Warning your allies about a bully can turn them against you
Navigating the battle ahead
Growing up, the bully down the block consumes much of our attention and occupies a lot of our thoughts. We obsess and ruminate about them. Childhood bullies are a menacing presence who use physical intimidation, verbally coercive threats, ad hominem name-calling, and social alienation to disempower and terrorize their targets.
Childhood bullies are a significant source of anguish to us, which manifests emotionally and physically to the detriment of our health and welfare. The most benign consequences of their actions influence school attendance or changing schools. At their worst, their behavior is implicated in homicides and self-harm, and suicide of their victims.
In adulthood, bullying persists in more nuanced ways and inconspicuous forms because impropriety is frowned upon as we age. This is particularly true in workplace settings. At work, adult bullies are increasingly forced to fly under the radar by adhering to rules of engagement and complying with standards of conduct that align with the values and cultural norms of organizations. The same is not true for our experiences at social venues. The digital era has provided new opportunities for adult bullies to harass and menace others in covert and overt ways.
Breaching codes of conduct are increasingly monitored and acted upon in our workplaces where legislation protects an increasingly diverse workforce. However, places where we socialize, including social media applications and cyberspace, have become a haven for duplicitous characters to wage war on other individuals.
Adult bullies tend to recruit others into their orbit. People who use manipulation and other narcissistic traits are known to rely on flying monkeys to do their dirty work. These minions may participate in smear campaigns, conduct surveillance, and weaponize any information you give them for the benefit of the narcissistic bully.
So, it is always important to develop personal and professional relationships at a pace, which permits one to build trust. Your allies will be an important support system. They may not necessarily be deployed to engage with a bully but allies can be a stabilizing force when dealing with a high-conflict person.
One day Ron met Lisa at a local dog park. She was a new guest and sat down with a group of other patrons who Ron knows. She seemed to be very nice but sure asked Ron a lot of questions. He felt she was kind of invasive, but the next time he saw her at the park, she was already asking John a ton of questions.
John was Ron’s friend and he had become part of the regular group. But although Ron saw Lisa a few times at the park over the next week, John was nowhere to be found. Ron didn’t think anything of it and John returned a week later. But John didn’t seem to be his old self. Ron saw him talking to Lisa and he seemed to be very engaged.
Both John and Lisa were married and Ron certainly didn’t suspect they were on the verge of becoming romantically involved but John remained distant toward Ron. When Ron approached John on more than one occasion John was pretty quiet. Interestingly enough, Lisa seemed to almost interject and speak on John’s behalf.
Although John had become Ron’s friend, he was now acting kind of strange toward Ron. A couple of other patrons who had been on vacation returned for the summer including a couple named Sarah and Mike who were also part of the circle of friends. John introduced them to Lisa who of course asked them a ton of questions. Lisa seemed to act as though she was one of the regulars. After a few weeks, John remained distant and aloof toward Ron.
Sarah and Mike seemed to get along with Lisa and quite frankly Ron started to feel a bit alienated. He felt conflicted. He didn’t necessarily dislike Lisa, but it seemed that she was keeping him at bay and it was particularly unsettling to Ron because she was a newbie. Ron sensed that she was beginning to relate to Sarah the same way she had cultivated a fast friendship with John. Ironically, Sarah confided in Ron one day that she thought Lisa was a bit too aggressive or assertive for her taste. He felt relieved.
But just a few days later, John invited Ron to a Facebook group for the dog park, which had apparently been established a few weeks ago. Ron accepted the invitation and was surprised to discover that it was created by Lisa. Not only had she become a divisive force in their group but she had hijacked their social network. It was a great example of a divide and conquer tactic. Ron was now conflicted. Was this an attempt to include Ron or an opportunity to exploit and dispose of him?
Discovering you’re the bully’s target
When you discover you are the target of a bully, you might wonder “why me?” It’s perplexing especially when you’ve had minimal interactions with the bully. Bullies choose their targets based on a number of subjective factors all pointing to the bully feeling threatened by you. Perhaps you remind them of someone they don’t like (ie. the younger version of themselves who was invalidated by a parent), or they think you’re creepy or a phony, or you behaved in unexpected ways, or you don’t give them the attention they expect or just about anything that makes them decide they don’t like you and want you gone. It’s not logical, at least not from the target’s perspective.
