25+ Powerful Tips for Dealing with an Adult Bully

As a victim of adult bullying in the workplace, I can assure you there are plenty of ways to deal with an adult bully while still maintaining your composure, dignity, and compassion. But honestly, you may need to muster up all the confidence and strength you have within you to make some tough decisions and take some difficult actions. In this article you will learn everything you need to know about characteristics of adult bullies and why people become adults bullies, plus tips for dealing with an adult bully who is making your life miserable.

First and foremost, I want you to know something I ALWAYS keep in mind when I am dealing with an adult bully:

“Birds always peck at the best fruit.” Something to this affect was originally said by Bette Davis, but there are many variations of it around today. It’s something that you need to remember if you are a victim of adult bullying.

I want you to become empowered to take back your life! Knowledge is power, and you are about to learn everything you need to know to regain your power and toss the role of victim! You can also use the quotes about bullying for inspiration!

woman with dark hair holds her hand up in front of her face to indicate a BACK OFF message to an adult bully
There is nothing wrong with regaining your power and telling an adult bully to STOP!

You will find additional helpful information in my article about how to leave the past in the past when dealing with trauma. I share 12 ways you can be sure NOT to let an adult bully define you or your future!


Related Article: Anti-Bullying Policies in our Schools: Are We Doing Enough?


Definition of Adult Bullying

The goal of an adult bully is to gain power over another person; to feel like the dominant adult. Bullies have to do make themselves feel better about their own flaws and weaknesses so they may try to humiliate a victim, create a toxic environment for the victim, or even ‘show them who’s boss.’

What defines an adult bully? If someone regularly makes you feel oppressed, belittled, humiliated, or de-energized, you may be dealing with an adult bully!

A bully’s actions may include personal insults, ridiculing jokes, threats, public shaming, invasion of your personal space, unwanted personal contact, direct threats, and even scare tactics.

Rarely, adult bullying may be in the form of physical confrontations but it does happen.

“A bully is afraid of being unmasked and discovered to be a fraud who is possessed by secrets and lies and insecurities. Therefore, the bully attaches those flaws to his victim and carries out unimaginable acts of defamation.”

~Susan Ballinger

Types of Bullying

Traditionally there have been three types of bullying, but in recent years, a fourth type of bullying has become more prevalent — causing the issue of bullying to become even more critical in our society.

Emotional Bullying

Emotional bullying occurs when rumors are started about  someone or a group of individuals, or when malicious or defamatory statements are made about a person or group with the intent to hurt the feelings and emotional stability of the target person or group. It can occur face-to-face, behind one’s back, or anonymously via the Internet and social networking sites. It is persistent in nature and repeated frequently.

Physical Bullying

Physical bullying is the most traditional form of bullying and more common among children. It is also the most visible and obvious, often with clear evidence of an event. It occurs when the victim is injured physically by pushing, shoving, punching, kicking, burning, etc. It also occurs when a bully steals the victim’s personal belongings, destroys personal belongings, clothes, etc.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying occurs in the form of emotional bullying, but takes place online via email, social media, blogs, and other electronic devices. Cyberbullying is often done anonymously by one bully, or a group of bullies, making hurtful or harmful statements about a victim over the Internet. Many of these statements are rumors and offenses that consist of lies or extensions of truth. They are often done out of jealousy or anger.

Bullycide

It’s sad to think that there needs to be another category of bullying added to the list. But as bullies become meaner than ever, and feel empowered by the anonymity of the Internet, many cases of suicide — due to cyber bullycide and emotional bullying are being reported. This new type of bullying is becoming rampant among teens and children who are regularly victims of child and/or adult bullies. This is why it is more important than ever to learn how to handle bullies with a mindset of confidence and knowledge.

angry and aggressive adult bully bangs his fist on a table and screams in a terrifying manner
Sometimes an adult bully only knows one way to deal with frustration and anger.

How to Deal with Adult Bullies

You would not normally think that adult bullying is a problem, right? By most accounts, childhood bullies grow out of it, right?

Wrong.

Adult bullying is a big problem — although often an unspoken problem. There may be times when it even requires legal action in the form of criminal or civil lawsuits based on laws against harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you are the victim of adult bullying, the last thing you want to think about is legal action, right? You just want the bullying to STOP, right?!

Unfortunately, adult bullying does exist in our world today and we all need to know how to deal with it in a responsible manner.

“When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. The misinformation will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that other people will eventually see the truth just like you did.”

