Person A says that person B is bullying them. Person B denies it. Who do you believe? If you ignore it, you could well be enabling bullying and leaving a victim open to further abuse. One of the biggest problems in this scenario is that bullies are often very quick to claim victim status. Take as an example the man in the habit of screaming ‘you’re abusing me’ at the woman whose bones he broke (true story).
There are no foolproof ways of resolving this kind of situation, but here are some things to bear in mind.
People who can get out of bullying situations early on, do. However, where there’s a power imbalance – as there can be with workplace bullying, the victim may not be able to leave. Domestic abuse can include hidden power imbalances. Money, work, age, physical condition, size, and the invisible power of emotional blackmail can all be factors here. That a person has not managed to leave is not proof that they aren’t a victim.
People trapped in bullying situations become demoralised and less able to protect themselves. They may internalise blame and shame and feel it really is their fault. The person who admits they’re a horrible, worthless person may not actually be the bully. Demoralised people stay because they don’t believe anything better could happen anywhere else – this is what they deserve, it’s their fault and they may feel obliged to stay and try to put things right.
It is not bullying to express pain, difficulty, distress, or unhappiness. It is not bullying to disagree with someone or say no to them. People who bully seem to feel they have to be right, superior, more important and more powerful. This means they often can’t hear genuine negative feedback. They may try to call out as a bully anyone who doesn’t actively support their fragile egos. People in this situation are actually in trouble and potentially headed for more trouble – tortuous double thinking and mental health problems arise for people who can’t admit they make mistakes, and can’t hear negative feedback. Most of us are not equipped to deal with their problems, and misplaced support can increase the cognitive dissonance for someone unable to face their own shortcomings.
However, when all you do is feed back in a negative way, while insisting on staying in a situation, all you do is grind the other person down. What should happen if one person is doing a dreadful job but can’t be told and can’t be removed, and reacts to truth as though they are being victimised? And how do you tell this from a person who is actually being victimised?
A genuine victim will very likely be glad of any help and support, even if they feel they are to blame. They are likely to want to co-operate, and will be looking for ways to deflate the situation, make sense of it, reduce the drama, improve their own safety and get things on a more comfortable footing. They may be confused about what’s going on, distressed, or they may be angry if they understand what’s happening.
A bully pretending to be a victim wants attention and drama above all else. They don’t want the situation to resolve – and if it does they will rapidly create a new one to replace it. They will likely make demands about outcomes, they will be more likely to want the kind of justice that harms their ‘aggressor’ and their actions are more likely to move things towards isolating, excluding or otherwise harming the person who is actually their victim. They won’t hear criticism and they won’t accept mediation that requires them to take any responsibility at all for their own role in things. They may present as wounded and distressed or as angry alongside this.
It isn’t an easy way to go, but often the best way to find out who is actually a victim, and who is playing the victim in order to bully someone, is to get in there and offer help and mediation. Go in as a neutral party with a view to resolving things, and you’ll see the inside of the situation more clearly, and the responses of those you are trying to help. That gives you a basis in personal experience from which to decide how then to proceed. If it’s genuinely a personality clash, you can help resolve it, and if there’s really a victim and an aggressor, you’ll be better placed to see who is taking which roles. In situations of domestic abuse, the victim is in most danger of being killed or injured at the point when they try to leave. I strongly advise seeking help from the police. If you can’t take the mediator’s role, actively support a path towards mediation.
People die as a consequence of bullying – from aggression that goes too far, deliberate violence that murders, and as suicides. It’s important to take these situations seriously, because often it takes input from someone else to solve this and keep people safe. I suggest that if anyone claims to be being bullied, they should be heard with compassion and respect, as a first move. A person who comes forward as a victim is always in trouble, it just may not be the kind of trouble they’re claiming it to be.