Why Am I Being Treated This Way?
21 May 2018 at 8:31 am
Bullies always go for what they perceive as weakness, says psychologist and behaviourist Adam Blanch in answer to a reader question about why they are being bullied at work.
“Dear Adam, I was getting bullied at work and I do not understand why. The bully and his friend would ask me questions about my private life. Then they would make snide comments about everything, my hobbies etc. I started only talking to them about work and a pleasant ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’, then the bully would shout ‘you are in a mood’. I would say ‘I just want to keep my head down’. He would keep shouting ‘you are in a mood’. They were gossiping about someone (a employee) in a negative manner. I said ‘I do not want to get involved’. Then the bully started shouting at me ‘You do not want to get involved, you are 36 not 12’. All day he was ranting at me going red in the face shouting, so I told him in a polite manner: ‘Do not talk like that to me’. He started ranting at me again, I had no choice but report it. Then he ranted at me again, so I reported it again, he ranted again, and started using intimidating tactics. He had a fight with two martial artists one night, then it was rugby players the following night (but the guy never had a mark on him). He would say it in my earshot, I just ignored him, then he started trying to push me into a fight. He kept shouting ‘I am in control’. Why was I getting treated this way? I have never done anything wrong, I was polite to everyone.” – Anon
Clearly bullying is striking a chord. First of all – there is probably nothing you did that led to being bullied by these people. Bullies do this stuff for their own purposes, which is usually to give themselves a feeling of power to compensate for their own insecurities and fears. You didn’t earn it or deserve it.
Secondly – if you have reported this several times to your manager, and they have done nothing about it, you need to consider calling Worksafe and make a complaint against your employer. They are legally obligated to provide you with a safe workplace, which includes freedom from psychological abuse. They really are being very foolish if they don’t act. I’ve counselled people who have been awarded three years’ leave on full pay plus re-education expenses, because organisations failed to act on an employee’s complaints. Having said that, it can sour the relationship with your employer so do your best to solve it locally first. Go to the business owner or the HR department and let them know you will be taking action, possibly even stress leave, if they don’t deal with it.
Thirdly – though you did nothing that justifies their behaviour, the reality is that these people are out there and we must be able to assert and defend ourselves. I’ve had many clients, who have been on the wrong end on abuse from multiple people, ask me if they “have a sign on their forehead saying kick me”. Often, the answer is yes. Not a sign per se, but the way they hold themselves and conduct themselves gives off the impression that they are unlikely to defend themselves.
There is a lot of research that shows that people who have experienced trauma as children give higher levels of nonverbal cues that people with psychopathic and aggressive tendencies can spot. The way we stand, move, smile and posture ourselves tells other people how we are likely to react to aggression, and bullies always go for what they perceive as weakness.
People respond to threat in four ways – fight, flight, freeze and appease. Bullies will avoid people who fight, but they target the other three, particularly those who are likely to appease.
When children experience abuse, they are in a position where they cannot flee and it’s unwise to fight, so this develops an early tendency towards appeasing behaviours. When these are carried forward into later life it becomes a habit that can be hard to break.
It can be tempting to long for a world in which we don’t need to assert and defend ourselves, but that too would have a cost. The emotional energy that drives self defence is anger, but anger also has other purposes like motivating us to achieve our goals and overcome challenges. Sometimes we call it passion, determination and willpower.
The best way to keep ourselves safe is to give the signals that say “don’t mess with me”. Standing straight, direct eye contact, not smiling in response to threats and insults and not trying to appease or accommodate aggressive people. This starts with a healthy sense of entitlement, the belief that we have a right to safety and respect and a right to defend it.
From your description, you asserted yourself, but a little late, and your attempt to avoid involvement gave the bully a clear sign that you are afraid and don’t want to fight. This encouraged them to feel they could get away with it. When it comes to bullies, the earlier you act the more likely you will be to prevent it escalating.
Finally, being bullied is traumatic. Seek professional counselling to deal with the emotional impact on you. A good counsellor will help you to work though the feelings, and to develop assertiveness if needed. As hard as these experiences can be, sometimes getting knocked down gives us the opportunity to bounce back stronger and more empowered. The same skills we develop in responding to bullies can serve us well in asserting ourselves in business, getting a raise, creating good relationships, overcoming anxiety and generally taking charge of our own destiny.
About the author: Adam Blanch is a psychologist and behaviourist who provides practical insights and support to strengthen leaders and their teams. He is a practitioner within The Xfactor Collective social impact practitioner community. For more information and contact details visit www.good-psychology.com
Do you have a question for Adam? Adam Blanch writes for Pro Bono News every fortnight. He will be answering all your people and culture questions. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note the views expressed are the opinion of Adam Blanch and do not necessarily reflect the views of Pro Bono Australia, its staff or contributors.