~Jill Blakeway

As a reminder, bullying is intentional behavior designed to hurt someone physically, emotionally or mentally. These are some things you can do to protect yourself from a bully:

  • take preventive measures to not be around the bully anymore than absolutely necessary
  • seek emotional support and/or counseling for yourself
  • carefully document all bullying, harassment, intimidation, and retaliation incidences
  • identify witnesses to any incidents
  • travel with a group rather than alone because the bully will be less likely to act-out when others are around
  • strengthen and build your own self-confidence and self-esteem to help you deal with the bully
  • try discussing the problem directly with the bully (you may want to have someone with you)
  • discuss the bullying or hostile work environment with a supervisor or Human Resources
  • understand that you will not change the bully (you may be able to alter the situation, but not the personality)
  • ignore and avoid as much as possible
  • work within the confines of your company regulations and state laws in dealing with a bully
  • pick and choose your battles with the bully
  • make eye contact because bullies often feel more empowered if they don’t see your face or eyes
  • get plenty of sleep so you have the energy to deal with the situation
  • contact your primary care provided if you start having conditions triggered by the situation
  • build a support network around you who empathizes with you and protects you
  • keep your reactions and responses to a minimum when dealing with the bully
  • maintain positive, strong body language while dealing with a bully
  • be clear and concise; don’t over communicate with the bully
  • do your best not to take the situation personally — this person is a serial bully
  • remove yourself from the toxic situation, if possible
  • avoid physical altercations and shouting matches at all costs
  • don’t mirror the bully’s behavior — be above that kind of behavior
  • understand what kind of person you are dealing with
  • be an example of HOW to treat others with respect and dignity

a depressed female with shoulder length hair leans against a window staring into space while he reflection glares back as if defeated by an adult bully
If you have an adult bully in your life who is draining your energy and self-esteem, seek help. Don’t try to handle an adult bully alone.

Is There an Adult Bully in Your Life?

If you answer YES, continue reading. You may find some comfort in the words here.

Bullying has typically been understood to be a problem children face and outgrow. However, reports show that bullying, and its negative impact on mental and physical health, continues long into adulthood — often in the workplace, home and educational setting.

Unfortunately, you are NOT alone if you are dealing with an adult bully.

A recent poll found 25% of adults report having experienced the ”silent treatment”  from an individual or group on a repeated basis as an adult. And, approximately 20% have had someone spread lies about them that no one refutes. Scary, isn’t it? Did you realize these are bullying behaviors?

Often times, the bullying behavior has less to do with the victim and more to do with a bully who needs to find a “way out” of a problem. Thus, as part of a solution to a problem, the bully places blame on someone else for the problem. These instances occur especially when an adult bully has an problem with EGO.

Consider the Merriam-Webster definition of a SCAPEGOAT: 2a) one that bears the blame for others; 2b: one that is the object of irrational hostility.

Can you think of a time when you have been a scapegoat? Or were you a victim of an adult bully?

For example, the boss at a non-profit organization is getting flack for rumors that are spreading through the community about his lack of leadership and accountability. So he targets someone he perceives to be emotionally weak and begins to subtly and indirectly bully her. As a result, eventually the victim resigns her position and quietly leaves, only later learning that the boss claimed that his victim was spreading the rumors about him and causing the reported problems. You know, some people cannot accept responsibility for their own behavior and mistakes so they have to place the blame on someone else — and in this case, it was the victim of his bullying who became his scapegoat.

Or, consider this example. You are a victim of bullying and toxicity by your supervisor. Suddenly, after years of exemplary job performance, she is giving you unsatisfactory evaluations and creating a toxic work environment for you. You eventually choose to leave this position. You later learn that your supervisor was being given unsatisfactory evaluations by her boss so she flipped the scenario to make it appear as though you were causing the problems — sometimes even making false allegations. Again, some people cannot accept responsibility for their own mistakes and behavior so they have to figure out a way to place the blame on others.

Eventually though, and unfortunately — because it’s very difficult — the victim needs to remember four things:

1) the truth will come out someday;

2) birds only peck at the best fruit;

3) you are better off moving on and letting go of the experience;

4) be thankful you are the better human being.

Additionally, victims should consider their own character traits. More often than not, victims of bullying are people who are empathetic and show feelings for other people. Those traits can trigger some people (who do not possess those character traits) to bully. Maybe, just maybe — the victim should consider this — being a compassionate, emotional, and tender-hearted human-being who does not engage in bullying behavior is a blessing, not a curse. Even if bullies see things differently.

