Disclaimer: For those of you who know me and my work around healing from abuse, please note that this blog is not about clinically abusive people (aka narcissists, sociopaths, or psychopaths). This series on adult bullies is about the other type of difficult people. The average garden-variety type of folks we run into out in the world.
The Different Types of Adult Bullies
What happens when we run into adults who don’t know how to treat other people? Our reactions can range from explosive anger all the way to deeply internalizing the ugly messages that bullies send us. Why do bullies exist in the adult world? As kids, weren’t we all told that schoolyard bullies would one day “grow up” and realize the error of their ways? I know I heard that mean kids would grow out of the need or desire to bully and yet, I see adult bullying in too many life situations.
There seems to be a few different variations of behaviors from individuals who clearly are old enough to know better, and yet, roam the adult schoolyard looking for someone to kick in the shins. Over the course of several blogs, I am going to share with you a few of the types of bullies I have either experienced myself or have been witness to through other people.
The Bitter Bully
I have personally come in close contact with this bully. It is one who appears in the form of a friendly face that is all good with you until, wait for it, the seed of bitterness comes to full harvest. What causes this person to shift from a caring friend to a snarky person who you cannot associate closely with anymore? Bitterness usually shows itself when the adult bully feels threatened by you in some way. Perhaps you stepped on their toes by achieving success in “their” self-designated area of life. It’s as if they have metaphorically tinkled on a bush like a dog to claim it as their own and you dared to come sniffing too close. You hear the low growl and turn to see their teeth showing. They don’t like you anymore. Suddenly you’re now annoying and they have numerous previously unspoken complaints of you. Their view of you has changed but the only thing that is new is your success.
Maybe your success stepped on their toes and rather than coming clean with you about their internal conflict, it seeps out through their pores in bitterness. Of course, they would adamantly deny any jealousy or bitterness. Didn’t they already tell you they are not an angry person? They are the outward picture of confidence but as an intuitive person, you feel the wave of bitterness and it pushes you away from them.
What causes the bitter bully to emerge from the outer covering of a good friend? I believe it is deeply held insecurities. When people feel overly territorial it is because they are scared that you are taking something away from them; that they will lose the goodness in their life. These individuals may have dealt with scarcity or neglect previously and they are triggered on a subconscious level by you coming to close to their now good life.
Is this your fault? Not at all. Are you expected to shrink back in life just so you don’t push insecurity buttons in someone around you? Never. We do not clip our own wings for fear we might fly too high for another person’s comfort level. Their bitterness and internal conflict is theirs, and theirs alone, to work through. However, it is helpful to pause and ponder the “why” of the bitter bully’s projection outward towards you. When we can cognitively understand why people behave the way they do, it takes the personalization out of it. We stop going over what we did to make that person change their ways with us. We start recognizing that not everyone can stay on the same road.
People say that failure will show you who your friends are and that is true. Success will show you the insecurities hiding in those around you. Sometimes, it’s not pretty. Sometimes success brings a chill of loneliness as people react in different ways and bitter is one of them.
Personally, I would rather be surrounded by a few key people who love themselves and their lives so much that anything I might have going on positively isn’t at all a threat to them. It is also my gift back to them because real friends don’t pour bitterness on one another like acid.
Keep Dreaming Big! (so big it makes people uncomfortable)
“What can therapy do?” This is a question that many people often ask, me included. With a little surfing on the Internet, it is not hard to find out the functions, techniques, or even the “promises” of therapy. However, this blog is not about any of that. Rather, it is about what therapy has the potential to be. It is about my vision of therapy with all its possibilities.
As a newcomer of the field, a Christian theologian/ethicist-in-training, and an immigrant from China, I arrived at the therapist chair from many places. From the first day I sat with clients in the therapy room, I knew that I was standing on Holy ground. I knew the presence of God had come within concrete walls. I knew the stories I heard were sacred. I knew that I was blessed to witness people’s journey of life and walk with them in their courage to heal. Through all the troubles, pain, struggles, and silence my clients bring into the room, when I look at the people sitting in front of me, I see souls that are on the journey of becoming so much more. I cannot help but wonder, maybe therapy should be a work of touching souls. Therapy should be a moment when life’s sacredness is fully realized. Therapy should be a space where one is joined by another and invited to know oneself and the world through the gentle carrying of the past. Therapy is not for the faint of heart, both for the clients and for the therapists.
I believe that the nature of therapy should be and only be about love. When clients and therapists come together, relationships are formed. When one speaks and one listens with the full self, hearts are connected. When one shares one’s self openly and freely with another, freedom is experienced. When suffering is truly acknowledged and joy is truly celebrated, love appears. Therapy is not just about changing lives. It should be about healing souls.
Healing is a path that the courageous travel. It takes more than functions, techniques, or even the “promises” of therapy. What it takes is the Divine love that first spoke the world into being and continues to make everything new. Therefore, the process of healing is holy. And the lives that are in it is sacred. Therapeutic approaches, in all its various forms, do not and cannot have the power to start this process. Before clients come to the therapy room, healing has already begun. Therefore, the nature of therapy should not simply be about tools, skills, approaches that may help clients heal. It should be about the meeting of souls and sharing of relationships between the clients and the therapists. It is finite, because of the meeting between finite beings during one session time. Yet, it should also be beyond our infinitude, because of the divine healing that is at work and the lasting comfort that one is never alone. Therapy should be a witness to the sacredness of life, the healing of souls, and ultimately, love.
