How to deal with the hidden bully

The holidays are upon us. Joy fills the air in close communion with family and friends around the fire or at the dinner table. But there is a dark side, unfortunately, to most human experience, hard trials to be gone through however we can manage them.

In this case, that darkness is personified by the presence of someone in the gathering who, knowingly or unconsciously, lobs verbal missiles causing pain and hurt. If this sounds familiar, you may have a “hidden bully” in your family or wider circle, or maybe just someone skilled in wounding others. You will know that the question isn’t whether they will attack, but when. Here are four tips on what to do.

Avoid the person if you can
I often wish I were Jesus or the Buddha, but I’m not. Particularly where kids and other family members are concerned, it is best to shield ourselves and them from confrontations that will not yield much positive result.

Stay in the driver’s seat
If you can’t avoid being with the bully, I would say it is better to engage them positively in non-threatening subjects than to let them start out. Ask after their kids, or find out how things are at work. Be the initiator. When you are in the lead, any snide or hurtful remark will be a reaction, and as such won’t have the power of full on aggression. Your active role will also make your inside less vulnerable.

Make a choice
When the attack comes you can leave, fight back, or try to ignore the whole thing and act like it doesn’t affect you. This is particularly difficult when kids are involved. A friend of mine recently dealt with a cruise missile-type sister-in-law at a pizza parlor. She noticed my friend’s daughter refusing too eat. When my friend said the child was a picky eater the sister-in-law said, “Just look at her–she’s hardly skinny.” She proceeded to attack my friend in regard to what horrible foods she feeds her daughter. It is hard to remember that such a person really isn’t talking to the kid, but to themselves. They are worried about something inside that never goes away, and they take it out on those who can’t defend themselves. If you haven’t got it in you to leave or fight back, another choice is to lob the “gift” back to the giver. This would mean saying something like, “Yes, we are all looking at Jeannie and doesn’t she just look great (which in fact was the case in this instance–the girl wasn’t the least bit fat)! And by the way, would everyone congratulate me on finding a pizza place so healthy that we can eat all we want?”

Have compassion for the bully
No one likes being hated and behaving despicably and hurtfully. Some time way back in their childhood, the bully of today was either abused or ignored, at a time when they desperately needed to be heard and understood by those who were supposed to love them. They learned the negative way of getting attention, by causing trouble and hurting those they could get to; if they didn’t, their parents and teachers just didn’t have time for them. So they are still stuck in the pattern, a hard one to change or even be aware of; so beyond even our prayers and good thoughts for them, the very best outcome would be to help the person go to therapy. There they would be able to open their childhood wounds and get treatment for them as the hospital staff treats the victim of a serious car wreck. All of us thus strive, in the words of Freud, to become “loving and working members of society,” a happy result bringing the acceptance and love that the bully craves the very most.


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