How To Hold The Bullies In Your Life Accountable - Because It's A Lot Harder As An Adult

Although we often think of bullying as something that only kids endure, especially those in junior high and high school, adults can be bullied too. All the drama and pettiness of our youth can carry over into adulthood — and not just in movies like "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" where the mean girls never matured out of their meanness.


According to a 2017 survey by the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), 31% of respondents reported having been bullied as an adult. Similar to the bullying that children and adolescents experience, the impact on mental health is inevitable. The same survey found that 71% of victims of adult bullying suffer from stress, 70% experience anxiety and depression, 55% report lower self-esteem, and 19% report having a mental breakdown due to the bullying.

If you've been the victim of malicious rumors, threatened, berated, called offensive names, yelled at, or feel like someone's emotional and mental punching bag, it's time to call it what it is: bullying. And now's the time to do something about it. 


Recognize the bullying behavior

There's no one type of bullying. People use their power to bully — whether it's verbal bullying, passive-aggressive bullying, cyberbullying, or in some cases, physical bullying. Bullying in all its forms is abusive and is meant to intimidate, humiliate, strip people of their confidence, and keep them down for the satisfaction of the bully. 


"Bullying is a coping strategy used to assert control when faced with personal limitations, whether intellectual, physical or otherwise," Dr. Charles Sophy, psychiatrist and medical director for the County of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services told AOA. "A bully gains power in a relationship by reducing another's and shows little regard for the consequences to a victim's health or well-being."

As much as bullying can really mess with someone's head, creating long-term mental health issues, it's important to realize bullying and harassment aren't the same thing. Harassment is the taunting, humiliation, and yes, bullying but it's of someone who's part of a protected class. If you're bullied for being a woman, for being gay, or being Black, that's harassment. If you're being bullied by being ridiculed, intimidated, or made to feel like you're worthless and it's unrelated to your protected class, then it's bullying.


Understand it's not about you

When someone bullies others, it's about them and their issues. No one is born a bully. People learn to bully early on in their childhood from those whom they were surrounded by as children. In some cases, that could be other kids, or even caretakers and people who were supposed to be role models. "I think one of the smartest keys to learning how to deal with bullies, especially if this is somebody who you interact with on a more or less regular basis, is to consider this person's background," author of "How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People" Preston Ni told CNN. "And if you know the person came from a traumatic family environment, showing some empathy and understanding in no way excuses the bullying behavior, but it reduces the intimidation factor."


According to a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, those who were bullied as kids, especially by those who were supposed to protect them, have it far worse off than those who weren't bullied. As adults, these individuals are more prone to physical ailments and mental disorders, substance addictions, and some have even been convicted of various crimes, including felonies. Childhood bullying also leads to less educated adults which, in turn, leads to lower income. 

In other words, as much as it's hard not to take bullying personally, it really isn't about you. If anything, you should pity the person doing the bullying.

Keep your distance

Trying to reason with a bully is near impossible. They're so wrapped up in their own insecurities and their need to make others feel bad that trying to have an adult conversation that's going to be productive and reach a resolution, just isn't going to happen. Because of this, it's best to keep your distance. You're not running away by avoiding them, but protecting yourself from what vileness they want to spew at you.


"It can be incredibly difficult not to fight back when they attack you, but you have to do your best to be the bigger person and not descend to their level," psychiatrist Dr. Zlatin Ivanov told Real Simple. "If they launch another attack on you, ask them to stop. If they don't, just walk away. Do your best not to engage. At all times, use polite, unemotional language."

Remember, bullies want to get a rise out of you. They want to see you get angry or sad because of them — this is the response they crave. So when you keep things unemotional, walk away, and don't give in, then you've taken away the thrill they get from bullying you.

Keep a log of their behavior

If it comes to a point where you need to go to HR or pursue legal action, you want everything the bully has said and done logged. Texts, emails, and social media posts shouldn't just be saved but screenshotted so you have backup. Make notes of what was said or done on certain days and at what times. If and when you can, record or film the behavior.


With bullying, unless your bully is bullying more than just you, it comes down to two people and two sides to the story. If you need to take a step toward talking to someone in your company or if your bully is, say, your neighbor and you're going to go to the police, you want all that proof piled up and ready to present. That way you'll have something to stand on, whereas your bully will have nothing. It's not very likely that your bully is keeping a log of all the times they shamed you and made you feel like you were nothing. 

Report them

Although some bullies move on when you stop responding, if the bullying persists you have every right to report them. And since you have a log of their behavior, it's going to make things a lot easier for you and more difficult for them. If the bullying is happening in the workplace, then go to HR. But, again, keep in mind that bullying and harassment aren't the same, so don't expect your bully to be out of a job by the end of the day. Instead, human resources can help you navigate the situation.


"[HR can] help with coping and stress management strategies, developing skills and strategies for working with or around the bully or confronting the bully in the appropriate manner, requesting HR to step in to create awareness and advise the bully against further acts or retaliation, or pursuing more formal investigative processes," Daniel Griffiths, negotiations and alternative dispute resolution professor at Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs explained via Higher Ed Jobs.

But if the bullying is coming from someone outside the workplace, like a neighbor or a family member, then you need to take another route — especially because bullying isn't illegal. When addressing adult bullying, it's likely to come down to therapy. You can only do so much to try to hold bullies accountable and when you've exhausted your options, then it's time to focus on yourself and your mental health. The stronger you are mentally, the smaller the bully becomes.