How to Stop Bullying: Understand It
Simply put, bullying is a systematic, repetitive abuse of power. When we think of classic examples of harassment, such as children being bullied in school, power is often derived from physical strength, or higher social status. The victims are usually people who are seen as weak or different.
But bullying doesn’t always follow this stereotype, or automatically stop once you age. “The playground just becomes a bit more sophisticated,” says Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. There isn’t much data available on the incidence of bullying, but Vaillancourt cites a 2006 Canadian study reporting that 40 per cent of adults are regularly bullied at work.
We know it also happens in close personal relationships, such as those between family members or romantic partners. Wenzel says that because each family is unique, victims might not identify a parent or sibling’s relentless digs as bullying—they might just see it as part of an established household dynamic.
Bullying can be deliberately subtle, such as withholding affection or questioning someone’s intelligence or life choices. Another example is exerting control in a relationship by constantly insisting that your partner is misremembering key moments or lying about them, to the point where they start to question their own sanity, a practice that has come to be known informally as “gaslighting.”
“That is a psychological mind game that happens in an abusive cycle where it’s not right there in your face, which I think is even more dangerous—it’s harder to detect,” says Wenzel.
Bullies often feel helpless in other aspects of their lives, says Richards: “People might feel disempowered at work and come home to unload on their partner.”
When bullies take aggression out on their co-workers, the intimidation tends to be more overt. The typical notion of a workplace bully is a boss who continually berates employees in front of their peers.
“Normally speaking, [harassment] comes from the top down,” says Jacqueline Power, a management professor at the University of Windsor. “But there are cases where people bully their boss.”
Power says employees who are uncooperative, openly defiant or insulting might believe they have leverage because their boss falls into a less privileged category—perhaps they are younger, female or a visible minority—or because they feel their superior is unqualified or ineffectual.