The Psychology of Emotional Bullying


In healthy loving relationships it is normal to do things for others to make them happy, without expectation of reward. These acts will normally be reciprocated willingly. The bible says “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man may lay down his life for his friends.” So love is about putting someone else’s needs above your own, though not all the time. Emotional bullies do not understand this concept and only do things for others in expectation of a greater reward, though, the norm is for them to try to manipulate the other person into doing what they want without putting themselves out at all. Although they say they love the other person, they do not know how to express love. Bullies do, however, crave the love of others and believe that if they do what the bully wants, it is out of love, as they do not recognize their own coercion. Bullies are often very suspicious of anyone who actually behaves in a genuinely loving way though, by freely making an effort for them, as they assume this person is after something in return, because that is the thinking which exists in their own mind.

What Is Emotional Bullying?

It is any attempt by one person (the bully) to coerce someone else (the target) by exhibiting behaviour designed to emotionally distress them. While sometimes this may mean a direct threat, it often takes the form of the bully acting upset in some way until the target accedes to their unreasonable demands. By getting upset the bully aims to make the target wrongly feel that they are the one who is being unreasonable and should therefore back down. The upset may take many forms, such as crying, shouting, sulking, martyrdom (unreasonably refusing all help) or self-harm. The bully is saying “I’m upset (or perhaps, more specifically, ‘you’ve upset me‘) and I demand that you give me what I want in order to stop me being upset” which is effectively the adult equivalent of a two-year-old’s temper tantrum. This behaviour is most commonly exhibited between family members as, to be successful, it requires that the target cares that the bully is upset, which is only going to be the case where there is a close relationship between the two parties. Emotional bullies usually moderate their behaviour (at least initially) with people they know less well.

What Causes People to Become Emotional Bullies?

  • Following parental example: children learn by example, so, if one or both of their parents uses emotional bullying to get what they want, a child will learn to do the same. The behaviour tends to become more prevalent during the teenage years as this is when a child starts trying to behave like an adult.
  • Low self-esteem: people who do not value themselves will assume that other people do not either and so not expect others to put themselves out for them willingly. Consequently, they feel obliged to use coercion to get what they want. Obviously, if you have been emotionally bullied by your parents, you will feel unloved and tend to have a low self-esteem.
  • Inherent unreasonableness: the self-centred who want everything their own way, but who are intelligent enough to recognize (at least subconsciously) that this is unreasonable, will resort to emotional bullying rather than asking for what they want. This way, they can delude themselves that the target is giving in to their demands because it is what they want.
  • Fear of responsibility: people who feel that asking their target for what they want would make them responsible for someone else’s actions may resort to emotional bullying in order to circumvent a fear of responsibility. As above, if they don’t actually ask for what they want, they can delude themselves that the target does everything because they want to.

While there has always been an element of poor parenting in our society, it has been expanding since the Thatcher/Reagan era of “there’s no such thing as society”, “greed is good” and Yuppiedom. The idea that a pursuit of wealth can make people happy, rather than emotional fulfilment, has caused an increase in the number of parents trying to buy their children’s love rather than gain it by offering their own. This has led to an increase in parents who emotionally bully their children and such children are then ill-equipped to bring up their own children. This particular genie can be let out of its bottle quite easily, but getting it back in is much harder: undoing the psychological damage done to an emotionally bullied child so that they can have successful relationships requires a great deal of effort. So the cultural change which led to our present state of affairs was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy; by assuming that people only act in their own self-interest you create an environment where people fail to show love and this leads to a new generation of people who feel that nobody really cares about them and so don’t care about others. Hence, we now have a significant part of our society who feel no obligation to contribute to it and do act in a very self-centred manner.

Dealing With Emotional Bullying

The golden rule here is stay calm; your bully is trying to get a reaction (as this shows that you still care about them) and your best defence is to deny them one. Remember that the bully is not genuinely upset, they are just trying to manipulate you, so don’t rise to the bait and retaliate, just let the bully bluster away and let them know that you are unfazed by their unreasonable behaviour. Because this behaviour is entirely unreasonable and should be ignored. Sometimes when two emotional bullies are in a relationship together, one or both may rationalize their emotional impulse to retaliate as “showing them what it is like”, but this is just a thinly disguised variation on the theme of “you started it!”, and trying to out bully an emotional bully in this way never works – it just reinforces the dysfunctional behaviour by encouraging them into tit-for-tat retaliation to the retaliation, escalating the problem until it gets completely out of hand. A much more constructive response is to act like a grown-up by staying calm and asking “Why are you trying to upset me? What is it you are after?” While the bully may shy away from answering (often denying that they want anything), this will make them think twice before repeating their behaviour in future.

