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)
Sometimes the best counseling moments happen when working with kids and teens. There are helpful insights that are so universal that people of different ages can benefit. I find that the simpler explanations that work with kids also make it easier for us “complicated” adults to grasp and apply to our lives. One of these truths is what I refer to as Green, Yellow and Red people.
These are the people in our lives that are the most emotionally safe for us. We can be really honest with our personal short-comings and not water them down so no one in the room is uncomfortable. We can be ourselves around them and don’t feel the need to put on a fake front. If we are miserable, we say we are miserable. If we are proud of something we have overcome or accomplished, we say it with self-confidence. If we have failed in some area of life, we don’t hesitate to share it because we know our transparency will be met with love, support and hopefully humor to lighten the mood. Green people are amazing! We all could use more greenies in our life.
Stop what you’re doing and go get a piece of paper. Put “GREEN” at the top of the paper and write the name(s) of whoever comes to mind when you think of a friend that you can bare your soul to and they still love you. Go ahead. Go do it. I’ll wait…Done? How long is your list? Is it long or short? Having counseled with clients for many years now, I have had the privilege of hearing about the most intimate parts of people’s lives. For most folks, the list of green people is going to be short. Real short maybe. That’s perfectly ok. If you can put one person on your Green list, you’re lucky. Any more than that is a huge blessing. True friends are a gift and they should be valued for what they bring to our lives.
Ok, so we now know what Green people look like so Yellow is the not reliable cousin of Green. Yellow people are a little like playing Russian Roulette with our own emotions. Sometimes we can pull the veil back on our public persona and it is met with all the wonderful qualities of a Green. However, other times, we do the exact same thing and watch out because the green friend has awaken on the wrong side of the bed and now is yellow. They now want to tell you all the reasons you and your life are broken. Ouch! Perhaps they are not that blunt and rude but instead of being supportive of your messy life, they seem impatient or maybe go so far as to not even reply when you start to talk about a tender subject to you. Instead, they change the subject to something they are more comfortable with. Ever been there? I have. I can remember it clearly because it stung so much. Did I ever really share my heart and life struggles with that friend again. Nope. I closed up just like a clam and don’t plan on opening back up. Are we still friends? Sure. But from a further emotional distance. It just has to be that way.
Yellow people are where a lot of hurt feelings occur in the world of relationships. It’s the uncertainty that causes the damage. We are uncertain if the person will be a friend or a foe. It’s risky to miscalculate and fall into a ditch. Yellow people are unreliable with our emotions. They may not just flip-flop on their support of us, but they might flip-flop on the amount of time they spend with us. The yo-yo of being super available to then almost disappearing. There are a lot of ways someone can be a Yellow. Can you think of some other yellow-like behaviors? Go back to your sheet of paper that has Green written on it and the people who are greens in your life. Now do the same for Yellow. This list will be a lot longer.
There are different degrees of yellow and some people on your list might be yellow with a hint of green. On the other hand, some people will have some yellow and red!
These are the truly emotionally unsafe people. They may have moments that are ok but we can never forget that ultimately these are relationships that should be in small dosages, if we must see them at all. Red interactions leave us feeling drained, confused and often times anxious. I am a huge advocate of limiting contact with people that cause our lives to flourish less because they are in it. There are times when we can’t or don’t want to completely cut contact with Reds so what should we do? We have to spend time with the Greens in our lives before we interact with the Reds. We have to make sure our emotional well-being is taken care of before exposure to Reds. For the love of all things, we can NOT seek acceptance or affirmation from Reds. Some of them actually enjoy rejecting us and will do so at every opportunity. They don’t think we see the games but in fact, we do. It is up to you whether you share with the Reds in your life that you’re on to them or to simply take measures to maintain your own self-care while interacting with Reds. Go ahead and write RED on your list and fill in the names that you know belong there. It could be sad to write the names down but the truth is the truth. Might as well just acknowledge it openly and honestly with at least yourself.
