A Man Ought to Know How to Handle Something Like This

Bullying doesn’t always stop when childhood ends.

I feel like a coward today.

Someone’s pushing me around and I don’t know how to handle it.

A man ought to know how to handle something like this.

I’m angry with the other person for being so relentlessly petty and unreasonable.

I’m angry with myself for feeling powerless to do anything about it.

I’ve been accommodating and accommodating and accommodating in an effort to keep the peace. That makes me angry, too.

I know that I’m being provoked by someone who wants a fight. Someone who enjoys fighting. Someone who thrives on it. A bully. Devious. Ornery. Vengeful. Passive-aggressive. And more than a little crazy.

I’m not trying to keep the peace merely for the sake of avoiding conflict. I’m genuinely concerned about how this person might respond if I assert myself. I’m not concerned in this case that I might be subject to direct physical harm, but there are plenty of other ways to hurt someone and sabotage his life.

A man ought to know how to handle something like this.


Did I mention that the other person is a woman?

I’ve been plagued by bullies, abusers, and saboteurs my whole life. I don’t understand them. I don’t know what motivates them. I can understand acting out in a moment of anger or hurt. I can’t understand making that sort of behavior into a lifestyle.

I’ve learned through a lot of painful, costly experience that it’s pointless to try to reason with people who live and act this way. Accommodating them is a temporary workaround at best. Standing up to them often makes things worse. Be prepared to enter a state of all-out war if you do. They’re not interested in peace and they aren’t plagued by a desire for cooperation or a guilty conscience. They need to dominate, they enjoy inflicting damage, they’re more than happy to escalate, and they need to win. That’s all.

A man ought to know how to handle something like this.

I feel like a coward today.

I know that a big chunk of the fear, anger, and powerlessness I’m feeling right now is not a direct product of the current situation, but part of the legacy of a childhood spent in the company of bullies, abusers, and saboteurs. Some of them were adults and some were other children. Some were family members and some were not. Some were male and some were female. The males typically employed a strategy of physical and verbal intimidation and harm, while the females tended more toward manipulation and other more subtle, indirect, passive-aggressive forms of control and assault on one’s boundaries and well-being.

As a kid, I always felt deeply ashamed of my inability to protect myself from people who behaved in such horrible ways, and I remember thinking so many times, “I can’t wait until I grow up so I won’t have to put up with people treating me like this.”

And here I am, all grown up, feeling just like I did then. Scared, confused, and frozen, with no idea what to do, like an animal on the highway staring into the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.

A man ought to know how to handle something like this. But I don’t. Does that mean I’m not a man?

Dr. Steven N. Gold, author of Not Trauma Alone: Therapy for Child Abuse Survivors in Family and Social Context and Director of the Trauma Resolution Integration Program at Nova Southeastern University has written:

“… many of the difficulties experienced by survivors of prolonged child abuse are not due solely to discrete incidents of abuse. Often ongoing abuse occurs in an interpersonal environment that fails to teach many of the abilities needed to cope effectively with the complexities of adult living.”

Our history holds on to us until we’ve dealt with it, no matter how much we may want it to go away. Experience tells me that when negative or harmful patterns recur in my life, there’s often some stage of development I’ve yet to complete, usually from my childhood and usually because it was impossible for me to complete it then. There’s typically some unfelt, unexpressed trauma blocking my way as well. There’s also something I need to learn, generally some new way of being with myself, with other people, and with the situations that life presents.

I know that, at some level, I’m still trying to deal with the current situation in the same way I dealt with situations that felt the same or similar to me when I was a child. I know that much of the intensity I’m feeling around the current person and situation is the aggregate of all the unresolved intensity I’ve felt and carried all my life from early, long-term torture, torment, and mistreatment by bullies, abusers, and saboteurs.

The fear and powerlessness I feel right now is the very same fear and powerlessness I felt as a child, while the rage I’m trying not to feel right now is the very same rage I could not allow myself to feel as a child because it was not safe to do so. And I feel trapped, just as I so often did as a child, between the need to stand up for myself and the need to feel safe from the retribution that was likely to follow if I did.

Now, as a grown man, my mind races, my chest tightens, and my guts churn as I contemplate my current situation. I know there’s an opportunity for me here, as there always is. Every situation has healing potential. Every situation holds the opportunity for growth. But damn if I can see it right now.

Sometimes the stories that begin in childhood weave in and out of our lives through the years and take the better part of a lifetime to play out. Bullies, abusers, and saboteurs, both male and female, have been part of my story from the beginning. Maybe they’ll continue to be part of that story throughout my life. Maybe they are, as Dr. Gold put it, one of the “complexities of adult living” rather than something I can eliminate someday when I get big enough or old enough, as I’d dreamed and promised myself I would when I was a child.

