Today I want to talk about how to stand up to an adult bully. This is particularly important if you are like me and you got bullied a lot when you were a kid at school. Adult bullies now are your opportunity to stand up for yourself and to heal the emotional damage that was done to you when you were a kid. Because although you might have felt unsafe standing up to the bullies when you were a kid and you might have been carrying that fear with you, now that you’re an adult it’s actually quite safe to stand up to bullies and so the adult bullies that invariably come into our lives are an opportunity to heal the bullying from the past.
Adult bullies can be a little more devious and slippery than your average schoolyard bully. Schoolyard bullies have it pretty easy because if they want to pick on somebody, they can always just find somebody in a younger year, a younger grade, that’s an easy target for them.
However, once they’ve grown up, it’s a little more difficult for the adult bully because everyone else around them is generally an adult, unless they’re bullying children and that kind of stuff will land you in prison. So the adult bullies tend to be a little bit more slippery about the whole thing.
Recently I was out at dinner with a couple of people from a project that I was working on, and one of the guys was really beginning to irritate me. And because he was a little bit slippery about the way he operated, I was finding it quite challenging to really put my finger on exactly what it was about this guy that was starting to really bug me.
Fortunately, it came out in a conversation that we had over dinner; the three of us started a bit of personal sharing about what had happened in our past, and I talked a bit about my experience growing up in a household with parents that were bullies and going to school where there were bullies and how I’d shut down my anger in response to that because anger had always been destructive around me. And one of the guys was quite triggered by this and started telling me I should let it go and get over it and all this kind of stuff. And while there may be some positive intention behind what he was saying, I was hearing a lot of what he was saying as criticism.
In this context of this conversation, I was sharing some quite personal stuff and I was really not looking for coaching or criticism or judgmental feedback from other people; I just wanted to share my experience and hear what their experience was.
When this guy started saying things like, “I know you have a short fuse”, I started hearing that as criticism and I started getting quite irritated with him. I started saying, “Look, I’m not interested in coaching, I’m not asking you for that. I’m really not asking for advice or feedback from you.”
As a coach myself, obviously I recognize the value of getting feedback, encouragement and advice from other people. However, it’s got to be done in the right context, and people who are coaches know that before you can coach anybody, you need to build a relationship with them where they’re open to hearing what it is that you have to say.
This guy hadn’t done that and in fact I think one of the things that was beginning to really irritate me about him was that he didn’t really seem to care all that much about other people or what was going on around him; it was all about him. And I was starting to notice some of his behaviors were impacting me in adverse ways.
That was kind of where some of my irritation was starting to come from. Then when he started criticizing me, I really started to get angry and became more assertive, which is the purpose of anger, so that was quite a healthy response. And I was able to say to him, “Look, I’m really not interested in coaching. I don’t want your advice here. It’s not what I’m looking for right now.”
Nevertheless, he kind of kept telling me what he thought I should do and so my anger began to grow greater and I started to say to him, “Look, I’m not interested in hearing what you think I should or shouldn’t do. Just keep that to yourself, thanks. I just don’t want to hear it.”
He reacted to that by saying “Well, I don’t give a shit about you anyway.”
That made me really angry. At that point, I said to him, “Look, if you don’t give a shit about me, then I don’t want you in my life.”
This is my basic ground rule now: I don’t want to be around people who don’t give a shit, who don’t care enough about me, to do the stuff that I think is important when I’m around. his response to that was basically, “Well, I don’t care because I don’t want you in my life anyway; I don’t care about you.”
I became increasingly angry and he then responded saying "You're being childish." That really triggered me. I was very angry now because the criticism kept flowing despite me saying, “Look, I don’t want your advice, I don’t want your feedback.”
So then I just said, “Look, keep your judgments to yourself. I don’t want to hear that stuff.”
And he says, “That’s not a judgment.”
I just went, “Look, bullshit. 'Childish' is a judgment. I’m really angry with you and I don’t want to hear that shit. Just keep your judgmental, negative, critical shit to yourself from now on, all right? I don’t want to hear it.”
Then he’s like, “Yeah, but” –
“No, no, I don’t want to hear it. Keep that shit to yourself.”
This made for a slightly tense ending to our dinner, and afterwards I experienced a feeling of shame and fear that I often experience after being really assertive because I’ve come from a background where that wasn’t okay and I would be criticized even more by the people around me when I was assertive. So I still tend to get a bit of that physiological response.
But the great thing is that each time you do this, the feelings of fear and shame that come up get less and less. Because what you’re doing is you’re retraining that childhood part of your mind that experienced a lot of punishment when we were assertive as a kid. You’re retraining that now as an adult to let it learn that it’s okay to be assertive. In fact, it’s a really good thing to be assertive.
After I really manned up and said to this guy, “Look, I don’t want to hear your negative judgments,” they did stop flowing my way. He stopped criticizing and judging me, at least externally. Now, maybe inside his head he was still thinking negative thoughts about me. I don’t really care; I just didn’t want to hear that stuff. And, sure enough, for the rest of the project, I didn’t experience any more criticism, negativity or judgments from him.
In fact, he pretty much stayed away from me, which is fine with me because I had set that boundary that I don’t want people in my life who don’t give a shit about me. Nevertheless, I was committed to the project that we were working on together, so I worked in a way that allowed us to maintain a working relationship but didn’t expose me to his negativity and his criticism any more.
I want to remind you guys that this is a fantastic thing; standing up to adult bullies is the way that you heal your childhood bullying experiences, and you reprogram that limbic system part of your mind, the primitive part of your brain, that triggers into fear when you’re in a situation where you might get into conflict.
Basically, you need to learn that adult conflicts can be resolved in a positive and healthy way when you stand up for yourself. In order for this learning to go even deeper into your mind, I highly recommend that you share your experiences with other people, particularly with other men, just like I’ve done here; I’ve just told you the story of how I stood up for myself and managed to get some external criticism and judgment to stop flowing my way.
One of the great ways you can do that is by joining The Confident Man forums. Log in, post a message about any time that you’ve been standing up for yourself and get together with other guys online, or in the real world. I mean the forums are a great way to do it online, but if you’ve got mates in the real world tell them your stories too, and we can all encourage each other to stand up for ourselves and heal our past and look forward to a more assertive future.