The bottom line is that we must recognize who are emotionally safe people and who are not. We make the biggest mistakes when we confuse colors and have expectations that are not realistic. There is nothing rude or mean by allowing our true feelings to be put down on paper for us to reflect on. It is in this transparency that taking care of ourselves and boundaries can really take place.
Friendships are at the core of our support and what enriches our lives in numerous ways. Our friends are the family members that we get to choose. A good friendship will be like iron sharpening iron and I recently saw a quote that said “You become like the 5 people you spend the most time with – choose carefully.” We are changed and help others change while investing in solid friendships.
Since friends have such personal access to us and our private thoughts, choosing wisely is critically important. We all have had a friendship or two (or more sometimes) when we wonder why we let a particular person close to us and ended up hurt in the relationship. It’s inevitable that we will have some friendships that turn badly and we have an opportunity to learn from the experience. As a counselor, I get to hear lots of stories of friendships done well and not so fabulous. I often write about toxic people and their influence in our lives because I truly believe that all personal growth is hindered (or completely ruined) by one of two things: 1) our own inner thought life and 2) the attitude of the people we surround ourselves with on a regular basis.
With that in mind, I’d like to share five of the more damaging friendship types that I have come across:
“My Life is Perfect”
This is the friend that always has to portray themselves, their families and their life in general as the personification of perfection. They may even go so far as to tell you outright that their lives are “perfect.” Their declaration of an ideal existence is often followed by you having shared a hard time, a struggle or a let down in life. This friend will comfort you in all your loserness (I am being sarcastic) and then immediately share a story about what a great promotion their husband just got making oodles of money or how one of their children made the most exclusive sports team in the community or some other version of success. These friends feel compelled to project an outward image that can not be true for anyone. Perfection isn’t reality. Having a life you love and appreciate is reality but these type of friends take it a step further. They don’t want you to see their flaws or if they do share some struggle, it will be something watered down and helps to maintain their self-image. The damaging aspects of having a friend such as this is that no matter how close we may think we are to this person, there is an invisible wall between us and them. True authentic relationships involve transparency and where transparency is lacking, friendship doesn’t really exist.
“Here Comes Trouble”
Watch your back. Better yet, watch your back, your front, your sides and every other entry into your life because this friend is looking for drama and has no trouble dragging you into a relational mess. The motivation for these trouble causing friends often varies but frequently I have seen that these folks want to alienate us from other people and do so by gossiping about this, that and the other in order to get us angry at the other person and are therefore more loyal or devoted to the trouble causing friend. Rather than just letting life sift itself out and letting people choose who they want to be friends with, the trouble starter passive aggressively tries to control the dynamics and trouble is the by product. Now some trouble causing friends are just bored in life and need a good fight to wake themselves up. The challenge to having a trouble causing friend is well, they cause trouble! They create hurt feelings and triangulate (therapy word for pitting people against one another) those around them and there is no harmony or peace when a trouble maker friend is in your life.
“I Am Always Right”
When a friend is always right, guess what? We are always wrong. We raise our kids wrong, we vacation in the wrong places, we make decisions about our careers wrong and on and on it goes. Their over inflated ego whispers to them they know best for themselves and us and if we would just listen to them, all would be well. The limitations to this type of friendship are endless because they don’t make room for our own thoughts, beliefs and hopes to come through. There is one way to do things correctly and that is their way. This friend might have the best intentions for us and truly want to help us become better parents but the problem is that we might not agree that they are the ideal parent and may want to do things our way. Gasp! Shocking huh? To this type of friend, our independent thoughts are annoying to them and if we dare express that we see things differently, the relationship will be strained because we have rejected their over-bearing ways in our life and that usually doesn’t sit well with an always right friend.