I’d still prefer that wasn’t true, but if it is (and it probably is), I hope I can get better at dealing with them. After all, a man ought to know how to handle something like this.



This was previously published on poetry, dreams, and the body.

Read more by Rick Belden: Healing Is Not for Wimps

A man ought to know how to handle something like this by Rick Belden, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Image credit: tippi t/Flickr

About Rick Belden

Rick Belden is the author of Iron Man Family Outing: Poems about Transition into a More Conscious Manhood. His book is widely used in the United States and internationally by therapists, counselors, and men’s groups as an aid in the exploration of masculine psychology and men’s issues, and as a resource for men who grew up in dysfunctional, abusive, or neglectful family systems. His second book, Scapegoat’s Cross: Poems about Finding and Reclaiming the Lost Man Within, is currently awaiting publication. He lives in Austin, Texas.

More information, including excerpts from Rick’s books, is available at his website. His first book, "Iron Man Family Outing," is available here. You can follow Rick Belden on Facebook.


  1. Thank you for writing this, Rick…you have a gift for saying things that no one else dares to say…and that takes real guts…

    I am facing some medical issues and seeking support from the people around me…and it is shocking to me that my own mother says such bullying, crazy things to me, which I now understand are all about her, and not really about me…luckily, I have brothers who tell her to stop with her circular rantings and to wake up and try to be the supportive mother that I need right now…

    Anyway, I go to support group which is run by my doctor’s office…and wow, it is pretty amazing to hang with a bunch of people who get me and are very supportive and don’t pity me….I think most of the people in my life live in their own heads, like there is their own TV show, starring themselves, and I am just some supporting character…and it is hard to tell them to shut off that stupid show and just listen to me in real time…

    • Thank you for your comment, Leia. I think the realization that what the other person is doing is about them more than it’s about you is really important. Even so, we still have our needs to be seen, recognized, heard, and supported, especially in times of challenge and crisis. I’m glad you realize that and are taking the necessary steps to find the support you need and deserve. Hope you’re well again soon.

  2. Rick, I was very moved by what you wrote. Even though you write, “A man ought to know how to handle something like this,” I still have the same as a woman, although I guess my wording for myself would be “An adult ought to know how to handle something like this.” I think it’s true that cultural norms expect more from men in this way, the stick-up-for-yourself energy, and that’s an added pressure and entryway to shame. But as a woman, it’s so important for me too ~ to access heroic qualities in my life, most especially when these triggering events arise, and I get the chance to do it over in a different way, because now I can.
    Thanks, as always, for your work in the world.

    • Thanks for your comment, Marla. As you said, knowing how and when to stand up for oneself, and having the will and the skill to do it, is an aspect of adult living that transcends gender. But as you also said, there’s another layer of conditioning and expectation on top it (maybe several layers) for men that begins in boyhood and goes right to the heart of one’s identity as a man, and I think you described it well.

  3. I’ve read accounts like this where “bullying” is confronted, and they always make me uncomfortable because there is an idea here that “bullies” are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us. At best, this viewpoint seems to lack nuance, and at worst it’s just flat out wrong.

    I used to work for a small retail company in San Francisco. We only had 3 locations, and our primary business was selling t-shirts to tourists. This was not a job that anyone wants: the clientele were rude, often treated you like you were a moron, and the work was menial.

    But the worst part of the job was probably my boss. She was in her mid-40s and she exhibited bullying behavior about half of the time that I saw her. She was very liberal with personal insults, often raised her voice and used condescending tones, while forbidding anyone else from doing the same, and took steps to remind all of us that she was the business owner and we were just her employees. It should be no surprise that turnover was high.

    Yet she did not act this way because she was inhuman. On the contrary, what I witnessed everyday was an all-too-human response of a small business owner who constantly felt bullied by her own employees.

    I worked there for three years, became a member of management, and actually spent time hiring and training employees. I was shocked by the sheer volume of people that feel comfortable casually lying on their resumes, that have no problem stealing from the company that they work for, and who don’t see any problem disobeying all of management’s requests the moment that management has gone home for the day.

    How do you feel after 20 years in business when you know that about 1 out of every 4 people you hire will simply pocket cash out of the register at the end of the night? How much respect do you think other people have for you when you pay them to keep the store open until 9pm, but they close the doors at 7pm because they think you’ll never find out about it? How can you trust an employee with gaps on his resume, when the last one with similar gaps turned out to be concealing employers that he stole from so that you would never contact said employers as part of the hiring process?

