What Are The Impacts Of Adult Bullying, And How Do I Overcome Them?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated March 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Bullying is an abusive behavior that can impact anyone of any age. Many researchers and specialists have studied bullying, its adverse impacts, and steps that can be taken to overcome the adverse impacts of being targeted by this behavior.  

Although bullying is often considered only an issue for children in elementary through high school, adults can also be bullied. Bullying is sometimes associated with mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To overcome these impacts, it can be helpful to understand the psychology of bullying in more detail. 

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It can be hard to work through the effects of bullying

An overview of bullying

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines bullying as "a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort." Bullying is regarded as a behavior that is learned and not inherited. It may be prompted by peer pressure, a lack of caregiver support, or a desire not to be the target of bullying oneself. 

Research into bullying has shown that many people who bully are antisocial, unaware of, or indifferent toward the emotions and feelings of others. While some people who bully may experience low self-esteem, others may feel sure of themselves, even if they have tense relationships with the people in their lives, including parents, siblings, children, teachers, or coworkers.

Additionally, the rise of modern technology offers new channels for bullying behavior. People may act unkindly to each other online, make fake accounts, or send countless messages and comments on social media, often as a group of people against one individual. Although you can block people online, people who bully may make "call-out" posts about individuals, encouraging others to bully them as well, which can lead to offline bullying. 

Why do adults bully? 

People who bully may target those who seem sensitive, easy to manipulate, or trusting. It might be someone new to a particular social environment who lacks confidence or doesn’t give into bullying messages being spreaded. Via technology, people who bully are often encouraged to target people who disagree. They may tie in one's identity with false rumors and cause them to be widely harmed, sometimes globally

How do adults bully? 

Adults may disguise bullying by trying to make it seem that their efforts to harm someone else's life are justified. However, understanding that bullying has severe impacts can be essential to not participating in campaigns of harm against someone else, regardless of your age. Many people have taken their own lives due to being "canceled" or bullied by mass social groups who have targeted their jobs, friendships, relationships, income, and safety. 

Regardless of what someone has done or has been rumored to have done, all humans require safe shelter, food, relationships, belonging, and water as core needs. Attempting to cause someone to lose any of these core needs is not your responsibility and can lead to severe harm and traumatic events for this individual. If you believe someone has made a mistake, harmed you, or harmed a group of people through their actions, let them know their impact, but try not to advocate for removing that person from their personal community or resources. 

You can choose to end a relationship with someone personally and let others make the same choice for themselves without pressuring them or spreading rumors that may or may not be accurate. In addition, avoid bullying those who choose to stay in an individual's life. Studies show that receiving resources and social support after trauma is essential for change. People who are cut off from resources and the community may be more likely to experience further trauma or cause further harm to others.

The effects of bullying

While bullying directly harms the survivor, it can also impact witnesses and the bullying people themselves. In adults, people who have once spread rumors about or bullied someone else may become the target of bullying in the future. In circles where people constantly seek to bully or target others, friendships may not be safe enough to trust. To combat bullying, looking at all individuals in the cycle, including the witnesses, bullies, and survivors, can be essential. 

The effects of being bullied 

Those who experience bullying are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, loneliness, eating disorders, sleep disorders, and other health problems. Furthermore, the academic performance of school-aged survivors of bullying may decrease. Lower test scores, grade point averages, and higher rates of truancy and dropping out of school may occur. In adults, work performance may suffer. Some people may lose their jobs due to bullying, which can prompt a cycle of losing core needs, like shelter.

The effects of being a bystander 

Witnesses of bullying can also experience severe mental health concerns. Although they are not being bullied, they could become perpetrators or eventually be bullied as well. For example, if they are friends with the person bullying others, they might eventually "slip up" or say something that person doesn't like, becoming the target of bullying themselves. This "walking on eggshells" dynamic can cause anxiety and distrust. Bystanders may also feel afraid to speak out or report bullying due to the possibility of them becoming the target. 

The effects of being a person who bullies

Individuals who bully others may also experience adverse impacts. Survivors of bullying often grow from their experiences, learning that what occurred to them was wrong. However, bullying people may stay stuck in a bitter mindset, thinking of who they can try to harm next and trying to "catch" people who they want to control and put down. 

This hypervigilance of the behavior of others can cause a person who bullies to struggle to look inward at their low self-esteem. Due to low self-esteem, they may use substances, abuse others, or struggle to keep a safe lifestyle. People who bullied others in grade school are five times more likely to have a criminal record as an adult. However, it can also be beneficial to note that not all bullying people are criminals, and many people who bully are people who can appear charming or as leaders in a community. 