“The common mistake that bullies make is assuming that because someone is nice that he or she is weak. Those traits have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it takes considerable strength and character to be a good person.”

~Mary Elizabeth Williams

Characteristics of an Adult Bully

Characteristically, an adult bully gains power in a relationship by reducing the victim’s power, and has little regard for any consequences to a victim’s health or wellbeing. Bullies don’t have the capacity to feel anything for their victims. Additionally, you can usually discover that the bully repeats this behavior from one victim to the next over the course of time. It becomes a set pattern and way of life for the bully.

Bullies are not interested in working things out or comprising. They are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down. They also tend to gang up with others who have bullying personalities.

Adult bullies were often either bullies as children, or bullied as children. Understanding this about them may help a compassionate victim cope better with the behavior, but it can also be quite challenging.

“People who love themselves, don’t hurt other people. The more we hate ourselves, the more we want others to suffer.”

~Dan Pearce

Adult bullies can be parents, teachers, coaches, lawyers, judges, and other authority figures. They can also be romantic partners, colleagues, acquaintances, family members, and community leaders. You would be surprised where adult bullies can be found. They often come across as confident, or even arrogant — maybe even comedic — but deep down adult bullies suffer from low self-esteem and a lack of empathy for others. They may also be people who engage in personal abusive relationships. And, workplace bullying is becoming more common every day.


Here are a few types of adult bullies and how they behave toward their victims:

  1. Narcissistic Adult Bully:  This type of bully is a self-centered adult who lacks empathy for others and does not worry about consequences for his/her inappropriate behaviors. This bully belittles and intimidates victims. This bully is self-centered and outwardly appears to feel good about him or herself, but has serious mental health issues that requires putting others down. Bullying is a lifestyle for this type of bully.
  2. Impulsive Adult Bully:  Adult bullies in this category are more spontaneous and do not tend to plan out their bullying behaviors. This type of bully has difficulty demonstrating appropriate social behaviors with his/her victim even knowing there may be consequences for unacceptable behaviors. Sometimes, this type of bully acts out during periods of stress unrelated to the victim, and the bullying may be unintentional.
  3. Physical Bully:  Adult bullying rarely turns to physicality. If it does however, it should be turned over to law enforcement. There may even be a component of domestic violence involved. An adult bully may use a threat of physical harm, or physical domination over the victim. Or the bully may damage or steal the victim’s property rather than physically confronting the victim.
  4. Verbal Adult Bully:  This type of bully uses words to damage and intimidate the victim. The bully may start rumors, use demeaning language toward or about the victim, and/or humiliate the victim. This kind of bullying is problematic for the victim because it’s difficult to document and the bully can often “get away with it” for longer periods of time — thus, empowering the bully. Unfortunately, there can be significant emotional and psychological harm to the victim and bystanders of verbal abuse because it often results in reduced job performance, anxiety, or even depression.
  5. Secondary Adult Bully:  This is a bully who does not initiate the bullying but joins in on the bullying for personal gain, or fear of future problems with the bully. This type of bully may feel bad about what is happening but is more concerned about him or herself. This can be seen with people who have a desire to move up the ladder and feel they must go along with the bullying in order to keep themselves in the pecking order.
  6. Passive-Aggressive Bully: These bullies are very difficult to deal with because they are cunning and smart. They act amicable on the outside but take unexpected swings at their victims. They may even be able to bully in subtle and silent ways. They typically like sarcasm and gossip. They may roll their eyes, make rude facial expressions and mimic their victims. But then, they may even pretend to be a victim and turn the tables on you when talking with others.
  7. Tangible/Material Bully: These types of bullies like to use their formal power, like being your boss or manager. Or, they have some sort of authority or control over your finances, which they use to intimidate you and others.

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What Causes Adults to be Bullies?

There are many issues that can cause adults to become bullies. As mentioned previously, often they were bullies as children too. Alternatively, they may have been bullied.

Just imagine the wide range of dysfunctional lifestyles, relationships, personalities, emotional development, or mental health issues that could impact normal social/emotional development and make someone become a bully.