    After 20 years of being treated this way, is it really bullying to try and control your employees using every method you can imagine? When you know that employees have no problem lying to your face and stealing from your pocket, who is really bullying whom?

    I don’t know what the solution to problems like these look like. But I strongly suspect that the solution begins by recognizing that, while there is “bullying behavior” someone who exhibits it is still a full human being, and not a sub-human “bully.”

    • Thanks for your comment, Mike. If I gave the impression in my post that I viewed the person with whom I’m currently dealing, or anyone else in my history, as somehow sub-human, then it certainly wasn’t intentional. As Danny said above, and as I can confirm from knowledge I’ve gained as an adult of the personal histories of some of my childhood tormentors, chances are that most or all of the people I’ve experienced as “bullies, abusers, and saboteurs” in my life were deeply wounded themselves and acting out of those wounds.

      I certainly don’t see them as less than human, and I don’t believe I’ve referred to them that way, but they’ve played a very specific role in my life and that’s what I was attempting to describe and address.

      I agree with you that even the worst behavior has its own specific roots and motivations, and that it is dangerous to reduce people to nothing more than the behaviors that are visible to us. I hope you can also see that I’m trying to identify the pattern that transcends the individual players throughout my life so that I can take responsibility for it and, hopefully, transform it, because I certainly don’t have either the responsibility or the power to change these other folks or their behavior.

  4. Adam McPhee says:

    Reading this, I wanted to know about the incident that spurred it, but I suppose not mentioning it allowed for a more general introspection on the subject of a life dealing with bullies.

    • Thanks for your comment, Adam. I purposefully avoided specifics about the current situation because (1) I didn’t want or need to air out the details in public, and (2) I wanted to focus on the more general pattern in my life, both its history and how the current dynamics impact my sense of identity as a man. So yes, your supposition was correct.

  5. I’ve been plagued by bullies, abusers, and saboteurs my whole life. I don’t understand them. I don’t know what motivates them. I can understand acting out in a moment of anger or hurt. I can’t understand making that sort of behavior into a lifestyle.
    While thinking on my own anger (meaning that everything I’m saying here is based on what I’ve concluded about my own anger so mileage will vary) I think it’s a matter of something that was not properly healed or addressed. Sure to the outsider looking in it may look like “a moment of anger or hurt”. But when that moment is not properly tended to it ceases to be a moment.

    It festers and grows.

    Without properly tending to that moment the person in question may dwell on it. Wishing it had ended differently. Wishing it had never happened at all. Wishing they could relive it so that they, knowing what they know now, can alter history itself. Decide that that turnout will never happen again.

    I think that is a part of the motive of such people. To them there is a desire to actually recreate the “moment” so that they can go all out on the person that’s attacking them and feel justified for doing so.

    This is what makes it so hard for a person consumed by this kind of hatred to heal. The desire for revenge keeps the anger alive and they don’t want to let go of that desire. They may even fully recognize that they can’t literally go back and change history and thus take their pain out on others as some sort of solace.

    They can’t have what they really want so they take what is seen as the next best thing (and IMO these types of people, those that are not clouded by delusions of turning things back to the way they were but do what they do for comfort, are the most dangerous of vengful people).
    And even if they exact revenge there are two things that can happen which would keep them on the path of hatred.

    1. They have become so comfortable with freely lashing out they don’t want to go back.

    2. They have things so terrible they think that they can’t go back.

    So to go back to the bit I quoted, it probably doesn’t just start out as a moment and they choose to turn it into a lifestyle. For them, the moment never ended or perhaps through wanting to change or seek comfort over the events of that moment it slowly becomes a lifestyle.

    • Thank you, Danny, for both your thoughtful response and your candor in sharing the fruits of your own self-examination. You said:

      “While thinking on my own anger (meaning that everything I’m saying here is based on what I’ve concluded about my own anger so mileage will vary) I think it’s a matter of something that was not properly healed or addressed.”

      I would tend to agree with that. I guess the mystery to me is why some of us who’ve been injured and wronged are motivated to do that healing work while some are not. In that respect, I feel fortunate because I’ve had both the motivation and the opportunity to get the assistance I needed to do my work. I often wonder how many others, past and present, have had the motivation but not the opportunity due to a lack of the necessary resources and support.

      • I often wonder how many others, past and present, have had the motivation but not the opportunity due to a lack of the necessary resources and support.
        Probably more than we know.

        A few months ago I did a series on this called Musings of a Vengeful Spirit where I go a bit more in depth in my thoughts about revenge. It’s all personal with no collection of stats or attempts at drawing conclusions but hey the personal can be valuable to others.

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