What the bully is doing to your allies
A person who was once friendly to you becomes a bully who targets you because they see you as a threat to something important to them -whether it’s power, public image, job promotions, or popularity in a social group, it doesn’t matter. The point is that you’re a threat and they are defending themselves by doing what’s necessary to make you go away.
One of the strategies of effective bullying is to infiltrate your friend circle, social group, and/or professional network so that they can use the connection to recruit alliances and turn those connections against you. They use grooming techniques to get people onside, some of whom are already connected to you. Eventually, those acquaintances become emotionally bonded and spend increasing time with the bully. When the bully feels secure in these friendships among your shared network, they begin to test out lies about you. The bully gauges who is trustworthy among the recruited group based on the reactions they receive about the lies (presented as truth), and slowly disengages from those who don’t give the desired response. The truest of the bully’s allies are those who feel inspired to transmit the lie to warn others about you, thus increasing the bully’s reach and potential to turn others against you.
What you might try to protect yourself but will backfire
Once you become aware that some of your allies are now connected with your bully, you will feel compelled to protect yourself. It’s reasonable to believe that warning your allies about their new connection is the right path. Unfortunately, that’s one of the approaches that backfires when the ally has something important to gain or is at stake by being connected to your bully. They will protect the bully because of their trust in the bully AND what they gain from being loyal to the bully not only makes you less credible, it makes you a threat to them. Their loyalty to the bully will ensure that the warnings you shared with the compromised allies will be passed on to the bully to fuel propaganda that justifies perceptions of you as the real bully, and the bully as your victim.
A different strategy is to accept that anyone who falls for your bully’s grooming tactics is now compromised. Anyone who is compromised won’t be able to hear your warning cries because an emotional bond, and therefore trust, has been established with the bully. The response that might be more effective at self-protection is withdrawing your interest and attention to those who are compromised, for example, by gradually grey rocking them.
The beneficial effect on your relationships
Now that you’re feeling completely alone and betrayed by your ex-allies, you’re probably wondering if there’s anyone left that you can trust. It’s time to do an inventory of who you can trust, who you can no longer trust, and who you’re unsure about. The connections that have also witnessed or experienced grooming and bullying behavior by your bully, and have been transparent with you about what they’ve seen/experienced and the impact it’s had can be considered to be trustworthy, as long as they’re not a narcissistic double agent playing their own game.
These are your people, especially if they can identify who your bully is, without you giving much detail. They will be the true allies who act naive about the conflict when one of the bully’s flying monkeys’ (ie. accomplices) attempts to warn them about you, with suggestions that you’re a bully and the flying monkey is only looking out for them and their reputation.
As more people witness the toxicity and experience the behaviors they’ve been warned about by the bully, you will find a ring of solidarity forming with you. Some of these new allies will have positions of influence to be able to exclude the bully and some of the main flying monkeys out of specific social circles and networks. You will discover that the bonds that you have with some of these allies will strengthen each time they witness the bully’s predictable grooming and bonding behaviors.
Eventually, you will feel safe to speak about the bullying events and the impact they had on individuals and a group who will believe you because they saw or experienced it too. This group’s silent and subtle acts of resistance to the bully’s attempts to this connected and protective group will feel therapeutic, powerful, and hopeful.
Forecasting the battles that lie ahead
Be prepared for continued surveillance and behaviors that feel like you’re being stalked by the bully and their main allies. It will mean that you will feel like you can’t enter into some spaces, can’t engage in some conversations, need to leave certain social circles, and continually revoke/bar access your bully and their allies have to you on social media platforms.
You will also experience an inner battle. You will continue to feel paranoid about being watched, stalked, and talked about behind your back and in plain sight. You will start thinking that perhaps you’re the problem - that you’re a narcissist - even when it’s the bully continuing to target you, infiltrate and hijack your networks and taint your reputation.
Your biggest task is to break and dissolve the emotional bond that still exists between you and the bully. The first step is to stop yourself from looking out for what the bully and their allies are possibly doing to or saying about you while seeking the support of the few people you can still trust and professionals to help you explore and process your feelings. These supports will be instrumental in reminding you of your worth, and your brilliance and that the bully’s destructive behavior will eventually be exposed when they repeat these actions with their next target - possibly one of your former allies.
Thank you for reading, sharing, subscribing, and for your comments,
Jordan Schaul, PhD and Nathalie Martinek, PhD