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Bully in Your Life? You're Not Alone

Bullies seem to be increasing and awareness of their patterns may help everyone.

Key points

  • Bullies appear to be increasing at all levels of society, from families to workplaces and beyond.
  • A strong characteristic of bullies is that they try to isolate their targets from others, which can be very overwhelming.
  • Today, more people seem to be rejecting bullying behavior and going public.

Adult bullies appear to be increasing around the world, especially since the pandemic. Bullying has become a larger part of our culture worldwide: from domestic violence and child alienation to workplace bullying and sexual harassment, to cyberbullying strangers and nations bullying other nations. While in the past adult bullies only impacted a small portion of society, in today’s world everyone should be prepared to have a bully in their life at some point.

Source: fixkes/Shutterstock

Recognizing a Pattern of Behavior

Bullying is a pattern of domineering behavior, not just an incident, usually based on the bully being in a more powerful position. For the targets of a bully, this behavior can cause health problems, psychological problems, and economic harm. Targets of bullying often feel ashamed that they have a bully in their life; that somehow it is their own fault. Bullies often say this to their victims, so that targets often don’t want anyone else to know. It helps to know that there’s something wrong with the bully’s behavior, not with you. Being aware of other people’s examples can help.

What personalities would have such patterns of bullying behavior? These patterns tend to overlap with Cluster B personality disorders (narcissistic, antisocial, borderline, and histrionic) as described in the DSM-5-TR, the mental health diagnostic manual. Research on the interpersonal dysfunction of Cluster B personalities has found “significant associations with domineeringness, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness” and “an inability to care about the needs of others.”1 Those with personality disorders have an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the person’s culture [including] interpersonal functioning and impulse control.”2 Not all people with personality disorders are bullies, but this helps us understand why some bullies don’t care, don’t change, and aren’t able to stop themselves, so that others may need to intervene.

Sexual Assault and Harassment

For decades, women who were allegedly sexually harassed or assaulted by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein felt alone and isolated and blamed themselves.

“The thing with being a victim is I felt responsible,” one actress said. “Because, if I were a strong woman, I would have kicked him in the balls and run away. But I didn’t. And so I felt responsible…”

Another actress "continued to blame herself for not fighting harder. ‘It was always my fault for not stopping him,’ she said. ‘I had an eating problem for years. I was disgusted with myself. It’s funny, all these unrelated things I did to hurt myself because of this one thing.’”3

However, by joining together (with the help of investigative journalists), many of these women went public with their stories and eventually over 80 women reported being sexually harassed or assaulted by him. He is now in prison serving a 23-year sentence.

Legal Relief for Workplace Bullying

In several countries, there are anti-bullying laws for the workplace, but not yet in the United States. Australia is one of these. In one case, a woman sought relief for the psychological distress caused by a supervisor who worked with her in a small office. This included: “repeatedly subjecting Ms. Swan to sarcasm, hostility, and rudeness; throwing a book at Ms. Swan’s head; using foul and offensive language; threatening to dismiss Ms. Swan (when he had no authority to do so); … the placing of stock and use of Post-it notes; rudely interrupting Ms. Swan and belittling her in front of third parties…”

“Mr. Cowell knew that the plaintiff felt intimidated and uncomfortable in his presence, but he didn’t care … Mr. Cowell had a particular attitude, flowing from his personality.”4

This was an enduring pattern of behavior. In her lawsuit, the court agreed that Ms. Swan had suffered significant psychiatric injury and required the book company to pay about $600,000 (in Australian dollars, or about $425,000 US) for her “pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment in life.” The case served not only to hold Cowell to account, but to warn all employers (in Australia) that they needed to protect employees from bullying—and, if they failed to do so, that there could be serious consequences.

Women Can Also Be Bullies

Theranos was a startup tech company in Silicon Valley led by Elizabeth Holmes, an ambitious young dropout from Stanford University. She was supposed to be developing a miracle process for analyzing just a few drops of blood to test for numerous health conditions. But it was a fraud that could not meet the fantasy she promoted widely in the press. To protect her story, she allegedly created a company culture of fear and bullying. In November 2022, she was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison for fraud.

“With actions that ranged from blackmailing her chief financial officer to suing ex-employees, she had displayed a pattern of ruthlessness at odds with the portrait of a well-intentioned young woman … A sociopath is often described as someone with little or no conscience. I'll leave it to the psychologists to decide whether Holmes fits the clinical profile ... Her ambition was voracious and it brooked no interference. If there was collateral damage on her way to riches and fame, so be it.”5


Most people don’t expect bullies in their lives, but they can appear anywhere nowadays. However, it's important for people to know they are not alone. These recent examples help show that targets of bullies can find others dealing with the same pattern of bullying. They can fight back and give inspiration to others who are still suffering. This is a growing problem that can be addressed by growing awareness. If you’re facing such a situation, it may help to know you’re not alone. Find someone to talk to about it. And if someone comes to you with complaints about being bullied, consider the possibility that it is true and may be as bad as they say.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1. Wilson S., Stroud, C. and Durbin, C. "Interpersonal Dysfunction in Personality Disorders: A Meta-Analytic Review," Psychology Bulletin, July 2017; 143(7): 677-734. doi: 10.1037/bul0000101.

2. American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 734.

3. Ronan Farrow, “Abuses of Power: Stories from the women harmed by Hollywood’s most influential producer,” The New Yorker, October 23, 2007, 42-43.

4. Jane Wright, “Bullying Claim Results in Significant Damages,” Workdynamic Australia. Retrieved on April 8, 2022 from:…

5. John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, Penguin Random House, 2018, loc. 227-229 of 246 iBooks.

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