Mental Health – What about Bullies?

23 May 2022

Mental health is a trendy new topic in the corporate world. However, in corporate-speak, the term “mental health” mainly seems to refer to conditions like mood swings, depression, and anxiety.

I wonder how often these conditions are caused by the psychological stress resulting from being exposed to a bully in the workplace. And I wonder why bully behaviour – often demonstrated by people with a narcissistic personality disorder – is not considered a mental health issue itself?

Even more worrying, research shows that people with high degrees of narcissism usually climb the career ladder quickly. Consequently, they are overrepresented in leadership positions that may cause much psychological stress to their co-workers.

Medical research suggests that acute and chronic psychological stress may negatively impact micronutrient concentrations in the body, leading to increased inflammatory activity. Inflammation and nutrient deficiencies are again associated with adverse mental health symptoms.

Within the corporate mental health programmes, I believe bully behaviour also deserves to be taken more seriously.

A vital life skill

I have noticed that many of my coaching clients are struggling with a bully in the workplace. And a psychologist once claimed people with narcissistic personality disorder often cause burnout in other people.

Based on my own experience, most people in the corporate world, including Human Resources, do not seem to have much knowledge about this topic. Providing clients with a basic education around how to identify and protect themselves from bullies has therefore proven very useful in my coaching practice. I consider it a vital life skill.

How to recognize bullies

Narcissism exists on a continuum in various degrees. Sam Horn’s Bully Quiz is a great tool to discover whether you are dealing with a full-blown bully or just some milder version. Some of the most typical bully traits include the following:

  • A condescending, superior, know-it-all personality.
  • Power and status-driven with a need to win all the time.
  • Compulsive need to be in charge and hate to have their authority questioned.
  • Controlling, intimidating and manipulative personality.
  • Loves drama, throws temper tantrums, and plays the victim.
  • Perfectionists, obsessed with fault-finding in everyone else except themselves.
  • Refuses to admit their weaknesses and mistakes and blames others when something goes wrong.
  • Lies and twists things around when confronted with their shortcomings.
  • Two-faced personality who can be charming in one moment and unkind in the next.
  • Inconsistent behaviour in words and actions – saying one thing and doing something else.

When confronted with this list, most people realise that they already know a bully or two. So the phenomenon seems to be common enough.

The psychology of bullies

As Sam Horn explains in her excellent book “Take the Bully by the Horns,” one of the main reasons why people bully is that they have low self-worth and feel inferior. They hate feeling that others are more talented, popular, or successful. Hence, they compensate by belittling other people to feel big.

Most bullies also lack empathy and feel little or no remorse. They don’t care about the pain they are causing, and in extreme cases, they even enjoy it. According to Sam Horn, many bullies are also by-products of the “Bully Ripple Effect” as they were bullied during their development years.

Gaining a deeper understanding of the background of why people bully, makes it easier to look beyond their negative behaviour and see the drama behind their overconfident mask.

How to protect yourself against bullies

The most important thing to know about bullies is that they do not self-reflect or self-correct so don’t expect them to change. Collaborative communication techniques and idealistic naivete may also backfire with bullies. So you need to adjust your own behaviour. Sam Horn provides some excellent tips and strategies in her book.

Bullying is a test of your self-respect and your ability to set healthy boundaries. Bullies have a special talent for using your fears and weaknesses against you to intimidate you and make you doubt yourself. They will push your emotional hot buttons. So the best way to protect yourself against bullies is to do your inner work.

Learn to set strong boundaries, work on overcoming your fears and tame your triggers. When you learn to effectively manage your thoughts, emotions and behaviours in challenging situations, bullies no longer have any bullets to shoot you with.

It’s also important to realise that often with bullies, it’s not possible to reach a fair solution. Sometimes you must simply walk away from the situation and cut your losses.

Don’t allow bullies to poison your life. Learn to forgive and let go. Remember that forgiveness does not mean approval or forgetting what has happened. Rather it’s an act of self-love that helps you accept what is and release your negative thoughts and feelings. If you don’t the only one who suffers is you.

Are depression and anxiety mental health issues?

Various studies have suggested an association between mental health and lifestyle-related factors, like dietary deficiencies and insufficient exercise.

According to the Institute of Functional Medicine, the anti-inflammatory properties of dietary phytonutrients and antioxidants provided by a healthy and balanced diet may help boost mental wellness for the management of our daily life stresses, worries, and sorrows.

It means incorporating a varied and colourful rainbow of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, spices, herbs, lean proteins, and healthy fats in your daily meals. Further, healthy dietary patterns such as regular meals may also play a role.

I recommend not to overlook the role of exercise and movement. Research suggests that physical activity can treat mild to moderate depression symptoms.

Companies need to take a broader view of mental health

While it’s applaudable that companies seem to care about the mental well-being of their employees, they need to take a broader view. Mental health is a complex topic. It cannot be reduced by focusing on anxiety and depression-related symptoms. I believe we need better investigation and understanding of the real root causes.

Bully behaviour in the workplace is a common challenge that causes considerable psychological stress for many people. It therefore, deserves more attention from mental health programmes designed by the corporate world.

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