Bullies only have power if we let them

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

Recently a bully targeted a friend of mine. And it wasn’t the first time.

Both bully and victim are adults – sort of shocking, I know. Some of you know I blog on another site. The two involved both blog there, too. The whole incident took me aback.

My friend had shared a personal story that left her a little vulnerable. She talked about the joy she finds in giving and teaching her daughter to do the same. The bully accused her of bragging and patting herself on the back. And, like all bullies do, the aggressor seized the opportunity to ridicule my friend and poke fun at her.

It’s one thing to disagree with someone – nothing wrong there. But to do it with harshness and animosity and pure, unadulterated spite – that’s just wrong and uncalled for.

Most distressing of all was the fact that others joined in – some because maybe they didn’t see the bully’s actions for what they were, but many because it’s easy to pick on someone once the taunting starts. Snark is a mask behind which cowards hide.

The whole incident made me ill, and I stewed about it for days. Anger and resentment welled inside me. It wasn’t even my battle, but I can’t stand seeing a friend wronged.

Well, this past semester, I took a course in human behavior. And if there’s one thing I learned, it’s that people act the way they do for a reason.

So I decided to analyze the bully’s actions and figure out what motivates this person to be so mean-spirited. Because if I’m going to be a social worker, I’ll be working with plenty of people who rub me the wrong way. But that doesn’t mean I can judge them or refuse to work with them. I just have to accept them where they are before I can come up with an intervention.

This time around, I figured it out.

First off, when my friend wrote about giving, she caused the bully and cohorts to feel guilty. They likely realize they could do more to make the world a better place. But instead of feeling inspired or sharing stories of their own philanthropy, they chose to lash out at the person they identified as causing their feelings of guilt.

How immature, you might say. And you’d be right, because by my calculations, such behavior is indicative of people with arrested development who are stuck in the fifth stage of Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development. The fifth stage is adolescence – a time when children posture and doubt themselves and learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

Most people move through that stage to the sixth stage of young adulthood, where they begin to realize their place in the world and develop committed, mature relationships. You can only reach this stage, however, if you’ve completed the fifth stage.

For a variety of reasons, many people don’t move beyond the adolescent stage. Which explains why you’ll find adults acting like bitchy middle-school girls.

So I believe for this bully, being mean is a defense mechanism that hides the bully’s true feelings of inadequacy. And for this reason, being mean recharges the bully’s internal battery.

Knowing this, I no longer bear animosity toward my friend’s bully and her posse. I just feel pity and hope that they get the help they need to move forward with their emotional development.