How to Spot an Emotional Bully

The word ‘bully’ conjures up images of school life. The kid who called out cruel names, stole the younger kid’s soccer ball at lunchtime and then took their lunch money. Maybe it was the group of cool kids who excluded everyone who didn’t fit into their clique.

Sadly, incidents of bullying don’t stop in adulthood, and many people now experience emotional bullying at their workplace or even in their personal relationships. This article will outline the tell-tale signs of an emotional bully and some practical advice in dealing with the situation if you find yourself or someone you know in this situation.

What does an emotional bully do?

Unlike the bullies we remember from our childhoods, the adult bully can behave in more subtle ways.

The workplace

The workplace emotional bully could be a superior or a colleague. Behaviors include:

    • Showing you up- This may be a colleague dismissing your skills to other people within your company or choosing to highlight a mistake you’ve made in front of a watching audience to improve their own standing effectively. It could be face to face or behind your back, creating a false impression of you, designed to undermine your success.


    • Ritual humiliation- This could be a boss who delivers a dressing down and critical lecture in front of other colleagues rather than in a private meeting, with the intention of humiliating or embarrassing you in front of your peers.


    • Threatening Behaviour: This could take the form of creating new unrealistic deadlines when you wish to take a vacation and questioning your attitude to work if you’re not working well beyond your contracted hours. Often you may have a higher workload than others but often made up of menial tasks that others are reluctant to do and are unlikely to receive recognition.


  • Personal bias/discrimination: Linked to the above points, you feel that your behavior is highlighted in a way that others are not. For example, you receive criticism for the same actions as others, but seem to take the fall for any errors or mistakes. Your work appraisals seem significantly more negative than your own and other trusted colleague’s perceptions. Conversely, you are the last person to receive praise for a job well done when this may be routinely given to others.

In friendships and romantic relationships

    • Mockery and Dismissal: The emotional bully will downplay your achievements and highlight your mistakes. They may see this as mere ‘banter,’ but they may feel defensive and angered if similar comments are reciprocated back to them.


    • Constant Interrupting: The bully will see most encounters as a challenge that they must win. As such, they find negotiations and compromises difficult. They will often feel the need to have the last word in a conversation and will cut across you if they do not share your views.


    • Pulling Triggers: They will often know when to push the right button to say something particularly cutting or hurtful based on past experiences that have been particularly painful to you.


  • Threatening Behaviour: In romantic relationships, examples include threatening to leave the relationship or threats of self-harm if they don’t get what they want. This plays on the empathy and guilt you feel and will often be exploited to avoid an argument they perceive themselves as ‘losing.’ The emotional bully will try and intimidate you into submitting to what they want and often the ones being bullied will be reluctant to cause any confrontation, thus repeating this cycle over and over.

Why does the emotional bully behave in this way?

A wealth of evidence suggests that emotional bullies have experienced a high degree of stress or trauma previously and have been much more likely to have been bullied themselves. Some bullies have had trouble building and maintaining positive relationships in the past, and their behaviors could be interpreted as an indication of low self-esteem and insecurity.

What can you do about it?

If you feel that you are the victim of emotional bullying, it can be extremely distressing and a difficult challenge to deal with. However, by not acting, it is unlikely that a solution will be found or that the bully will cease their behaviors. Depending on the situation and the character of the bully, different strategies might need to be employed.

    • Don’t let them get to you– Remember that it isn’t something about you that is causing this issue and it is a reflection of the bully themselves. See the bully as someone who has deep-rooted problems, and however much it feels like their behavior is personally directed to you, you are probably not the first person they have done this to.


    • Correct them– For example, if you are being called a name you don’t like, correct them at the time in a calm, polite but firm manner. The more you laugh at or shrug off behavior that you find distasteful, the more likely a bully will see this as an invitation to continue without provocation.


    • Keep evidence– Make a note of times where you have been made to feel uncomfortable by the bully’s behavior and actions. Try to write down the specifics of these events and what it was that upset or hurt you. If this occurs in the workplace, compile this report and raise this with your manager (if you feel you can trust them with this information).


In your own relationships, have the patterns of behavior that you have made a note of in mind when you speak to your friend or partner. Often, they may be unaware or will remember these events in a different way but having this to hand will make you less likely to feel manipulated or doubtful about your own views when you have these discussions.

    • Stand up for others– It may be the case that you may not be being bullied but are witnessing this happen to someone else. You can send a message to the bully that their behavior is unacceptable by calling it out in public and not ignoring this. Again, this is a delicate issue; you should speak to the person on the receiving end as some people may feel uncomfortable with you trying to defend them and drawing attention to their problem.


  • Accept there may be no easy solution– In some cases, you will have to weigh up your own well-being against the action of confronting the bully. In some cases, this may be effective, but in some, it may cause further problems and exacerbate the situation at least in the short-term.

    Consider that the bully will be unlikely to see their behavior and empathize with your perspective on the matter and this could be a frustrating experience. Just make sure not to isolate yourself from friends and family. Talk to someone you trust about the issue and remember that the bully’s perception of you does not equate to your own knowledge of your self-worth. They constitute a small minority of the people you know. Some will have little opinion on you either way and the vast majority like and love you.

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