She walked along the street reflecting on her life; the blessings, the heart-aches and the hard lessons she learned along the way. She was hopeful for her future and all of the things she still wanted to do and accomplish. She firmly believed she had the adequate tools to tackle anything with the help of God.
She heard some noises coming from the train station and decided to change her path and walk in that direction. Little did she know, it would change the course of her future and events. At that moment in time, it seemed like a good idea. She was drawn to the hustle and bustle around the station. There were so many people there and the perfect place to people watch. She sat down, a moment to breathe the fresh air and take it all in. She was a well-educated, kind-hearted, beautiful woman. A beauty that radiated joy to all of those who encountered her. There was a quality about her that was real, authentic. A giving heart and caring nature. A warm feeling you would receive when you had a conversation with her.
She wasn’t sure if she was wanting to board the train and go somewhere, or if she just wanted to flirt with the possibility of where it might take her. She stood up and decided to walk along the path and take in more sights. She glanced at another train nearby that was sleek, polished, beautiful, seemingly perfect, attractive, and intriguing. It looked as if it was a fast train. She had no clue that trains like this even existed, but they do.
Not everything is as it appears to be. The next thing she remembers is stepping up on the big step and closing the train door behind her; not knowing that the fresh, clean air that she had been breathing would be her last for a while. She turned around and looked through the window that appeared clear from the outside of the train, but yet was dark and cloudy from inside looking out. Something in her told her she wanted this experience. It was exciting.
The train gradually started moving. What she thought would be a thrilling moment and a good idea at the time, was changing. She knew in her gut she had made a mistake, but she didn’t take the opportunity to get off the train right away. She told herself that if she could just get comfortable, that things would be better on this train. She found a place to sit next to the cloudy, gray window, and looked out. As the train would approach different streets, it would gradually slow down and stop. Could she get off the train now? She saw people passing by, some strangers looking her way and the attention was nice. She saw friends laughing and having a good time, encouraging each other. Families gathered together.
As the train picked up speed, she was becoming a little sick, nauseous, nervous, anxious. She was starting to feel as if she couldn’t take in a full deep breath and was on the verge of hyper-ventilating. She felt closed off from the world around her. Isolated. The train began moving so fast and she wasn’t prepared for the speed of it. She saw glimpses of people, places, things: life passed her by. She no longer was full of joy, but consumed with regret and feelings that if she could change things on the train then it wouldn’t be so bad and she could get by.
However, this train had power and control over her. Trapped. No way out. Even if she could get off, she was too scared. She felt all alone and the train was picking up even more momentum. At the current speed, she was sure it would crash and the ride would all be over; she wasn’t convinced that was a bad idea. Yet, she had no idea of how to make the train stop. She was embarrassed that she even had willingly boarded this train. She had tried to strategically plan how she could get off many times but wasn’t successful. One day, she did something different and she let go of controlling it and prayed. Cried out to God to help her and knew that she couldn’t do it alone. When she finally had enough courage and strength, she jumped (more like leaped) from the train. It was incredibly freeing, and immediately she felt so much relief. She ran and ran and ran until she couldn’t run anymore. She was limping, bruised and wounded but alive.
The dust is now settling. She’d never be quite the same person as she was before she boarded the train, but she has rediscovered parts of her she didn’t know existed. A strength and courage within her that she never knew she possessed. She’s wiser. Even the conversations she has with friends, strangers, and family feel like divine appointments. What she needs is to take the baby steps in healing past hurts, pains, regrets. She feels safe; cautiously optimistic for her future.
She will never get back on a train like the one before. Ever.
Target on a Train by Monica Dane, Mentor Coach
Monica can be reached at 817-846-6331 or firstname.lastname@example.org
As a therapist and advocate who specializes in recovery from abuse, I have been witness to many stories of how survivors of abuse were treated by their church elders and pastors. I can tell you that some church leadership understands the complexities of domestic abuse, but sadly, many more leaders are doing incredible harm to female and male survivors. I do not believe the damage is always intentional, but rather stems from commonly held ideals that are ultimately creating environments where abusers are given “grace-passes” and the victims are left carrying the full responsibility for saving their marriages.
There appears to be significant blind spots within the western evangelical church when it comes to abuse and how leaders are to effectively counsel within the context of toxic marriages and abusive people. I hope to highlight a few of the areas that seem to stumble most church leaders. I am doing this not to bring shame or condemnation to pastors and church staff, but I hope open discussions will continue to occur. Survivors of abuse deserve to receive safe and informed care from their religious leadership. Unfortunately, this is not currently happening in many of our houses of worship in the United States.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Magical thinking.
