The Psychology Of Bullying: Understanding What's Behind The Bully

By: Gabrielle Seunagal

Updated August 27, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Fawley

The plights of bullying and experiences which victims of bullying face have gained more and more attention over the past few years. This is good because this spotlight encourages people to actively take steps to prevent bullying and help individuals who are targeted. However, for as much good as this has done, understanding the psychology of bullying perpetrators is equally important. This allows for a closer examination of individuals who mistreat others. Furthermore, when the masses understand what's behind the bully, there is potential for even more societal progress.

What Drives Bullies?


In society, there are a variety of factors which drive bullies. Despite the toxicity of this behavior, understanding its psychology is key to making further strides against bullying. Everything happens for a reason, regardless of how ugly or terrible it may be.

Perceived Threats

In many cases, when bullies hone in on someone, they perceive this person as a threat. The victim of bullying may be "different" or otherwise unique in a way which stands out to the bully. Bullies often pick on individuals who they view as a threat, whether this is a threat to their potential business success, ego, or self-esteem. Whether or not the victim actually does pose some type of threat by being "different" often depends, but regardless, the actions of bullies are never justified. In many cases, bullies are only subconsciously aware that they're feeling threatened by someone else.

Desire For Power

We live in a world where a lot of emphases is placed on power and getting as much of it as possible. Unfortunately, there are many individuals who internalize this and believe that knocking other people down is the best way to build themselves up. This is especially common when people are targeted in the workplace or in various social circles. Sometimes, this goes back to bullies feeling threatened by the individuals who they target with their bad behavior. In other cases, bullies wish to instill fear in others as a means to gain power; they don't care about the victim of their behavior being a casualty of their quest for power and control.



One of the less commonly discussed motivations of bullies is revenge. There are certain times where bullies genuinely believe that their victim wronged them (or someone they care about) at one point or another. Whether or not this belief is accurate depends on the precise nature of circumstances; however, bullying is never the answer. If someone did, in fact, do wrong, it's up to the person to appropriately report the matter to the proper authority figures, not become a bully. Vigilante justice and revenge quests have endless propensity to go wrong and make matters worse for everyone involved.

In some cases, bullies act on innocent others because the bully was harmed by someone in the past. This could be motivated by revenge or an attempt to take back power that was once taken from them through past abuse. Again, this does not excuse the behavior of hurting someone else, only an attempt to understand where this behavior could be coming from.


The online world and social media have many upsides, but they've also opened the door to cyberbullying. As such, there's become a new phenomenon of people hiding behind phony accounts and anonymity in order to target someone else online. Sometimes, these bullies personally know their targets, sometimes they don't. Many cyberbullies may have personal issues happening in their lives, hence their desire to target other people as they conceal their own identity. Not all cyberbullies are anonymous; there are certain perpetrators of online hate who have no problem using their name and image, but many cyberbullies do cowardly hide behind their screens and fake social media accounts.

It is easier to attack someone when they are not in your immediate presence, and many cyberbullies get feelings of pleasure when other people "like" or pay attention to their attacks on others.


Pure sadism is certainly a factor with certain bullies and indicates a more pathological or even sociopathic drive behind their actions. For as terrible as this is, there are certain people who merely enjoy being able to punch down on other individuals. We see this all the time in abusive relationships or criminals who go on to target individuals who fit a certain mold. When sadism is the strongest factor behind a bully's actions, they are likelier to be much more dangerous than bullies driven by other factors because they do not have a conscience or feelings of remorse.Underneath the commission of countless heinous crimes is sadism.

Bullies And Unresolved Past Trauma

At first-glance, perpetrators may seem powerful, dominant and in control. After closer examination, there are many cases in which bullies have unresolved trauma from their pasts. When personal issues aren't dealt with in the appropriate manner, they do not go away, regardless of how badly people want them to. In many cases, they lay in wait, beneath the surface, getting worse and worse. Eventually, unresolved trauma can no longer be contained and begins to manifest in ugly ways. Bullying others is one of many horrific ways in which unresolved trauma can manifest.


Unfortunately, there are times where former victims of bullying go on to become bullies themselves. They may still be suffering from what happened to them in the past. In other cases, these people may believe that bullying other individuals are the only way to personally shield themselves from present-day bullies. Sadly, this way of thinking is flawed and only continues the toxic, vicious cycle of bullying. The impacts of bullying are very well-documented; going on to become a bully oneself is another impact which people need to be aware of. Hurt people hurt people.

The Importance of Stopping Bullies

Understanding the psychological factors and urges behind bullies is absolutely paramount to stopping them. In many cases, the onus is placed on the victims of bullies. These people are often told to report the incident or otherwise take actions to prevent themselves from being further targeted and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Be that as it may, placing the onus on the perpetrators of toxic behavior is imperative.

Not Rewarding Bad Behavior

The rise of anti-bullying campaigns and platforms may create the illusion that bullies are never rewarded for their bad behavior. Unfortunately, this simply isn't true. There are many cases in which bullies are viewed as more powerful and dominant when they're punching down on others. This has been partially attributed to social hierarchies and whatnot, but the reason does not justify rewarding toxic actions.

Turning a blind eye to the actions of bullies is another thing which indirectly rewards the behavior. Anything which does not stop bullying inherently rewarded it, regardless of how subtle it may be. Sometimes, people ignore bullies because they don't want to become victims, but this mindset is problematic. It shows indifference towards those who are currently being victimized and does not guarantee that bullies will not turn on others one day.

Punching others is not strength. Making someone miserable and unhappy with themselves is not power. True strength and power do not rely upon ripping other people down and stomping on them. Someone who is truly strong and powerful can shine and elevate without having to bully others. This is something which bullies and everyone else needs to be aware and informed of. Breaking the cycle of bullying on all fronts and from all angles is absolutely paramount.

The Promotion Of Mental Health And Wellness

Understanding the psychological factors behind a bully's bad behavior is certainly impactful. However, promoting mental health and wellness is another great way of putting an end to bullying. This can help victims, bystanders, bullies, and potential bullies. People who have witnessed or been subjected to bullying need to heal just as much as individuals who inflict pain and harm upon others.

Bullying is not healthy. No matter how rich, successful, popular or otherwise well-off a bully may appear to be, the intentional mistreatment of other signifies a problem.

Likewise, being targeted by a bully does not mean that someone is weak. Despite the rise of attention which bullying has received over the past few years, there are still certain undertones which suggest that only weak people are bullied. Once again, this type of mindset places the onus and blame on individuals who are targeted, as opposed to bullying, which is innately predatory behavior.

Don't Be Scared To Seek Professional Help


So often, people are lead to believe that attempting to deal with each and every issue by themselves is a show of strength. The reality is that everyone will, at some point, need help and there's nothing wrong with recognizing this. Understanding that you don't have to face every obstacle by yourself is part of being human and living in a world with other people. You are not weak because you feel tired or overwhelmed.

In the present day and age, signing up for online therapy with BetterHelp is one of the most efficient ways to get professional guidance which can change your life. Online therapy ensures that a specialist is able to work with you, regardless of where you are or what your situation may be. Not having to uproot your lifestyle in order to get professional help is a benefit which everyone deserves access to.

Whether your issues relating to bullying or another matter entirely, always remember that help will be available to those who are willing to ask for it.

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