Self-Compassion for the Office Bully


We all know this guy.  He is the angriest guy in the office and somehow the most present.  He wants to spend more time with you and makes you aware of information you already know or don’t want to know.  Don’t forget the meeting is at 5pm.  Don’t be late.  Like you are thinking when the heck is that meeting.  I am totally going to be late.  Somehow these folks who are often not in a position of power (though sometimes they are) speak to you as if they are; leaving you feeling defensive and hurt because they caught you unaware.  This begins your cycle of suffering. 

Any time someone catches us off guard with harm, our amygdala is engaged and fight, flight, or freeze shows up.  You are at the office, so you can’t attack.  Running away might look a little odd, especially if you did so screaming “running away, running away!” The only option left is freezing.  While freezing is actually very adaptive for this situation and allows us to keep our jobs, we are going to feel that we were helpless in the face of harm.  This feeling of helplessness will lead to sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness, and likely anxiety that it will happen again.  Because these emotions cannot be expressed until your next opportunity to speak to an understanding friend, they become consuming.

This consumption then makes the workplace a difficult place to be in because it no longer feels safe and enjoyable, and a ton of your energy is invested in being prepared for the next sneak attack.  The next time that person can criticize you in front of the boss or murmur things to your colleagues or perhaps make veiled threats that they will report you for not perfectly executing office responsibilities.

When I lived in France, I was the English assistant teacher to several graduate students.  Of this cohort, there was one particular group of really mean women, who shamed other graduate students for the age, weight, dressing ability, and capacity to complete the schoolwork.  On a particularly difficult day, a woman of about twenty-five years broke down in tears.  She had recently lost her husband to an affair, and her appearance and work ethic had suffered in her eyes.  These mean women gossiped about her, and when confronted they shamed her. 

I needed something to turn down the volume on their attacks, and something occurred to me.  They always held their faces in contorted ways, especially with derision on the horizon.  So I asked this young woman what she thought those faces reminded her of.  Struggling for an answer, I asked her what kind of face she made when she could not use the bathroom but deeply needed to.  She didn’t even have to make the face first.  She already had the epiphany.  “They are constipated!” she said with relief.   The metaphor of constipation worked for her because it took away the power that might be linked to a more despicable word; it was a visceral experience she could relate to that she knew came from suffering not strength, and she also knew that like all things constipation does not last.

Before you get carried away with some literal transmogrification of this story and run out and get ex-lax or enemas for home use, let’s think about what this young woman learned about adult bullies.  They are in a difficult somatic and cognitive state that makes them feel like they have to lash out to avoid its negative effects.  There is no great magic or power to their stance.  They are simply unhappy people trying to find relief.  Everyone can relate to feeling so unwell that they almost want to lash out.  They are certainly suffering, and their capacity to bully will not last.  Mostly, because people who bully are experiencing a range of uncomfortable emotions that will both fatigue them and leave them vulnerable to bullying the wrong person or having the wrong person witness the bullying.  In truth, it is only a matter of time until they lose the friends they probably desired and certainly the social status they have built on harm.  Because let’s face it, not even mean people want to be around other mean people.  If we did, I would be writing this entry to no one!

While we wait for these people to tire from their bullying, here are some thing you can do for yourself in the meantime to bring some kindness and well being into your life:

First, you have goals and responsibilities in the office, none of which will get done wasting time with bullies or their agenda.  Deal with these people as little as possible, and remind yourself of your goals so that you can move towards something that brings you well being instead of something that, at best, brings distraction.

Second, acknowledge that you have a right to experience suffering when around these bullies.  Giving yourself this space to process the negative transactions will help you re-up your internal resources, and also diminish the anxiety and other negative feelings that resulted from your time with the constipated people.  This is simply suffering.  I come by it naturally.  Being around constipated people makes me feel constipated too.  May I be free of constipation and harm. May I be kind to myself.  May I feel safe. May I accept myself just as I am.  May I have the wisdom to refocus my attention on my goals and the people who support those goals.

Third, alliance up!  Form alliances and friendships with others in the office and be good to them.  People will always choose the relationships that bring them well being over relationships in which rumors or other negative social interactions are being shared.  Bullies are intimated by groups because their chicanery only works if the group supports it.  Also, this is a great excuse to make good friends in the office with whom you can share goals and positive experiences.  You may even want to thank the bullies when everything is said and done.  What if this work drives you into the arms of your special someone, a business partner, or a life long friend?  Thanks bullies!

Fourth, use language that is respectful and humorous that prevents you from feeling social awkward (like ignoring them completely would), and avoids conflict.  Bullies need conflict to avoid their internal negative experience.  We practice kindness towards ourselves and them by not engaging in conflict.  Only they can resolve this internal experience.  For example, the bully tells you that you are late for another meeting.  You simply thank him and say don’t worry I have a hall pass.  Never make your conversations about the bully. If they could manage conversations that had to do with their own stuff, they wouldn’t be foisting it on you.

Fifth, write your goals down on a piece of paper, then underneath it write down one thing you will do in the spirit of that goal today and one thing you will do to be kind to yourself.  These are your only responsibilities in life.  So no matter what the bully says or does, you and the pad know that the bully has not prevented you from living a good life after all.  If anything, they just provided an awkward segway in the middle of your day that you will be able to mention to one of your friends or family, so they might feel needed.  Hey, friends and family need to know they are important to you!

Sixth, much like a movie, we are rooting for you.  In almost every movie you have ever seen, some dastardly bully offends the good person and we spend the entire movie rooting for the good person.  I guess the bully wants you to be the hero.  Well, that’s just fine by us because if you are following a goal and providing one bit of kindness to your experience every day, then you are our hero.

Don’t waste time with bullies.  You have a right to experience and bring kindness to the suffering bullies contribute.  Alliance up!  Engage bullies in a respectful and humorous way that allows for brief conversation without acknowledging conflict. A small action toward your goals and kindness each day keeps the power of the bullies away.  You are a hero, and we are rooting for you.

365 Days of Kindness. Self-Compassion. Day 33. In the Books.