If you’re dealing with a workplace bully, you’re likely to have some complex feelings about your day-to-day reality. You probably feel anxious, powerless, lost and stuck. You may sense that you’re an outsider at work watching others thrive, while you’re excluded, mocked or minimized. You’re struggling because the amount of energy it takes just to get through the week makes it hard to forge a big-picture plan to dislodge yourself from this situation. It’s hard to problem-solve when you need your emotional resources to recover from your daily trauma.
Also, your confidence has taken a hit and you can’t imagine trying to sell your skillset from the bottom of this hole. These dark feelings you’re grappling with all stem from one woman: the office bully. Where’s the sisterhood? What happened to leaning in? Why would another woman kick you down instead of offering you a hand up?
The path out of this despair starts with clear thinking — about yourself and about your victimizer.
The Workplace Bullying Institute describes bullying as “repeated mistreatment; abusive conduct that is: threatening, humiliating, or intimidating, work sabotage, or verbal abuse.” The institute notes that managers are the more common perpetrators of this behavior.
According to a 2014 survey conducted by the institute, females are less likely than their male counterparts to enact bullying behavior at work; the survey reveals that females bullied co-workers in 31% of cases. But when women are bullies, they target other women in 68% of cases.
There are various explanations for female aggression towards other females, including the “queen bee” notion that when some women achieve success, they see other women as threatening. So they pit themselves against all things female, including co-workers.
The emotional composition of a bully
Bullies are complex beneath their brash exterior. According to Bullying Statistics, a victim’s resource, “Adult bullies were often either bullies as children or bullied as children.”
Bullies tend to have a fragile sense of their own value, which renders them easily threatened. Renowned emotional intelligence expert Dr. Travis Bradbury notes, “Insecure people constantly doubt their relevance and because of this they try to steal the spotlight and criticize others in order to prove their worth.”
This is not about you. Recognizing this may help you to emotionally distance yourself from your victimizer.
According to Bullying Statistics, “adult bullies are often in a set pattern. They are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise. Rather, adult bullies are more interested in power and domination. They want to feel as though they are important and preferred, and they accomplish this by bringing others down.”
Something about you sets off this bully’s pattern. It could be your qualifications, poise or talent that threatens her.
[Related: How to Deal With a Bad Boss]
How to deal
Bullies feed off negative emotion. So emotionally disengage from her, recognizing that her behavior is immature and unprofessional. While you probably can’t disrupt her pattern, you can learn to strategically ride its wave. View yourself as a reporter, observing and documenting the many dimensions of her dysfunction.
Refrain from playing her game. Bullies are good at what they do. They are better at it than non-bullies, so don’t position yourself in a face-off with her. She’s waiting for that. Instead, react to her chaos with professionalism and composure. This gives you an upper hand, and it highlights her ridiculousness.
Find outside avenues for support-exercise, confide in good friends who are outside the situation, meditate, pray, journal. You get your edge here by retaining control and remaining as composed as possible. So build a strong self.
Document everything. Create a paper trail. Meet with HR. Your HR colleagues probably won’t be able to swoop in and fix this for you, but they can offer advice and support and they can start or add to an HR file on your colleague.
Next, decide what you want and forge a plan. Is it worth it for you to stay in this job, at this institution, or is it time to move on?
It’s a shame that you can’t count on your coworker to be an ally. Women already have plenty of professional challenges to handle. But don’t bang too much of yourself against this wall. A bully is a bully. You deserve better.