In Childhood

Babies are ruthless emotional bullies. Being unable to communicate their needs means they have no choice but to demand attention (by upsetting you with their crying) whenever they need it. Fortunately, even most emotional bully parents realize this and accept that a baby has to be given lots of unconditional attention.  However, when a child starts to learn to communicate, they should be weaned off this behaviour. Most parents will be familiar with the “terrible twos” where a child throws tantrums or sulks if they can’t get what they want. This is perfectly normal; it is just a natural continuation of earlier behaviour by another means, but by ignoring these tactics and showing the child that they can have reasonable wants satisfied by asking nicely, they are taught to behave more reasonably. Obviously, there are circumstances where it is not always possible to ignore a tantrum, but parents mustn’t make a habit of giving in to them. Appeasement should always be the exception rather than the rule; particularly avoid giving in after a long struggle as this will just make things worse for you by teaching the toddler that persistence pays off. When it comes to unreasonable demands, however, no must mean no. Some parents worry that denying a young child means that they do not love them properly, but this is not what love is about. Children desire their parents’ attention and approval and giving them this is far more important than spending money on them. As a child grows up, emotional bullying parents find it increasingly difficult to do this though, and often resort to trying to buy their children’s love. This often leads down a slippery slope: the more money is spent, the more the parent feels that they are owed love and obedience and the more irritated they become by a child’s demands for attention and approval. They find themselves snapping and shouting at their children increasingly frequently and end up in a very dysfunctional relationship where both they and their children feel unloved. Some children brought up by emotional bullies, starved of positive attention, learn to seek negative attention by playing up all the time as even being shouted at is better than being ignored. As has been shown in a number of parenting programmes on television in recent years this needs to be addressed by showing a child genuine love.

In Adolescence

Many children remain relatively well-behaved up to their teenage years due to their desire for parental approval, but this can change quite dramatically as they move into adolescence and start to want to behave like adults. (Rather than doing as their parents say, they start to do as their parents do.) They may begin trying to out-bully their parents leading to sulking, shouting matches and general stroppiness; anything to try and upset their parents into showing them some love. By this time though the bullying behaviour has become so ingrained in both parent and child that it is difficult to resolve without third-party mediation. The parent is adamant that they love their child and so can’t understand why their child has become so dysfunctional for no apparent reason. And the child has become so used to being emotionally bullied that it is normal and they don’t really know why they are unhappy. In severe cases a child may try to bully their parents into showing love by self-harming, often called attention-seeking behaviour (which it is up to a point), but the fantasy that drives this is that it will prompt the parent into the response “Oh you’re upset; what’s the matter? Tell me all about it!” i.e. showing some concern. The actual response, however, is usually to push the child even further away emotionally, as the parent has always done with demands for attention. In the unlikely event of a more positive response, the child will run a mile as this is not what they have come to expect. If the child gives up hope of getting what they want out of their parents they may resort to drugs or gangs. A gang can be viewed as a surrogate family where attention and approval of a sort are available to children unable to find love at home.

In Adulthood

People who are emotionally bullied in childhood tend to develop into emotional bullies in adulthood. They then emotionally bully their children and thus perpetuate the cycle of abuse. Though some may have the sense to choose someone more compliant (particularly if their bullying parent did), most tend to pick emotional bullies as life partners. One reason for this is that, in relationships generally, people tend to stick to what they know. Another is that choosing a partner who behaves like their parent(s) gives them a chance to succeed in that type of relationship, where they failed before (adolescents invariably fail to out-bully their parents). When you get two emotional bullies together, the relationship tends to become a battleground, with constant attempts by both parties to upset the other into making the first move and showing some love. As neither is willing to do this though, the relationship gradually degenerates until one or other partner elects to use the nuclear option of threatening a break-up unless the other party does what they want and, from there, there is usually no going back. Where an emotional bully picks a compliant partner they will seek to ensure that their target remains in fear of upsetting them. They do this by snapping at them whenever they don’t get what they want and, sometimes, they may even lay traps for their target. They may ask questions to which only one answer is acceptable and go off in a huff if it is not proffered, e.g. “Do you want to watch programme X on tv tonight?”. The target then has to guess whether the bully does or not and give the “right” answer otherwise the bully will go off in a strop: “Well, I’ll watch my programme in the other room then!” This behaviour is designed to train the target to defer to the bully so that they always get their own way and so feel loved. The target, however, generally feels that their partner “makes their life a misery” and may try to avoid them as much as possible as they don’t know how to change the relationship for the better. They may eventually have had enough and end the relationship, but often they regard their lot as normal and are so resigned to their fate that they stick it out to the bitter end.

The first step to dealing with the problem is to recognize that, although the behaviour may be normal in your experience, it is dysfunctional and needs to be changed. The second is not to try and blame anyone else for the problem, but to accept responsibility for the fact that you are either allowing or exhibiting emotional bullying behaviour. While it may be tempting to believe that you are just reacting to what someone else is doing, the fact is that no one is forcing you to react the way you do (or at all). Only by accepting that you are responsible for your own actions do you have the power to change the situation and improve your relationships. If your partner or parent is emotionally bullying you, the first thing you should ask yourself is are you reciprocating in kind. Is your first instinct when your bully tries to upset you, to retaliate? If it is, then you may be an emotional bully as well. Remember the golden rule, stay calm and don’t rise to the bait. Let the bully rant and rave as much as they want; just say no to their demands. Once the storm has blown itself out, you can respond by writing the bully a letter detailing what you understood their demands to be, why they were unreasonable and asking them how they would feel if they were treated the way they are treating you, perhaps by a parent for example. Take your time in composing the letter (and a text is not sufficient); it is important to be as rational and objective as possible. It is unlikely your bully will reply, as they won’t want to admit their hypocrisy, but you can always ask them about what you have written later. If that conversation develops into a row where your parent or partner tries to bully you into withdrawing your comments, just repeat the process until the bully is prepared to have a sensible discussion. As you get into the habit of rationalizing your bully’s unreasonable demands you should find that you are more able to deal with the bullying behaviour as it occurs. While confronting your bully may seem daunting, it is the only way to change the situation. Appeasement never works; only when your bully finds that their strategy for getting what they want stops working, will they try to get what they want in another, more reasonable, way.

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