Today, bullying does not just happen on the playground and in the classroom among children and adolescents. Our society now openly shines a light on adult bullying, especially in the workplace, on social media, and within romantic relationships. 

“No Name-Calling Week is a week organized by K-12 educators and students to end name-calling and bullying in schools. Founded in 2004 by Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, No Name-Calling Week was inspired by James Howe’s novel The Misfits about students who run for student council on a No Name-Calling platform. No Name-Calling Week is rooted in the idea of #KindnessInAction, not merely recognizing the importance of kindness, but actively adding kindness into our every action.” 

Bullying comes in all forms. Whether it is name-calling, physical harm, or emotional abuse, bullying can take place among children and adults of all ages and in almost every type of relationship. From intimate romantic relationships, platonic friendships, social acquaintances, or co-workers to siblings, parent-child relationships, and boss-subordinate relationships, bullying can happen between any two parties. 

Adult bullying

Behavior from adult bullies is more subtle and sophisticated than what a child might employ, which often may be confusing for many adults who are being bullied. Typical forms of adult bullying include intimidation tactics, silent treatment, gossip, public belittling, backstabbing, social ostracism, gaslighting, passive-aggressive behavior,  ultimatums, and political power plays. Adult bullies are more likely to have been bullied as a child or were more likely to bully others in childhood, and many adults use these tactics as an unhealthy coping mechanism to try to gain control, improve their self-esteem or try to deal with underlying triggers such as trauma or mental health disorders. In other words, adult bullies usually have an unhealthy void they are trying to fill and use bullying tactics as a way to overcome their underlying shortcomings. 

Red flags that you are being bullied

Name-calling, overt threats, and physical abuse are obvious signs of bullying, but many forms of bullying may not be so distinct. 

  • Constant criticism: If you are always being criticized, judged, or ripped apart by your co-worker, boss, friend, or romantic partner, then this is a sign that you are being bullied. Criticism that is not constructive is often used to tear people down while making the individual who is doing the criticizing feel powerful and important. Constant criticism can be adverse for your self-esteem and can overtime lead to feelings of doubt and worthlessness. 
  • Bringing up past mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes, and it is essential to learn from them and leave them in the past. When a boss, coworker, friend, or partner continues to bring up past mistakes as a way to ridicule you or as a reminder that you messed up, this can be unhealthy and is a form of emotional abuse or bullying. 
  • Gossip and lies: Spreading false statements about someone or speaking negatively behind someone’s back is incredibly hurtful and is deemed a form of bullying. Adults who engage in this type of behavior often do so because they have low self-esteem, and this negative talk often makes them feel better about themselves at the expense of another individual. 
  • Singled out: Not being invited to important work meetings, coworkers’ birthday parties, work luncheons, or other social activities can leave one feeling ostracized. Purposely leaving someone out and isolating them from the office or a friend group is a form of emotional bullying. 
  • In need of personal time: If you feel as though you always need a break from a friend or your relationship or you are taking more sick days from work then allotted, this may be a red flag that you are surrounded by others who are tearing you down. 
  • Sabotage: Whether your coworker is throwing you under the bus, your boss ruined a big project for you, or your spouse threw out your dinner or destroyed your personal items, these are signs of sabotage. Individuals who are bullies will often find ways to ensure that you fail at your job or task in an effort to sabotage you. 

Recognizing the behavior and seeking help

Bullying often goes unrecognized because many individuals may not be aware that they are victims, or they may be too afraid to confront the problem and speak up. Adults who are unsure if they are being bullied should try describing the situation as if it were happening to someone else. If a friend told you this story, how would you react? You can see the situation more clearly if you remove yourself from the story. Try telling your account in the third person to yourself in front of the mirror or tell a trusted friend and wait to see their reaction. Confronting the bullying, speaking to someone in authority, or removing yourself from the situation are the best options if you feel you are being bullied. It is also essential to take care of yourself, as bullying can result in physical and mental health issues. If you are the victim of chronic bullying and have been dealing with signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, then speaking to a mental health professional can help support your healing process. 

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases, including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor activist and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.