ColumnTips for dealing with female bullies.
One of my favorite stories is the one about my good friend and the little dog. When this friend, whose name is Carol, was a girl growing up in a suburban Seattle cul-de-sac, the neighborhood kids would often meet up after school in a patch of undeveloped woods nearby to play. One day, as she was running along the sidewalk to meet her friends, a neighbor’s Yorkshire terrier came charging down the path at her, and bit her hard. Carol didn’t think twice about how to respond. She picked her up and bit her back. No matter how many times I’ve heard it, I whoop when she tells me how totally shocked the little dog was. As you can imagine, that bitch never bit her again.
Bullies sure do come in all kinds of packages.
A bully can be an adorable Yorkie with a velveteen bow. A bully can be handsome, beautiful, rich, glamorous or more typically, feign a great approximation. This is so that you can later slam your head against the wall while asking yourself, “What the hell did I see in them?” A bully might be your neighbor, your mother-in-law, your business partner, your new best friend. Bullies may be do-gooding, world-saving, tree-hugging, down-and-out-helping, soup-ladling. A friend of mine knows a woman whose mother is a famous self-help guru. The woman herself is a psychotherapist; after many years in therapy she decided she might as well practice it. The reason she spent so many years in therapy is because her famous self-help guru mother hit her all the time.
Forget the bow. Ignore packaging, proceed to contents. Here’s how you know a bully: they bite.
Have you been bullied? I have – more than once, if you count having to live with roommates, and then there’s the one for the ages. My bully, my friend. She really had it all: money, warts, and herpes. I watched my bully cut every friend out of her life in the short time I had the misfortune of knowing her. Of course then it seemed an eternity, or at least a semester. I could have sworn she had made a list of everyone she knew, and one day decided to work her way down it, with the goal of leaving behind as much ruin and destruction to impress me as possible. When she severed ties with her best friend – who was terrified of her – over an argument about pleats on skirts, I reckoned my neck was up next. It was. Where I had once existed on a pedestal, I was now a bunion on the vamp of her progress, a sea urchin in the waters of her expression. Simply showing up to my life each morning caused her suffering. Couldn’t I wash my car more often? Couldn’t I change my ring tone? Did it matter if I had feelings and hopes and dreams or a separate different definitely provable-by-science autonomous existence apart from hers?
Faced with the inevitable path before me, I armed myself with psychology books from more than one trip to Barnes & Noble and consulted my people. Soon enough, having exhausted her supply of other people to chew on, she started biting me. Because I had prepared, I was able to walk away in a move that left her spluttering – I bit back – but what if she’d been my boss? Oh, that’s right, she was.
Who on earth are these people? Tina Fey called them Mean Girls, and they are everywhere, no matter how grown up we get. Naively, I had approached my very first bully with the plucky optimism of a community fundraiser. Soon, she needed me and my reliable niceness, and when you get to that point it’s a short trip to toast. I was but the earnest wheat germ, she, the flaring toaster.
Public service moment: Awareness of bullying has increased in recent years as our society has become more comfortable with acknowledging how bullying can be devastating, potentially scarring us for life. If you have a child who is being bullied, or if you yourself are in a situation you cannot get out of, or if the bullying has become abusive, this is not the best article for you. You should seek professional help now. The good news is that there is recourse in many cases; in fact, some states, such as Massachusetts, have even outlawed bullying. The trouble with bullying, though, is that as adults we can’t drag our bullies to the principal’s office.
How are we supposed to be women of principle and planet when we’ve got a yipping Yorkie on our butts? Easy. Really. When it comes to dealing with the garden variety mean girl, you do not need to read Sun Tzu. You do not need to possess Machiavellian insight. You do not even need to read every single one of the books I read (although please don’t tell the authors I said that). Here’s what you do need to know about your female bully:
1. Learn your bully. It won’t be hard. First, know that she is not well. She is really miserable. We are not talking about your friend with her flaws who lashed out that one time because her boyfriend dumped her. We are not talking about your bossy boss or your crazy client. We are talking core unwell, status Mother Mary. If you are sensitive to others, it can be easy to focus on their flaws, but remember that most people are basically good and decent, with occasional blips of stupid behavior. Learn to differentiate dramatic blips from toxic patterns.
2. But dear God, don’t be fascinated by her. If you’re a forensic dork like me, by all means, read twelve or twenty books on bullying. Google your heart out. But don’t get so sucked in to her neurosis or pathology that you fall for your bully. Bullies are really rather empty save for their pain, which is why they are unhappy, which is why they lash out. Translation: they aren’t that interesting. They have very little capacity for self-awareness. Oh, they may know they are mean and nasty – and she will probably even brag about it – but think about it. Since they’re rocking it so hard, it must be all they have. Your bully is but a vapid inedible puffball of mean, stuck on Repeat.
3. Find some compassion. I’m serious: she is miserable. I know it is very hard when someone is targeting you – hurting your business, or your good name, or just you – and really, really hard if you must spend a lot of time with this woman or if she pays your bills, but remember that she is miserable. If you can muster even the tiniest bit of compassion for her – and I am talking corn kernel – it will help you feel relief. Comfort. Happiness. Security. Acceptance. Warmth. Love. Have you experienced these things? Your bully hasn’t, at least not nearly enough to function. Happy people who feel safe and loved do not actively bother with controlling and hurting others. They just function.