“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”
Ah. The competitive friend. Gotta love them. Unlike the Always Right friend, the Competitive Friend wants us to live independently from them and give it our best shot, as long as they come out on top in every situation. Got a great promotion at work? They got a better one. Parenting your child in a way where they are thriving? Your competitive friend could do it better and has no problem telling you so. My personal favorite is when friends are not even parents yet and believe they could raise your kids better than you do. This friend can be a double-edged sword because they will encourage all kinds of personal growth in you and cheer you along but inevitably the competition you weren’t aware of between you starts to show and it’s damaging to the bond of friendship. It very difficult to do life in close proximity to someone who at the end of the day, just wants to be better than you are and has no issue with either aggressively or passive-aggressively letting you know.
What was that sound, you ask? That, my friend, was the sound of the bus running you over because your other “friend” threw you under it! This type of friend will have no problem scapegoating you when it’s convenient to their agenda. This friend might really like you and want to be your confidant but the moment that their neck is on the line or an offering to the volcano is needed, guess who is getting throw into the pit? You! They know the dynamics of the environment just enough to know exactly how to toss you under the bus in the most effortless and effective manner. The limitation to this friendship type is that what you thought was a nice connection was really a two sided coin; pleasant in one way and completely self-serving for the other person in another way. There is no trust in this type of friendship.
As you think over these five friendship types and the friends you currently have in your life, how are things measuring up? Did reading this list make you grateful for the wonderful and supportive friends you have or did you see someone you know in one or more of the five listed above? Whatever your current state of friendship may be, it’s important to remember that healthy people attract healthy people. So continue on your own journey of personal growth, whatever that may look like, and trust that the right friends will join you and enrich your life in amazing ways. If you already have a great group of supporters, go tell them you appreciate the goodness they bring to your life.
Sharing doesn’t come easy for most people. Watch a group of toddlers and it will make you think that the human condition is hardwired to not share. I love the scene in “Finding Nemo” where the pelicans all say “mine, mine, mine!” Yes indeed, sharing our possessions is challenging. You know what’s even harder? Sharing our hopes, goals, dreams, fears, insecurities and weaknesses. Yeah, those are real tough ones to let other people in on.
I believe the reason we have so much trouble with authentic transparency is not because there isn’t an innate need in our souls to know and be known by another person, there is. The reason we don’t share is because we’ve been burned by people in the past. Having another person with whom you can say anything to and not have them judge you is an incredible gift. I think many people do not have that nowadays. In some religious circles there is a lot of sweeping the personal challenges under the rug so everything looks perfect.
A lot of us have opened up our hearts to someone, only to sadly regret it later. We have been real and vulnerable, then had the other person use the information we shared or our love for them against us. So we clam up and stop saying as much or saying anything with substance to those around us. That begins the process of emotional isolation and it’s a slippery slope from there into social loneliness. We might still physically be around people but they only get the billboard version of our lives; that we have constructed to show the world.
How do we heal if we have lingering hurts from trust gone bad in the past? We pick better next time. We look for character qualities in those around us that would make for a special confidante. Then we take the small gradual steps to share more of our real selves.
Keep your eyes open around you too; perhaps you could be that person for someone else. We are not meant to live in emotional isolation but we do have to use a lot of wisdom when we decide to share.
Five Things I’ve Learned This Week or Was Reminded Of:
1) Unless we are willing to do something different, the outcome will continue to be the same.
2) For many parents, the years between sixteen until the eighteenth birthday are confusing. The teens are not yet adults but have grown past those early teen stages. My advice is that with each passing year, the parenting relationship should morph into mentoring; with the parent’s directives lessening and the teen’s decision-making skills increasing.
3) Failing to nurture relationships will cause them to wilt; just a like plant that is not given water.
4) Burning the candle at both ends really does eventually lead to the candle burning out.
5) I love free things and every Monday in April was free coffee day at the Dallas/Ft. Worth Dunkin Donuts. I will miss Monday’s in April for that reason but wait, there is one more!
What’s on your list?