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  • Writer's pictureSimone Ellin

The Bully at Work

Updated: Apr 21

When I talk about what prompted my study into the long term effects of childhood bullying, I usually point to my experiences in middle school. And it's true -- being excluded from a popular girls' clique at that tender age affected me deeply. But there was another reason I felt compelled to do so -- an experience that occurred about seven years ago at my place of employment.

I'm still not sure why Tracie (not her real name) suddenly decided she hated me. All I know is that the change happened after she overheard a telephone conversation I was having with a man I was dating. I should never have been spending time at work talking with this guy (a real jerk), especially when I worked within earshot of two co-workers, but I did it anyway. After I hung up the phone, Tracie admonished me for talking "to that asshole." I apologized profusely for subjecting her and our other colleague to my conversation. I really was ashamed of myself; I even sent an email apology following my verbal one. In any case, from that moment on, Tracie made it painfully clear that she had lost all respect for me. She did not speak to me unless I asked her a question, and when she responded it was usually with an eye roll, a hostile tone of voice and a condescending attitude. Sitting next to her at work, I swore I could feel the contempt oozing out of her pores. The really painful part about this was that I liked Tracie. She was so hilarious that by the time I left the office each day, my jaw was sore from laughing so hard. I believed we had a lot in common and wanted to be her friend. The pain was made worse by the fact that she befriended other women in the office. She made it known that they were going out for lunch or coffee and that they socialized outside of the office. Needless to say, I was never invited. At one point, Tracie completely lost it and started screaming at me when I was sent by our boss, to summon her for a meeting. When confronted, she said she had "blacked out" but then accused me of trying to get her fired. Repeatedly, I tried to make peace with Tracie, but my efforts were fruitless. Eventually, she resigned and I was extremely relieved.

This experience triggered me intensely, and it brought back decades-old feelings of rejection and pain from my middle school days. While I already knew I had not recovered fully from the incident in middle school, my interactions with my work bully, and the feelings they engendered, forced me to recognize that I was even more injured than I realized. Clearly, I still had lots more healing to do. Sometime later, I set out to interview my then middle-aged classmates about their own experiences with bullying and dove into the topic.

As I began my research, I discovered I was not the only person who'd been bullied at work. In fact, adult bullies were everywhere. They showed up in magazine and newspaper articles and during some of the interviews I conducted with classmates, friends and family members. This made me wonder -- how common is workplace bullying and what can be done about it?

In case you're wondering, adults bully for the same reasons kids do. It gives them control and status. Some bullies need control and status because they themselves were victims of bullying. Victimizing others makes them feel more powerful. Others were never bullied, but they still crave the power bullying gives them.

According to a study by the American Osteopathic Association, 31% of adults report being bullied in adulthood. And the consequences are significant. The AOA reports that

  • 71% suffer from stress

  • 70% experience anxiety/depression

  • 55% report a loss of confidence

  • 39% suffer from sleep loss, 26% have headaches and 22% experience muscle tension or pain

  • 19% reported a mental breakdown

  • 17% noted an inability to function day-to-day, i.e. calling in sick frequently

What should you do if you're an adult experiencing workplace bullying? Acknowledging the problem is the first step to recovery. Too often adults (and kids) don't recognize or won't admit the strain that bullying causes. I was fortunate to have a boss who was also a supportive friend. He checked in with me regularly which made a huge difference. If you don't have that, and if talking with friends or family aren't providing adequate relief, you may want to consider seeking help from a mental health professional who can treat any symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, sleeplessness or physical discomfort you're experiencing. That way, even if you're not in a position to avoid your bully entirely, at least you'll have some support and some helpful strategies to deal with her.

Want to learn more about adult bullying? Check out this Washington Post article by Cathy Alter and this one in Psychology Today by Preston Ni.

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1 Comment

Phideaux Xavier
Phideaux Xavier
Apr 21

It's so sad when you can see the potential friendship with someone, but they are so determined to dislike - and find fault and feel self righteous. Naturally, one wants to check one's own behaviour - as you did when you realized it wasn't a great look to have the conversation with the man you were dating. However, some people just believe they are above all mistakes and they take it out on those they deem "weak". I am glad to have developed the necessary skills to protect myself. But, that's what they are - skills. We can withstand the slings and ultimately impotent arrows of (most) bullies with our own self protections - and look upon the bul…

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