Truthfully, there is not much scientific research about why adults become bullies. However, there are some notable reasons that are suspected of playing a role in why people turn to bullying others:

  • their parents are (or were) bullies
  • they were raised in a bullying environment
  • they have feelings of insecurity or a lack of control in their personal life 
  • they use bullying as a way of gaining attention 
  • they are lonely and do not possess the social skills necessary to interact normally
  • they are jealous of others who are more likeable, more successful, or more whatever
  • they struggle socially and don’t know how to form relationships 
  • they have anger issues 
  • they have ego issues
  • they have diagnosed or undiagnosed emotional or mental health issues 
  • they have a lack of empathy
  • they feel compelled to bully due to peer pressure
  • they lack self-confidence and view themselves as inferior
  • they feel compelled to bully and blame others to avoid being accused of being wrong themselves

intimidating robotic man in a gray robot suit with a red tie stands with his arms crossed in a bullying manner

Final Thoughts About Adult Bullying

Bullying impacts everyone — those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. BUT KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! And now you have all the knowledge you need to deal with adult bullies, regardless of whether you are a victim or a witness.

I challenge you to be a DIFFERENCE MAKER!

Bullying by adults should never be accepted. Adults who bully other adults should have serious consequences.

Adults bullying children is even more serious and problematic because a child’s mental health is far more fragile.

And finally, witnesses and bystanders should not have to deal with bullying behavior because it causes anxiety, stress, and uncertainty.

“School administrators can’t say it’s up to the parents. Parents can’t say it’s up to the teachers. Teachers can’t say it’s not their job. And kids can’t say, ‘I was too afraid to tell.’ Every single one of us has to play our role if we’re serious about putting an end to the madness. We are all responsible. We must be.”

~Megan Kelley Hall, Author


Learn more about the importance of learning coping strategies and how life experiences contribute to our overall education and personal growth in the article, Education is Key to Success: But What Does That Mean?


Sadly, adult bullying does exist in today’s world and we all need to know how to deal with it to promote a better way of life for all. Bullying has a negative impact on everyone around it — we ALL have a moral and social responsibility to do our part to STOP BULLYING. Use the information in this article to empower yourself to take action against bullying!

If you are a witness to an adult repeatedly bullying another adult, please consider supporting the victim in any way possible. Even a word of encouragement or sympathy… an email saying “I witnessed that horrible verbal exchange and I’m sorry”… maybe have lunch with the victim to ensure he/she is not alone or vulnerable… pay closer attention when the bully is close to the victim… speak up, if necessary and appropriate… just be on high alert if you become aware of a situation that is volatile. I’m not suggesting that you get overly involved, but show compassion and empathy for the victim. Someday you could be the victim.

If you are a witness to an adult bullying a child, please report it to someone in authority. This is NEVER acceptable. I know this can be VERY difficult (especially on a Sports Field, or in a store among strangers)… but you could make a difference in the life of a child if you say something. You see and hear this phrase a lot in reference to safety and violence in school, but it’s also applicable in situations where adults are bullying children — IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING.

For additional information about BULLYING, I suggest you visit StopBullying.gov. The information available on this federal government website is operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

I sincerely hope you’ve never been a victim of adult bullying. It’s rampant in today’s world because of the pressures we all face, and sadly some people are unable to deal with their demons appropriately, especially under pressure. Others just have character flaws that make them think it’s acceptable to be adult bullies, and as soon as their latest victim is gone, they’ll find a new one! It’s a crying shame.

Please contact me if you need help with an adult bully. I am passionate about this subject because of my own professional experiences with workplace bullying; and I am always happy to help anyone who is facing such trauma and does not know where to turn.

Thank you for being here! Please share this article with anyone you know who might be a victim of an adult bully. You could be saving a life or making a BIG DIFFERENCE to someone!

Love to All! ~ Susan

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Susan. As is often the case, I’m awake at 2am in Australia, on a Sunday night, because I’m dreading going to work tomorrow and bring around my boss. Anxiety it keeping me from returning to sleep. I have skim read your article as I am not in the correct head space to fully appreciate your words. One thing that occurs to me is that a bully may use the term ‘victim’ to divert or dilute the harm they cause in an adult situation. Having been part of a conversation where my boss used this term, within the sentence “you should not be a victim” (or similar) I am starting to think that this term may be an easy ‘out’ for bullies to label the other person ‘weak’ in some way, rather than the response of the target being a justified one, as the action of the perpetrator has caused this response. Any other advice would be welcome, tomorrow I shall just put one foot in front of the other.

    1. I am so sorry that you are experiencing workplace bullying, Jessica… It’s a horrible situation to be in … I know from experience. I’m working on another article about bullying survivors.. hang in there! Drop me a line to let me know how you’re doing! xoxo:)

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