4. But show no mercy. Compassion is essential to coping, and it’s also just good karma. But it’s for you, not her. Don’t feel compelled to help, mentor, teach or love her and by doing so, become complicit in your own abuse. She is not your case. She is not your concern. If you’re forced to engage with her for professional reasons or personal commitments, keep it as light and brief as possible, and don’t ever reach out to her in a spur of generosity. Forgiveness does not require masochism. No drunk texting your bully, baby.
5. Understand that she operates on one channel: hers. And it’s boring. You may seriously wonder if she has Asperger’s, or start to think that she has a hearing problem. How could anyone be so derivative, grandiose and obtuse? A bully could. Learn the traits of narcissism; the fat red flag is contempt, but there are eight more signs. Bullying is the calling card of the narcissist. Narcissists are self-absorbed to the point that they don’t recognize others as individuals with their own needs, and I am not talking about your cat. They’re both shallow and self-obsessed, but at least the cat doesn’t bite.
6. Love the one you’re with? Never. If you’re skilled at pacifying, whether from growing up with an abusive or addicted parent or managing child actors, you’re particularly at risk for doing this. Don’t try to be “the one” that your bully adores while everyone else gets the mean treatment. Eventually, your bully will turn on you, and it will hurt.
7. Walk away. Did you consider this? If the thought of never seeing your bully again gives you more joy than the thought of a bathtub full of calorie-free sea-salt and caramel chocolate truffles dipped in lottery tickets, fame, a flat stomach and true love, it’s time to walk away. We can get so wrapped up in our bullies and their bad behavior, we forget that just a few short months or years ago, we were living the charmed life free of Cruella. Just imagine: You can live that life again. Unless it’s your married mate or your boss, you can walk away fairly quickly and easily. Really. I promise. I know, you’re saying “But I just can’t, you don’t understand!” I do. Walk away. You will not die and you will not get sued. (And if you really fear for your life, see the above note about getting professional help.) Bullies can be smart; they can even be right. But they are never entitled to bite.
8. What a keeper! Here’s the other thing about bullies: they almost always come back. That’s because as narcissists, they have terrible memories in every sense – terrible in a way that thrills with its occasional laser focus, and terrible in a way that infuriates with its amnesiac spin. You can bite back, walk away, avoid, or simply suffer in silence, and they will always test the fences. Keep her on a short leash lest she keep you.
9. Pretend she is spectacularly stupid. Treat your bully as if she is at least a full quadrant on the IQ chart below Larry in Dumb and Dumber. We can spend infinite mind time asking “Why me? Why that? Why would she?” This is a waste of your energy. You are dealing with the emotional and intellectual equivalent of an office chair. Bullies often don’t know their bad behavior is bad, so don’t assume they know. The reason they’ve gotten so far in life behaving this way is because they’ve encountered a whole lot of people like you – that is, sane, normal folk – who all think “No one could possibly do this on purpose! Why me? Why that? Why would she?” Nice can get you a long way, but spice can get you further. So, when your bully lashes out, call it with confidence. Don’t be hostile; simply state that you recognize this behavior as aggressive and inappropriate, and you will not tolerate it because you don’t like to be treated that way. You’re not on a committee with her; this is not a review-the-behavior democracy. You are in charge, you define, you speak up, and that’s final. It’s so easy after you do it once, you’ll be annoyed that you didn’t do it sooner. It really works. Don’t yell, don’t coddle, don’t back down. Just express, and then shut up. Your bully will react in three ways: she will suddenly find a fascinating hole in the floor into which to crawl; she will erupt in screams and tears (don’t hug her), or she will act like you didn’t say a thing. But at least for that day, she will stop.
10. Don’t bite back too hard. A mean girl is really more bark than bite. Think about it: when someone is playing an abusive mind game with you, it only works if you participate. Bullying requires you to play the game, too. If you walk away, or take off the gear, neither one of you can play anymore. Seth Godin said it best: “Drop the ball.” (I wish I could find the permalink; if you do, tell me.) Realize that your bully is really quite weak – this is a little girl throwing a tantrum, not Maleficent directing the ozone layer. Walking away is shock enough to the bully, who has the emotional fortitude of a Yorkie. You’re just a shape or a shadow in her picture postcard world, so disrupting the mirage and stepping out of the frame is going to be deeply terrifying to her. Despite your overwhelming desire (believe me, I know), avoid layin’ it on thick with added helpings of vitriol or vengeance.
And good luck. There are so many nice girls, there’s just no time for mean. Find your true friends and together, you can do a lot, including calling off the dog or, when necessary, biting back.
P.S. My good friend Carol who bit the dog back is my mother. Thanks, Mom.
This is the latest installment in your editor’s column, The Insider’s Guide to Life, exploring topics such as media, culture, sex, politics, and anything else. Cheers and spellcheck!