Dealing with an adult bully

As children we have probably all been witnesses to bullying (even if you didn’t recognise it at the time) or you may yourself have been a victim. It’s unpleasant and can leave lasting scars that can follow us into adulthood.

What can be very hard to deal with and understand is the adult as the bully. It’s something we hope that will be left in the playground but unfortunately it often isn’t. Just as with many types of destructive behaviours, you may not immediately recognise the adult bully and it can be very disconcerting to discover just how cleverly they are able to manipulate others (without them even realising at times) to fulfil their own needs and therefore it can be very hard to have any dealings with them.

Often, bullies will be very insecure themselves and will need to surround themselves with people who will praise them and put them on a pedestal. However, this is likely to be a false sense of security for them – just like the school bully who relies on a protective “fence” of other pupils around them, these adult friends or colleagues of the bully are likely to be scared that they will be the next victims and so the relationship is based on fear, not respect. 

So, how do you handle the adult bully when you come across one?

At work

Workplace bullying can be awful. The need to earn a living coupled with knowing that you have to deal with it every day can lead to depression and anxiety. The bullying can sometimes be subtle, for example, it may take the form of being excluded from meetings, unjustly being overlooked for promotion or being demeaned in front of others. It can be difficult to gain support from others (from their own fear) but if you work for a large organisation, you can ask, through the HR department, if they will give you confidential access to a counsellor through an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). Being able to talk through your concerns with a trained professional can be very empowering and help you overcome the fear you may be feeling and gain clarity to see the path ahead. If your workplace doesn’t offer EAP support, contact your union to see if you can access confidential counselling through them or if this isn’t an option, you may consider consulting a counsellor privately – have a look through the Counselling Directory to find a therapist near to you.


Arguably, this may prove harder than dealing with the workplace bully – whilst you can chose to leave work behind, the bully outside can be trickier. They can be found in many areas – on social media, outside the school gates, in clubs, organisations and in communities. Again, they will likely surround themselves with their protective "fence" of others who may be too scared to challenge them or people with sycophantic tendencies – people who are also insecure about themselves and their own place in society. It can be difficult to get beyond this fence as the adult bully may find it hard to talk one-to-one and will use the support of others to justify their actions.

What you can do is take away their ‘power” by choosing not to play their game – if you’re on the receiving end, you can decide not to engage with it and walk away from the drama and chaos they create. If they try to get you to gang up on others with them, be true to yourself, set your personal boundaries and again, don’t get caught up in their dramas. It’s worth remembering that bullies, whether they are children or adults, are often damaged people and have to create drama to feed their own needs.  

Whilst their behaviour may be challenging, taking a step back and imagining the scared person behind the angry mask can be very empowering as it allows us to get in touch with our compassionate side, even when we are feeling very angry about their behaviour. Staying calm and sticking with your personal boundaries about what is and isn’t acceptable can be helpful.

Social media can be tricky – if you don’t take part, you may have feelings that you are not included in the “gang”. It’s worth remembering that social media is a tool and it is only as useful as it’s user - some people will choose social media to play out their dramas. Again, you have the choice about whether you engage with this or not. Do you want to be a player in another persons drama or do you want to use social media to keep in touch with people who genuinely have your wellbeing at heart? You can check your privacy settings are set so that only trusted friends and family can contact you or see your posts/photos. If you’re unsure how to do this, check the “help” section in settings.

If you are suffering from the behaviour of a bully and are finding it very hard to cope with, please don’t think you’re alone – it crops up quite often in the counselling room, whether it’s workplace or home but with good support from counselling and people who care about you, you can feel stronger and more able to deal with it.

When you’re ready, counsellors are here to help and support you. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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