The main issue I have observed is that far too many congregation leaders are teaching a lot about what God can do to change the abuser’s heart and far less instruction on what the abuser must do to be a reflection of Christ’s character to his or her family. The focus is placed on everyone but the abuser. The responsibility of changed behaviors is not where it needs to be, but rather deflected outward and away from the source of pain; the abuser.
Leaders are telling survivors that they must pray more if they want to see their abuser changed, that it is their duty as a wife or husband to remain steadfastly committed like Hosea did to Gomer in the Bible, and that God can change anyone if enough people are praying. Where are the teachings about the abuser repenting and permanently turning away from their harmful lifestyle? Where are the teachings about natural consequences when we mistreat other people? Where are teachings about personal accountability for a changed life? Instead the survivor, and even God, are held out as the only tools of how the abuser will be redeemed and made more Christ-like, even as the abuser does absolutely nothing concrete to be different. It leaves domestic abusers (both male and female) ultimately off the hook and everyone around them left to adjust to their poisonous behaviors.
The idea of wanting change for an abuser, when they themselves put no action towards healing, almost borders on magical thinking.
I recently was in a church lobby and a few people were standing around excitedly talking about a well-known public figure who exhibits abusive behaviors. One person said, “God is going to get a hold of him!” and another said, “He doesn’t know it yet, but God has a great plan for his life.” Of course I had to interject and ask what the abuser might think about God getting a hold of him. I asked what evidence can we see of a changed and repented heart from this particular toxic individual. I shared with them that it concerned me greatly that this small group of people in the lobby wanted salvation and healing for the abuser more than the abuser himself may even want it. At what point have Christians crossed over into dangerous wishful thinking that inhibits their ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear?
There is something very naive and unhealthy about projecting positive character traits on abusers that they do not possess and may have no interest in obtaining. If they did the hard work to become a new creation, then sure, we could join them in celebrating. But to hold out hope for an abuser who shows no lasting signs of change is like hoping we walk out our front door to a brand new sports car but we refuse to show up to work every day. It’s honestly embarrassing that the collective church will not see people for exactly who they are in their current state, hope and pray for more, but not be blinded to what is right in front of them. We will not change an abuser simply by wishing for it to be true. Sanctification is a process and one that the abuser absolutely must be a part of on a daily basis.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Power.
Power is a strong driver for people to remain in denial about abuse going on around them. When toxic people have the ability to get us what we want, we are sadly more willing sometimes to look the other way of character traits that might be unsavory. Many times the worst abusers at home are the same individuals who are showing up to church every time the doors are open. They are seen as pillars in the community, or at least useful to the church in some form or fashion. These powerful abusers are given a quiet pass when concerns are raised about their treatment of their families. People say things such as, “I know him, he would never do the things his wife told the pastor.” You can change the gender and the message is still the same when the abuser is a female. Power or the acquisition of something church leadership wants will, and has, caused many to justify abusive behaviors. They often utilize the magical thinking I mentioned above and decide that the abuser will get better with God’s help, even as the abuser shows no signs of authentically seeking God at all.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? The covenant of marriage is being held in higher regard than the safety of a spouse and children within an abusive marriage.
I know churches where someone can repent of horrendous crimes against people and these individuals will be received within a congregation family but another church member discusses dissolving their marriage because of abuse, and that person will be literally shunned by church leadership and other members. The concept of marriage is held to such a high standard that in some places of worship, it does not matter that evil is being perpetrated within the walls of the family home. Why do some church leaders cling so tightly to the idea of all marriages remaining intact? I think there are two reasons and the first is that sometimes radical things do happen and terrible marriages are restored. Harmful behaviors are addressed and forever changed. Church leaders love those stories of how one of their ministries or their own counsel redeemed a family that looked hopeless. However, not all toxic marriages will go through a 180 shift. Just like not all prayers for a sick person will result in a miraculous and spontaneous healing. Sometimes the body dies and some marriages die as well. Just like the fact that we are not seeing resurrections of bodies at hospitals all over the country, we may not see resurrections of marriages that are abusive when the abuser does not do the hard work to bring lastly healing to his or her family.
The second reason that churches are holding tight to saving marriages, even when one spouse is literally dying within the poisonous environment, is because some church leaders believe that without strong marriages as a foundation, our country is on a collision course with doom. These leaders want to hold onto the concept of the traditional marriage so much that they are literally willing to pretend a marriage is reflecting God’s will even when they know good and well the marriage is a fragile house of cards. As long as it looks good from the outside, right? This sort of thinking perpetuates the fake billboard living that many complain about in regards to modern Christianity.
What can we do when we are worried about the church and its response, or lack of, to abuse in marriages? We first educate ourselves and then we set out to educate our local church leaders. We find books that have been helpful in our journey to understand what abuse looks like in all its forms and we share those books with church leaders. We walk along side a survivor of abuse and tell him or her that we will not spiritually abuse them as well. We will not use Scripture to justify the harm that is being done to them and we will not place the burden of change on the survivor either.
The church should be a sanctuary of hope and healing. Until abuse within Christian marriages is properly handled by all churches in America, we are failing in our calling to carry each other’s burdens and be the hands and feet of a God of justice.
Keep dreaming big!
Bestselling Author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through The Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse