In this article I discuss the unique traits that emotionally manipulative adult bullies exhibit toward others at work; the damage that such bullies can cause without intervention; and my seven strategies for stopping these manipulative individuals in their tracks.
Bullying doesn't just happen to children. It can happen to adults as well. I created the term The Emotionally Manipulative Adult Bully to describe a very specific kind of emotionally manipulative bullying that can occur both in and outside of the office, yet often goes unrecognized and unaddressed. This form of bullying, whether it occurs between bosses and employees, colleagues, spouses, or in any adult relationship, can cause traumatic stress that is toxic to one’s emotional well being and overall health in cases where the bullying is repeated and chronic. Also, as hard as it is to imagine, these types of bullies are usually oblivious to how their extremely ‘toxic’ behavior upsets and negatively impacts the people around them – especially those they specifically and intentionally target (often the 'target' is a highly sensitive, empathic type — possibly a 'people-pleaser' and unconscious enabler trying to 'help' the bully and/or avoid conflict with the bully). In fact, this type of adult bully usually see themselves as the ‘victim’ if someone sets a boundary and refuses to tolerate (and/or call them out on) their behavior.
Below are some commonly accepted facts on Emotional Manipulators, followed by a discussion of the unique traits that emotionally manipulative adult bullies exhibit; the various kinds of damage such bullies can cause to others who are exposed to them for any length of time; and my tips on dealing effectively with the adult bully at work as excerpted from my book, Dealing With The Emotionally Manipulative Adult Bully (scheduled to be published in 2017).
The 'Accidental Bully'
Unlike the types of workplace bullies described by self-help websites such as workplacebullying.org, the typical emotionally manipulative adult bully is often completely unaware of the distress and confusion they cause those around them. Based on my years of working as a licensed psychotherapist, and now as a transformational life coach, it is my experience that the emotionally manipulative adult bully is often suffering from one or more personality disorders (e.g., borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder) and as such, can be very difficult for even a trained mental health professional to effectively relate to and work with, for the following reasons:
Emotionally Manipulative Adult Bullies Tend To:
- Abuse positions of authority and power
- Frequently dish out undeserved criticism
- Use sarcasm and jokes to disguise their emotional abuse of others
- Hold others to unrealistic standards based on their needs and wants
- Use overt insults and covert threats to control others
- Are completely oblivious to the fact that they abuse the rights and dignity of others while demanding that they themselves be treated fairly at all times
- Play by their own set of 'rules' and use guilt, martyrdom, threats, and other forms of covert or overt intimidation (e.g., passive-aggressive behavior) when others fail to comply and play the game their way
The Negative Impact Of Being Bullied By An Emotional Manipulator
- Intimidating behavior causes workplace stress
As stated above, It has been my experience in my work as a psychotherapist and coach that the people who seem most negatively impacted by the emotionally manipulative bully are those who describe themselves as being 'highly sensitive', 'intuitive', 'caring', and 'empathic'. This is likely due to the fact that these more sensitive personality types have difficulty recognizing, then standing up to, the extremely manipulative and emotionally and energetically aggressive behaviors being displayed toward them by this type of adult bully. Such caring, empathic types may even feel bad or sorry for the bully, engaging in codependent behaviors in their misguided attempts to help calm the bully and keep the peace for the sake of everyone on the team and/or in the office. Unfortunately, such intense one-on-one exposure to the emotionally manipulative bully not only can make them a target of the bully's focus in the workplace, but has additional repercussions for the one trying to help.
Chronic Adult Bullying and Emotional Manipulation Can Cause:
- Anxiety and depression
- Loss of trust and confidence in self / Poor self-esteem
- Compulsive worrying and ruminating over just what is happening and why it is happening, and who to tell and what to tell in an effort to get help (especially true when the bully is one's boss)
- A pervasive sense of fear and hyper-alertness
- Various losses from missed work (financial losses due to lack of attendance; loss of credibility; disappointed team members; loss of one's job)
- Sleep disturbance and/or full-blown insomnia
- Paranoia / Fears of "going crazy" or being seen as "crazy"
- Mysterious aches and pains with no known cause
- Stomach upset / Digestive disturbances, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome
How To Handle The Emotionally Manipulative Adult Bully
- Bullying can happen at work if authority figures are weak
Ignoring the emotionally manipulative adult bully in the workplace won't help, and will simply result in the egregious behavior continuing. While direct confrontation of the bully is not always possible or even recommended, if the situation is not addressed effectively in some manner the bully will simply continue to act out in an emotionally aggressive manner, to the detriment of all concerned.
My Tips For Handling the Emotionally Manipulative Bully at Work:
- Awareness is the first step. Acknowledge that you may be the victim of workplace bullying and that you may need help and support from others to arrange for an intervention of some kind to end these negative exchanges.
- Realize that emotionally manipulative bullying is sometimes not obvious to others if you are the one being specifically targeted. Therefore, it is especially important that you document the bullying behavior as well as you can in case you need to go to higher levels of authority for help, such as human resources or an appropriate authority figure. Once you have reported the bullying, it is their job to assist you in finding solutions to what could be a complex situation (e.g., the bully is your boss); if the authority figure you approach says that they cannot help you, ask them who can. Do not take 'I don't know' for an answer. You shouldn't have to handle this on your own.
- Are there people around you at work who witness the emotionally manipulative bully engaging in appropriate behavior, such as harassing you or putting you down? Consider asking them to act as your witness. Ask if they are willing to document what they observe in case you do decide to seek help from those in a position to intervene
- Release the idea that you did something to deserve this poor treatment. Emotionally manipulative bullies often target sensitive, kind, and helpful people. You did nothing to cause the bullying, and you can't control the bully's behavior. Nor is it likely that you will be able to end it on your own, or that the bully will just stop one day without intervention. Get help as soon as possible.
- Recognize and accept that you can not 'help' the bully to become a reasonable, nice, sensitive, and caring person. Remember, even specially trained and licensed healing professionals are challenged to help these types of emotionally manipulative and aggressive individuals.
- Decide if you are up to confronting the bully. If you decide that you would like to directly address the situation, it is imperative that you do so with the support of an appropriate '3rd Party' authority figure at work — Especially if the bully is your boss, or a team member you must work with regularly. Do not ever attempt to confront the bully on your own!
- If you're not getting the support you need from an appropriate authority figure at work, consider seeing a therapist, life coach, or employment consultant who specializes in bullying in the workplace for further suggestions and ideas. You should not ever have to quit your job to end bullying in the workplace.
Some Final Thoughts
- Documenting is critical!
Whether you are the bully or the one being bullied, it is important to recognize what is actually happening and take steps to stop it. If not, the distressful dynamics caused by bullying in the workplace will continue to fester and grow, affecting the emotional and perhaps even the physical well being of anyone who must have sustained and repeated contact with the bully, as well as negatively impacting the overall productivity of the office.
Remember, the authority you seek out for assistance in ending the bullying will depend on your particular situation. Check to see if there is an Employee Handbook. It is the Human Resources department job to identify the best person at your workplace to help you put an end to the emotionally manipulative bully's destructive and toxic behaviors, and to intervene on your (and others) behalf, if warranted.
In extreme cases, you may feel you have no choice but to quit your job if appropriate help from an authority figures is not available. Although no state has as of yet passed an anti-bullying law, that doesn’t mean bullying is legal in every situation. Therefore, prior to quitting your job due to somebody else's inappropriate, manipulative, and possibly even abusive behavior, you might consider contacting The United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and/or a local Labor and Employment Attorney to find out if the kind of bullying you are experiencing is illegal due to violating federal or state laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment.
Rebecca C. Mandeville, MA, is a licensed Psychotherapist, Transformational Life Coach, Author, and former High-Tech Executive Employment Consultant. You can learn more about her 'Whole Person', 'Whole Life' Coaching practice by visiting ChainFree Living. You may also 'like' Rebecca's Facebook page, How To Handle Emotionally Manipulative Adult Bullies, by going here.
Note: If you have experience with being bullied by an emotionally manipulative adult, either at work or outside the office, and you might be willing to share your story for inclusion in the book Rebecca is currently writing on how to handle emotionally manipulative adults (with identifying details changed to protect your anonymity), please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.