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Adult Bullies

May 5, 2015

As a social worker, I work with many adult bullies and so do many of my colleagues. Recently at a meeting, my colleagues and I were discussing being the target of adult bullies, the result of the work we do. Amazingly all of us at this meeting had been bullied by clients in our social work practice.

How do you know a client is a bully? Because when they don’t like what you say or try to hold them accountable, or provide feedback as to the impact of their behavior, they attack you, viciously, personally, professionally. They seek to intimidate to get you to back down or punish with their version of revenge for not getting what they want.

The adult version of the bully in my work is the one who will write complaints about your professional practice to your licensing body or write trash about you on websites whose only purpose is to give people a place to spew their vitriol, their cruel and bitter criticism.

The adult bullies I work with are always in troubled relationships. Their relationships are troubled because they bully their partner. No real surprises here.

Having been subject to the atrocious behavior when the bully doesn’t want to be helped or held accountable or approached as to their contribution to distress, I can only tell you, that my heart goes out to the partners of these bullies.

Sometimes despite our expertise in helping people assess and change their own behavior, there are those folks who are quite simply resistant to help. We see them as having personality disorders, typically of a narcissistic or anti-social type.

Despite complaints, both to my professional licensing body and on complaint boards, I continue to meet with couples in distress the result of a bully as do my colleagues. This is part and parcel of the work we do. These are our occupational hazards.

However, for every complaint received, you have got to know there is a victim of the bullying who is pleased to have had their experience validated and who is pleased to have removed themselves from the abusive relationship.

That is why we do this work and that is why we continue to serve, even when we the service providers become the target of the bully.

Oddly enough, complaints against me, particularly those on the internet have only served to strengthen my practice. While posted with the intent of hurting business, people see through the vitriol and recognize the comments as a reflection on the person commenting. Bullies are self-evident.

If you are in a relationship with a bully, please do not despair. Instead, see it for what it is and do not be embarrassed or ashamed. It’s not you. It is the bully. You need not fight, but neither do you need to back down. You find a way to walk away. If you have children between you, the challenge is to find strategies for self-protection that minimizes the need for ongoing contact. At times, an intermediary is preferred. Such is the role of the Parenting Coordinator. Alternatively, if going through a nasty separation, consider a separation coach.

If you need strategies to cope with a bully in your life, it would be my pleasure to be of service.

If you are a colleague who works with bullies and have become their next target, also, do not despair. They are only showing you why they have terrible relationships; they are only demonstrating the behavior that creates their distress in the first place. It is a reflection on the bully and not you. If you are encountering your first brush with an adult bully in your practice targeting you, it can feel overwhelming. Get supervision or a consultation for yourself to talk it out and debrief.

The partner of the bully will be grateful for your understanding and support. As we stand strong, so too can the partner. These clients count on us.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.

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  1. Pleased to receive this comment on my Facebook page:

    I had the opportunity to sit with you once as my marriage was dissolving and have for years wondered why my ex husband came up with ever reason why we did not need to see you again… reading this has made me look at it in a different light. Thank you

  2. David permalink

    So then , is it safe to say that everyone that disagrees with your analysis and opinion is a bully? If they don’t take your word as gospel and somehow disagree or feel disgruntled and feel the right to vent and or complain that they are Somehow bullying you and you’re a grand knowledge?
    Not all of the world agrees with the “So called” experts and I truly believe that that is a good thing and should not be frowned upon.
    I’m sorry that your self in all your righteousness has been so badly bullyed!
    and I truly hope that your heart is able to overcome and heal!

    • Hi David.

      Thank you for your comment. If you notice, I am not talking about those who simply disagree. I am talking about those who in their disagreement seek to villianize others and take their disagreement to a level disproportionate to the event. The issue is how one handles the disagreement, not having a disagreement per se.

      As per one of my colleagues, he speaks about all or none thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior. All of this is separate and apart from a disagreement. Hope this is helpful to you in understanding my blog.

    • Annie permalink

      There is a way to engage in a meaningful dialogue when one disagrees with someone. It is not THAT one disagrees, rather, HOW they go about demonstrating their agreement or lack thereof. The bully is too self-centred to engage in a mature discourse. It is their way or the highway.

  3. This comment from a paediatric dentist:

    An interesting piece written by a social worker. As paediatric dentists we have come across parents who are also bullies. They threaten us and want treatment done on their terms. This may be financial, dental or within certain behaviour management constraints that we believe are unworkable and unreasonable based on our professional expertise. They will will be quick to threaten us and tell us they will get another opinion as well as share any unsatisfactory experiences on the internet. This is not about helping their child but about vindicating their beliefs.

  4. Annie permalink

    I especially see people putting their opinions onto things with no background or basis for their opinions other than they have a social media platform for them. Oftentimes, their ignorance is what causes them to bully others. These types of people don’t want others to walk into their workplace and comment on their professionalism yet have no problem doing it to others. Keep up the good work, Gary!

  5. This from a woman talking about social housing;
    I showed this article to the coordinator of a townhouse complex. (SOCIAL HOUSING) . When tenants don’t get the answers they want every antic you list they exhibit. Now we have a true answer. They are bullies. And mean too.

  6. delbar24 permalink

    Great article… interesting and thought provoking. I had never thought of bullying from that perspective.

    Thank you, Gary.

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