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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Vail

Bobbing and Weaving

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

"No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent." - Eleanor Roosevelt

Current events of all kinds have, once again, caused bullies to troop out a manipulative tactic that is intended to strong arm people into agreeing unilaterally with a bully’s preferred position. This bully tactic oversimplifies complex issues and frames anyone in disagreement or non-compliance with the bully as inferior, whether morally, intellectually, or otherwise. Naturally, nobody wants to feel inferior and this creates powerful pressure for others to quickly conform to a bully’s viewpoint or desired behavior in order to protect themselves. People who have struggled with low self-esteem, shame, codependence, anxiety, self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and many other common issues may find that they are quickly derailed, triggered, or highly-distressed by shaming bully tactics.

My social media newsfeed has long been flooded with this bully tactic on all sides of numerous debates. I’ve seen bullies erroneously suggest that a person being anti-one-thing must mean they are pro-some-other-terrible-thing, often on issues that aren’t all or nothing, or black and white. I’ve seen bullies erroneously suggest that someone’s silence about an issue in a particular space was an indicator of complacency or abandonment (rather than the more humane assumption that some people may be better equipped for advocacy work outside of social media). Maligning arguments like these are meant to cut a wide variety of possibilities down to a single, least-generous possibility that is intended to elicit shame. That shaming is the manipulation, the bully behavior, that is intended to coerce people into compliance. I often hear about this tactic in my office from clients, wielded by overbearing extended family, spouses, employers, and others who use the superiority/inferiority dichotomy to control the behavior of others.

For example, I was speaking with a friend several years ago who was pressuring me to join a pyramid scheme they were participating in. When I began to ask basic questions, I was sternly told I “must not be ready for success”, and that I had “money mindset issues.” Prior to this moment, I had been developing friendly feelings toward this person. But the instant they landed their judgmental blows, I was stunned at their willingness to be insulting to make a sale, and I immediately distrusted every friendly behavior prior as insincere. The strong implication of their sales technique was that I was inferior and shameful for not being immediately willing to align with this person’s goal: which was to control my behavior. It seemed like my choices were to either comply and fork over my money, OR that I should feel bad about myself. Needless to say, I was not swayed by this marketing method and I did not join their pyramid scheme. Have you ever experienced high-pressure, bully marketing of this sort? This sort of emotionally manipulative marketing tactic is unfortunately common.

So what can we do to be resilient in the face of a bully’s pressure?

  1. Be bully aware. Notice when someone makes you feel small in an attempt to win you to their viewpoint or manipulate your behavior. Shaming, condescension, and intense pressure to spend your resources on them are all signs that whomever you are dealing with may be using bully tactics.

  2. Resist in alignment with your values. Bullies provide us an opportunity to practice assertiveness skills. It's okay to say, "Stop." or "I'm not willing to discuss this anymore with you." Bullies typically don't like boundaries and may escalate when we assert them, however, if we remember to keep our cool, to be kind yet firm, we can enjoy the dignity of asserting ourselves most skillfully.

  3. Keep your distance. When you have identified someone is being a bully, consider taking further action to protect yourself by avoiding situations that give them access to bully you in the future. Excuse yourself from a conversation or situation. Avoid engagement with someone who is clearly looking to shame all who disagree with them. You may even consider muting or blocking bullies on social media.

  4. Check yourself. Review your experience of the bully with someone you trust; especially if it is someone who possesses humane values and is willing to affirm your rights to humane treatment in ALL contexts. The support and guidance they may have can prove to be extremely valuable in your confidence dealing with the bully going forward.

  5. Show up for yourself. Whichever action you choose to keep yourself safe from bully behavior sends a powerful message deep inside that builds up your future confidence for dealing with bullies. These opportunities to advocate for yourself, when met with skillful assertiveness, can be incredibly healing if we've ever engaged in self-abandonment or been unable to protect ourselves in the past.

Bully behavior is a fact of life - if we are living, we have a good chance of encountering it from time to time. I remind my clients often that many people are simply missing humane tools for relating to others, so they opt for less humane methods. Likewise, some business or other leaders promote the use of high-pressure tactics to "convert" others, and well-meaning people can become coerced themselves into using inhumane bully techniques; it truly can be "contagious." This reality doesn’t excuse bully behavior, nor negate our responsibility to protect ourselves and our loved ones from it whenever possible. Disappointing as bully behavior is to experience, we ARE capable of navigating those situations in alignment with humane values, maintaining our grasp of nuanced thinking, and coming out more confident on the other side of these interactions. Bob and weave, Lionhearts.

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