappropriate is because society often views those same behaviors as socially acceptable, Grace says. For example, he says that it’s common practice for adults to spread gossip about others, which can be harmful or humiliating, and at work people in subordinate roles are often unable to review their managers or people in higher leadership positions. “Our culture tends to elevate or promote people who have antisocial behaviors,” Grace says. “We call it professionalism, or we call it ambition. We call it something other than bullying behavior.” Grace says society often has a fawn response to adult bullying behavior, and he believes more bullies would seek counseling if society did not hold them in high esteem, give them positions of power or minimize the consequences of their behavior. “Unfortunately, instead of seeing adult bullying behavior as violent and antisocial, we tend to make them out to be heroes and thus shower them with fame, fortune and more power,” Grace says. “Why would a bully want to change their behaviors when they gain so much from it?” Although therapy could help adult bullies increase a sense of empathy and respect for others, this can be a challenging task for therapists. “They [the clients] really don’t [want to] learn empathy and true respect but instead learn to fake it by accepting it as a social norm they need to adhere to in order to function in society,” Spino notes. Brown says that some organizations and companies cultivate a culture of bullying. For example, organizational leaders may develop policies that place additional strain or pressure on employees (e.g., unforgiving attendance policies that allow for harsh, quick disciplinary actions) or that place a high value on competition among employees. “Some managers see bullying as a valid form of motivation,” Brown says. They may not see anything wrong with mistreating an employee in a subordinate role, and they may excuse their own behavior by saying “that’s how we operate,” and that they are following the company’s rules, she adds. Brown works with adult bullies through WBI’s Respectful Conduct Clinic, a service provided to companies that have identified a bully and want to give the person a chance to improve their professional skills before taking any steps for termination. WBI helps these companies develop new policies, trainings and enforcement protocols to prevent and stop bullying, while also defining a new standard of workplace behavior that applies to all employees, she explains. As WBI’s professional coach, Brown helps employees who bully come to terms with their mistreatment of others and uses her counseling skills to help them gain insight into their unwelcome behavior. She says she usually begins session with a friendly, open statement such as “Your employer asked me to meet with you today. I’m guessing you might have some ideas or thoughts about why. What do you think is happening here?” She then shares the employer’s concerns regarding the bullying behavior and outlines the consequences with the client, without disclosing the identity of the co-worker who is being bullied. She also uses psychoeducation about workplace bullying and mobbing (group bullying) to try to help the bully understand why their behavior is unacceptable. The bully is then presented with the company’s new workplace standards and is given the opportunity to remain with the employer and adhere to the new guidelines or voluntarily resign. “It may sound harsh, but this method is quite effective in eradicating bullying from the workplace and restoring a culture of safety and respect,” Brown says.

Holding adults who bully accountable

The counselors interviewed for this article stress that although adults who bully can be challenging to treat, it is imperative that clinicians engage with this population to educate them and the public about the dangers of bullying across the life span. Spino believes that knowledge is power, so she suggests counselors work to educate others about bullying through webinars, seminars, articles and social media. “Schools, employers and our legal system need to work together to come up with best practices for dealing with bullies and holding them accountable,” she says. Grace says that clients who display bullying behaviors also need to be shown compassion. “If you look beyond the bullying surface, you will often find someone who has deep, long-lasting wounds and unfulfilled needs,” he says. Although counseling can help some of these clients change their behavior, Grace also acknowledges that real change is a systemic effort. “Change cannot just happen on an individual level but must happen socially and with the societal structures we have built that actually reward bullying behavior,” he stresses. Brown agrees that accountability is critical for adults who engage in bullying behaviors. “Regular counseling presents a unique opportunity to experiment with different behaviors, explore the outcomes and commit to demonstrable change,” she says. “It is a safe environment, without judgment, where the individual can develop a deeper understanding of their behavior and stumble through the difficult work of transforming how they relate to others.”

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Read more about helping clients who have experienced adult bullying in the online exclusive "The mental toll of adult bullying."   
Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lrhodes@counseling.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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