I was driving on the highway today and a car came up behind me and started surfing my bumper; we’ve all had the experience. I was in the passing lane and easily moving past those in the travel lane, but apparently that wasn’t good enough for my tail. I became instantly anxious and couldn’t wait for an opportunity to move over and let him go by, which I did as quickly as possible.
Isn’t that the way most of us feel when we are confronted by a bully? Anxious, cornered and eager to comply with their wishes in order to resolve the situation as quickly as possible? In life, like on the road, we give bullies the “right of way” because it is the path of least resistance; but we have to consider, is there real wisdom in this coping strategy?
Sure, it is probably for the best to get out of the bumper jockey’s way, but what about the bullies we work for and live with and around?
“Fight or flight” is the instinctual human response to aggression and most of us will choose “flight” most of the time for various excellent reasons, including we don’t want to lose our job, we don’t want the kids to hear us fighting, we don’t want to get arrested, etc. The problem being, bullies COUNT on this. They count on us retreating and giving them their way, and, speaking of instincts, they seem to have a very keen sense of the sort of personality who WILL choose to fight back and generally steer clear of those.
I’m using the word “bully”, but I am talking about all manner of toxic personalities—narcissists, critics, liars, drama addicts, emotional vampires—because they all rely on various bullying techniques to keep you “in line”.
Okay, so you work for a bully. Or you are married to one. Or you are the child of one. Or any other number of scenarios where you feel like you “can’t win”. So what’s the fix?
First things first—please always remember and never forget—it’s NOT you, it’s THEM. This is an important anchor because bullies are oh-so-good at assigning blame anywhere but on themselves. They speak fluent gaslighting and if they cannot make you feel guilty, they will try to make you feel crazy for not feeling guilty.
I once worked for a guy who would tell me (and other workers as well, I wasn’t special) that I was “wrong”, no matter what I did. He would criticize my work and specifically instruct me on how to do it correctly—and then criticize me for doing exactly as he had just asked. See, bullies are ALWAYS right, and they will marginalize you and your efforts eternally to prove this point. Don’t fall for it.
Second, and this is going to be hard to accept but it’s true—bullies are always unhappy people. It’s so strange to consider that someone who essentially GETS THEIR WAY ALL THE TIME is unhappy, but it just goes to show you that getting your own way all the time isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
Because bullies essentially see other human beings as either obstacles or a means to their ends, they lack any real intimacy and honest personal connections in their lives. But—and this important newsflash will contradict every “Afterschool Special” you ever watched—it is NOT your “job” or “responsibility” to make them happy; and actually, it’s impossible. You may temporarily “please” or “appease” the bully in your life, but in the end they are chronically miserable and looking for someone to blame.
So forget about giving the Burgermeister Meisterburger a yo-yo and instead focus on doing things and living a life that make YOU happy.
It is also helpful to recognize the bully’s unhappiness NOT because you need to heal it or fix it, but because it protects you to some degree from feeling wounded by the bully’s behaviors. This goes back to “it’s not you, it’s them”. They are not treating you shabbily because you “deserve” that behavior; they are treating you badly because they don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand that treating other people poorly is only building a thicker wall between them and the one thing they actually crave: RESPECT.
Third, and most important…just like you would pull over and let a tailgater pass on by, if there is any way you can extricate yourself from contact with the bully, this is generally your best option. It is not “giving up”; this is “moving on” in the healthiest way possible. To review: you are dealing with a chronically miserable person who has no emotional intelligence and is never wrong and always insists on having their own way; it’s not you, it’s them and it’s not your responsibility to heal or fix someone else’s life.
A lot of us were raised with the moral foundation of “turning the other cheek” and “loving your enemies/praying for your persecutors” and that is super great advice in the sense that slapping someone back gets you nowhere you want to go and hating anyone is self-poison. However, you CAN turn the other cheek and then WALK AWAY. Also, if this political climate has taught us anything, prayer is something we mainly are advised to do at a great distance.
So while you are thinking of those million reasons why you can’t leave the situation with the toxic bully in your life, I am going to assert that THIS is the hardest part: you have to believe you deserve better than the bully. You have to believe that life is too short to be spent in the company of someone who doesn’t treat you with respect. You can’t believe the bully’s lies about your inadequacy and faults.
Breaking off a relationship with a bully, no matter what the format, is going to be one of the scariest things you do in your life. Because bullies, in addition to being ALWAYS RIGHT, hate to LOSE ANYTHING (including someone they have tried to make feel worthless). The bully will rage, or woo or (if you are really, really lucky) act entirely indifferent to your exit.
You have to be brave to walk out that door and keep on walking. But I promise you, just like when the tailgater speeds by and out of your life forever, the relief you feel will be palpable. And the joy that will become possible without this person around to constantly kill it will be epic.
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