Adult Bullies: How to Spot Them, and How to Handle Them

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Bullies were a thing in high school, right? We were told to watch our backs. Not to succumb to peer pressure. If you see something, say something. Guilty by association. And pretty much anything else that would steer us away from the grasp of a bully. But the thing is, we never liked bullies to begin with. They’re meanies. And after our share of middle school politics, we were tired of assholes. But now that you’re an adult bullies are no longer an issue, right? Guess. Again.

College was finally a break from the madness. It was time to time to drink beer and bond and make your lifelong friends. The bullies seemed to vanish, and we could rest easy. Phew!

That is, until we encountered one ourselves. Because the fact of the matter is, adult bullies are lurking everywhere.

They come in forms of mutual friends, work acquaintances, or social ringleaders. You might not catch them immediately, but eventually their true colors come out, and sometimes it’s too late. You’re already sucked in. And destroying a relationship in your adult years feels immature, catty, and beyond dramatic.

But ignoring their bully behaviors isn’t an option, either. It only reinforces their tendencies. So in order to be properly prepared for adult bullies, we have to brush up on our high school skills. We need to 1) know how to spot adult bullies and 2) figure out how to handle them.

So let’s roll. Here are some strong indicators that you might be intertwined with an adult bully:

1. The Silent Treatment

HOW TO SPOT IT: A classic tactic by almost all adult bullies. You have a foot in mouth moment? Silent treatment. You forget to text when you say you were going to? Silent treatment. You talk to someone else without them knowing? Silent treatment.

No matter what you do, eventually you will be met with their silence. Which also happens to be called emotional abuse.

They won’t actually *tell you* what you’ve done wrong. That’s way too much to ask. Instead they will smoke you out with their lack of communication until you break. Nobody likes to be ignored, and silence is typically the best way to “beat” someone without actually having to put yourself out there. It’s a cop out. Which is why it’s so popular amongst adult bullies.
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HOW TO HANDLE: You have one of two choices. You can either:

a) Call out the behavior immediately. Let them know that you do not appreciate the silent treatment and you would rather talk it out at their earliest convenience. Most bullies melt in the face of actual confrontation. They’re great behind screens, but not so much in person. You calling them out might just be enough to break their behavior (with you) for good.


b) Ignore it. If you feel like this person is an adult bully, then you probably shouldn’t be friends with them. Ignoring the behavior is a great way to a) not reinforce it and b) let the relationship fizzle out.

If you truly believe you are dealing with an adult bully, then let their silent treatment be the demise of your relationship. There’s no need to have the tough conversation if you don’t want to be apart of the relationship anymore. Walk away and let their behavior be the nail in the coffin.

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2. Isolation

HOW TO SPOT IT: By the time they reach adulthood, bullies have long concluded that victims are more malleable and impressionable when they are alone. So one of their most dangerous and effective tactics is to isolate their victims so that their punishment and behavior digs much deeper in the future.

Isolation comes in two forms: they will either manipulate scenarios to where you create distance between yourself and others, or they will actively tear you down so that others create distance from you.

Both have disastrous consequences.

The easiest way to spot this behavior is when a new person introduced to your life simultaneously brings tension with others. Some of this truly might be coincidence – healthy cliques fall apart every day over legitimate reasons and it has nothing to do with the introduction of new friendships. But more than not, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Tension is introduced because your new friend doesn’t want you to have other friends – and that’s to their benefit. Because when they decide to control your behavior, you don’t have a support system waiting to set you straight. You’re on your own – making their behavior tactics much more successful.

HOW TO HANDLE: If you suspect there is an external force driving a wedge between friendships you value, act against it. Make sure you are doubling down on your outreach. Talk about the tension and make sure you are clearing up any and all misunderstandings that might be circling around your social group. If you are starting to feel unsatisfied with your current friendships but can’t point a finger as to why, evaluate it. Carefully. Don’t let one person define your relationships. Support is crucial for handling adult bullies – so try to keep as much padding as possible.

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3. Walking on Eggshells

Oof. This feeling is the freaking worst.

HOW TO SPOT IT: If you feel like you are tip-toeing around a friendship: certain topics are off-limits, activities have to be done behind their back, or you have to omit or conceal certain information as to not “rock the boat” – then you are walking on eggshells.

You feel like you can’t be your true self because your true self is either offensive, undesirable, annoying, narcissistic, nerdy, or simply not good enough. So you hide things and carefully maneuver the relationship so you can remain on good terms and somewhat enjoy yourself. But it’s exhausting. You are doing so much work to keep someone happy who doesn’t even appreciate the entire tapestry of YOU.

If you are playing a version of yourself to appease somebody else because you feel obligated to do so in order to dodge punishment and sustain the relationship: you are friends with an adult bully.

HOW TO HANDLE: Stop with the act. If there is a theme to your tip-toeing, put it out in the open. Come clean about what you are concealing and why you are doing it. Maybe there’s a chance this friend isn’t as virulent as you think and they deserve a chance to see your authentic self. If they respond with punishment – namely, the silent treatment, then you know what you’re dealing with. And thanks to Item #1, you also know how to handle.

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4. Lowered Self-Esteem

HOW TO SPOT IT: Remember that bomb Halloween movie about the three witches? With Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker and someone else. Hocus Pocus! Yes. Ok remember how Sarah Jessica Parker & co. suck the actual life out of children so that they can all stay young forever??!?

Well that’s what adult bullies do.

Except they don’t *technically* suck the life out of you. They suck the self-esteem out of you in order to keep them confident. In the movie, SJP likes to kidnap the youngest and most innocent children she can find, because that yields more youth for her to absorb. So in that same vein, adult bullies don’t simply target insecure people – they create them. And the more self-assured, accomplished, and likable person they conquer – the more confidence they can ride until they find their next victim.

There is nothing better to an adult bully than tearing away someone’s self-esteem for the benefit of their self-esteem.

This process comes in the form of insults, cut-downs, backstabbing, gossiping, and anything else that will rattle your self-esteem. In the end, the goal is for you to rely on this person for any happiness you experience in your life. It’s controlling, it’s manipulative, and it’s scary.

So if you are noticing a correlation between a friendship and a hit on your self esteem, it’s best to do some due diligence to make sure that this correlation doesn’t actually mean causation.

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HOW TO HANDLE: If possible, end the friendship. Friends don’t put friends down, and they certainly don’t make emotionally rejuvenating meals out of them, either. If ending the friendship is not possible due to uncontrollable circumstances (think work, mutual friends, family), then keep this friendship as arms length as humanly possible. Protect yourself. Understand that you don’t have to share things about yourself or be chummy chummy or open yourself up to any potential breach. Put yourself first and don’t let ANYONE manipulate your confidence.

Remember: You do NOT have to be friends with people you don’t like.


Sure, breaking off relations with adult bullies might cause tension in certain areas of your life, but I can almost guarantee that your life will be much less stressful WITHOUT them — even WITH those consequences.

If you need help detecting or stopping an adult bully in their tracks, Blush is here to help. Let us be the objective point of view you need in order to break the cycle. You are who your friends are – so it’s time to shed the bullies in your life so you can continue on becoming better and better each day.

Blush you!


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