Wednesday, July 26, 2017

6 Bully Warning Signs and Why You Should Heed Them

Nail It! A weekly note from Ted.
Read Time: 6 minutes

Sometimes you come up with the perfect retort to someone’s shit, but the perfection doesn’t occur until it’s entirely too late. Happened to me just the other day. I was thirty years late.

It happened in a dream. As the dream opens, I walk into my business partner’s office with a smile just to check in and say hello. A breezy lighthearted approach seemed to allow me to connect while avoiding the issues of our eight-year partnership. It didn’t work — as it often failed in IRL.

“Ted, I’ve been checking the numbers and my projects are far more profitable than yours,” says the partner.

Falling immediately into my appeasing role I reply, “Would you like a cash bonus to compensate for the difference?”

My partner replies with a smile, “That works for me.”

So far my dream is just like reality. But then something completely unreal happens: I say what should be said: “Okay, let’s include in those bonus calculations the fact that you only bring in a quarter of total revenue and that I’ve generated all the publicity we’ve ever received.” With that, I walk out and permanently shut the door on that partnership. I awoke from the dream with this “tell it like it is” retort ringing in my head and the satisfaction of having dealt with something that had burdened me for three decades.

In reality, my oh-so-satisfying retort would likely have escalated my partner’s demands — and bad behavior. Why? Because my partner was a bully. And when confronted, bullies tend to amp up their attack.

In my case, this partner bullied the whole office. We were all kept off balance by the little undermining jabs: “Have you seen Bill this morning? It’s five after. He’s late again.” Delivered with the look that says, “And it’s your fault for not disciplining him the last time.”

Or, “Doesn’t anyone else care about a clean office?” Delivered with a passing sigh while sweeping papers into the bin.

This kind of behavior might not seem like much, but over months and years, it creates an oppressive environment. That’s just what the bully wants.

What’s Under the Surface

With years of therapy under my belt, I now know what’s lurking there: I was particularly susceptible to being bullied. I selected my partner because I felt I needed toughness. That I alone was not capable of creating a successful business. That without someone in the role of my father — who bullied, threatened, and demeaned — I felt disconnected and lost.

Being under the thumb of a bully growing up builds in a powerful need and susceptibility for being bullied. I got that in spades. It’s taken me years to understand and it’s painful to write about it.

This business partnership wasn’t based on the logic behind building a company together. It wasn’t based on the public goals and objectives of interesting work, financial gain, and mutual support. It was based on the private, unspoken emotional realities of victim and bully.

Everyone else in our office had their own deep history of relating to a bully and reacted according to their experience. Some buddied up with my partner while others kept an abnormal distance. Our best people never stayed long. One of them left and became our most successful competitor.

The Bully Warning Signs

I literally learned to stand up to bullies in my dreams. Knowing my susceptibility, I keep an eye out for particular indications of bullying behavior. Here’s what I look for:

The Need for Dominance

The whole point of being a bully is control. So when I see someone who is continuously maneuvering for control, I consider the possibility that they could be a bully. Even just dominating a conversation and interrupting can show this tendency.


Donald Trump is a great example of this technique with his truth-defying, twisted tweet attacks on anyone who crosses him. He seems to feel completely emboldened to fling out a lie about anyone and anything if it suits his purposes — those being total domination.


They find an angle that seems to strike a nerve and repeat it over and over. Eventually you begin to believe it, even though it’s not true. I was told over and over that I was stupid as a child. I knew it wasn’t true, but it stuck.

Endless Demeaning Comments

It may be low key but it never stops. The little inferences to your lack of skills, knowledge, or whatever are dropped into the conversation when the bully feels the need for a bit more control. Constant insecurity and anxiety are the result.


You can’t reason with a bully when they amp up their attack. Bullies react aggressively when challenged with evidence to the contrary or logic. They escalate their claims, raise the volume, deny the evidence, and make more false claims. One of my bullies once said to me, “I’ve never lost an argument.” You couldn’t win with her, only withdraw, learn from the experience, and keep your distance.

Touches of Reassurance

Occasional superficial touches of false hope that everything is okay and you are really needed and appreciated. This particularly cruel technique keeps the victim desperate for more reassurance in between doses of shame and abuse.

Dealing with bullies can take a toll for years, even decades, as it did in this case. I felt better after that snappy retort in my dream. But the reality is, I’ve probably saved myself decades of strife by recognizing the bully warning signs and getting the hell out of Dodge.

drawing of a man, his chin tucked into clasped hands.

To the Point

A short list of people who are nailing it right now.

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