To avoid the impacts of bullying others, it can be essential to notice when you are acting abusively toward others, even if you think you are doing so to benefit your "community." Take a step back from the situation and ask yourself why you feel the actions of others are your duty to control. In addition, consider speaking to a licensed mental health professional about the reasons you may use power and control to avoid your emotions or needs as an individual.

How to overcome the effects of bullying

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One way to overcome bullying as an adult is to cut off communication as soon as possible, including with people the bullying person is friends with. If this person was your friend, it can be beneficial to grieve the friendship while safeguarding yourself. Block this person and others associated with their bullying online. In addition, remove any personally identifiable information from your social media accounts so that people cannot use it against you to try to harm you further. 

Try to move forward in your life and find new friendships. If the person who is bullying tries to keep you from finding friends, work on knowing your worth so that you can shut down rumors as soon as they begin. If someone else doesn't want to be friends with you because of a rumor, try to reframe it as a chance to find a new friend who is healthy and doesn't use rumors to get to know someone else.   

Taking action as someone who was bullied 

In some cases, taking action against the bullying may feel necessary. For example, some people who bully take silence and a lack of response as a challenge. They may worsen their response by trying to push you to act as they want. 

Depending on the situation, you may be able to report this behavior. If bullying occurs at work, consider reporting the bully's actions to your HR department. If it happens on a university campus, you can report it to your school counselor to find the best steps to take. If the person who is bullying is threatening you, telling you to end your life, harassing you, stalking you, or physically harming you, record their behavior and report it to local authorities. 

Taking action as a bystander 

Individuals who witness bullying can also take steps to overcome the negative impacts of the behavior. While speaking out can be challenging, avoid getting caught in the bystander effect. Speak out, even if there's a chance you could be targeted. If you're afraid to do so alone, gather a few friends you trust to speak up with you. There can be power in numbers, so a person who bullies may be less likely to continue if they feel they no longer have a group on their side. If witnesses do nothing, they contribute to the bullying culture and may increase the likelihood of worsening effects.

Taking action as a bully 

People who bully may overcome the adverse aftermath of their behavior via self-reflection and ceasing their controlling behavior. You might feel powerful at the moment by creating a campaign against someone else or harming someone with your words, but this behavior can have long-term consequences. Throughout your life, you may form shallow connections with others based on fear instead of genuine connection. People may remain your friend out of the fear that you'll also bully them. 

Instead of having a secure attachment in your relationships, you may avoid genuine emotions and love. As you grow older and friendships become more challenging, you may find that you do not have people in your life who love you, which can be painful to experience. Bullying is a choice. If you're serious about changing your behaviors, you can reach out for support at any time by talking to a licensed therapist. 

How to overcome the effects of cyberbullying

As technology advances, many people use cyberbullying to harm others. People might feel encouraged and empowered by the ability to target others from behind a screen where they cannot be seen and can easily hide their identity. In some cases, muting or blocking the individual stops the behavior. However, this may not be possible in all cases, especially if the individual has grouped up with others or creates false accounts. Some people may go as far as "doxxing" someone, which means taking their personal details like their phone number, address, job, and financial information and posting it online for others to use. This behavior is unsafe and abusive. 

If this occurs to you, do not engage the individual. Save screenshots of conversations, doxxing, and posts online. When a person is the target of non-stop harassment, saving and storing the information can establish a pattern of behavior. Depending on the location of the bully, those who use the internet to target others can be held accountable for their actions by law.

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It can be hard to work through the effects of bullying

Support options 

If you have been bullied by someone or a group of people, you're not alone; this behavior is not your fault. People often bully due to a challenge they're going through themselves. Although survivors are not responsible for the actions of a person who bullies, they may combat bullying by standing up, speaking out, and reporting it. All humans deserve core needs, including food, shelter, belonging, and income. If someone tries to take these needs away from you, defend yourself. You can also reach out to a licensed professional for guidance. 

Bullying happens in all areas. It can occur in rural towns, especially where one's community is small and difficult to escape. If you're living in a rural area where finding support feels impossible, online counseling through a platform like BetterHelp may be beneficial. Online therapy can support survivors no matter where they're located, and the growing popularity of online therapy means thousands of therapists are available online. 

Studies also back up the effectiveness of online therapy. One study found that internet-delivered cognitive processing therapy (CPT) benefited adult bullying survivors. The intervention helped individuals reduce psychological distress and maladaptive or negative self-talk due to their experiences. 

Takeaway

If you've witnessed or been the survivor of bullying, you're not alone. Adults can and do perpetrate bullying behaviors. To defend yourself, stand up when you see something, safeguard your information, and reach out for support. A licensed therapist can help you understand how bullying may have impacted you and guide you toward a safer future.
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