When you think of a bully, most people think first of physical intimidation. But as adults, we more often encounter emotional bullies. These people figure out what kind of emotional scenes we can’t tolerate, and then dramatically produce or threaten these very scenes. They do this to manipulate us, into meeting their needs, for dominance, entertainment, revenge, or most often, just for the relief of shifting their feelings or responsibilities onto us.
People who were physical bullies as children often grow up to be emotional bullies as adults, but emotional bullies can be of any age. The hard-to-see thing is that they can’t bully you unless you let them, unless you cooperate with them. When you change your part of the equation, you don’t change their personality, but you do stop them from bullying you. They already know that they can only bully folks that let them do it, and they don’t have much respect for people like that. Just make sure you’re not one of those people.
A key to stop your part of the game is to remind yourself that they are responsible for handling their own feelings and responsibilities, as you are for handling yours. This helps you make the healthy choice to refuse to pay off the bully’s threat or tantrum by taking their feelings or responsibilities from them. You need to have better things to do than to let them press your buttons to send your elevator down while theirs goes up.
If this person is your spouse, you need to tell them that playing this game has damaged your lovemaking, parenting, spending, house-keeping, prayers, whatever it is affecting. Then say you want to start making things better, so instead of trying to stop their scenes, you are now going to work at stopping yourself from stopping them.
If this person is your parent, sibling, friend, lover, or spouse, they might very well have some kind of behavioral or chemical addiction. If so, you are enabling them to stay in denial about it, and to continue to think they aren’t responsible, and aren’t addicted either. Email me and I’ll send you some old columns I call Enablers’ Resources.
If this person is your boss, this is delicate and confusing. Talk it over with a trusted coworker, a close friend, someone good at business, or call a professional counselor.
If this person is your CHILD, even an adult child, please, for everybody’s sake, take whatever action you need to stop this pattern. Get ready to tell him or her that this pattern of yours (and theirs) isn’t good for them. Why? Because their displays of selfishness, impatience, and emotional extortion will NOT be tolerated by other people they will meet and need in their lives: their roommates, friends, lovers, spouse, employers, or coworkers, just to name a few. In response to threats or tantrums, explain that you will now be doing LESS for your child, not more. This helps them realize that you won’t be around to help them much longer, and they’ll soon be needing to get along with these other people.
Tell them their emotional meltdowns will backfire out there, as other people will turn against them, breaking their hearts, and sometimes even their bones and bank accounts too. So your adult children need to learn to control and soothe themselves better. You need to tell them (and believe that) the longer they wait to learn these behaviors, the harder it will be. Therefore you are going to start teaching them now with your words, but especially with your consequences that they can and should learn to control and comfort themselves.
Ask around so you can learn how it’s done by others in your situation, and in theirs. Teach them how you and others are learning to make friends by controlling and comforting yourselves, and how this helps you to partner with others as teammates.
Confess that you have been treating them as if neither of you could handle the truth, as if they can’t handle their disappointment, and as if you can’t handle their disapproval, but tell them those games are now over. When the situation is appropriate, teach them that when they aren’t getting their way, “Don’t pout, don’t shout, just work it out.” Or as my wife tells her fifth-grade class, “You get what you get and you don’t pitch a fit.”
If you get continued resistance, you can ask the emotional bully some questions like this: Why should I believe you instead of my conscience? Why should I do your work for you? Why should I take your blame for you? Why should I take on your emotional pain? Their answers will reveal how unrealistic their expectations are, and their beliefs that they are special people who are entitled to being taken care of. Then you can say to their selfish answers, Do you really believe what you just said, or is this just a game for you? Who else do you think believes those convenient little lies? Shall we find out?
Remember and believe that fresh emotional pain is really good for us. Like physical pain, it draws our attention to our problems, and motivates us to take care of them. If I let someone bully me into taking on so much of their emotional pain that I am compelled to solve their problems instead of letting them do it, I won’t feel my own emotional pain about my problems, and neither of us will be able to solve our problems in life. Spoiling them disables us both, and my rescuing would be like a big pain-killing drug for us.