Bullying is something most people experience at some time in their lives. It sadly seems to be an obligatory feature of childhood and adolescence. A rite of passage, a dreadful, painful learning experience. At worst something that traumatises and stays with you forever. Of course, it is not limited to childhood and is a cause of misery for many people throughout their lives. It has many forms so to be properly aware of it, and to deal with it, we need to know exactly what it is. This definition of bullying from Wikipedia is as good as any:

Bullying is the use of force, coercion, hurtful teasing or threat, to abuse, aggressively dominate or intimidate. The behaviour is often repeated and habitual. One essential prerequisite is the perception (by the bully or by others) of an imbalance of physical or social power. This imbalance distinguishes bullying from conflict. Bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behaviour characterized by the following three criteria: (1) hostile intent, (2) imbalance of power, and repetition over a period of time. (3) Bullying is the activity of repeated, aggressive behaviour intended to hurt another individual, physically, mentally, or emotionally.

In my experience as a safeguarding lead, I have encountered different kinds of bullying behaviour. The one thing they have in common is that they somehow exploit or create a power imbalance in favour of the bully. Bullying sometimes creeps into a relationship so gradually that the victim doesn’t even realise they are being abused. Sometimes the bullying is so institutionalised and accepted that it goes unchallenged. 

The following are just some of the types of bullying I have encountered. It is not an exhaustive list:

The Deliberate Bully: Someone who has knowingly and deliberately made themselves an enemy of the victim and identifies the victim as their enemy. This could be due to some previous falling out or personality clash. Its origins may be in racism, hatred, misogyny, homophobia or other kind of prejudice. 

The Passive Aggressive Bully: Someone who gradually erodes the wellbeing of another, undermining them with myriad micro-aggressions. Nothing too obvious, just subtle criticisms and minor jabs. The bully is able to confidently justify their behaviour by insisting it is for the greater good. You find these in domestic and workplace situations. This individual is unlikely to consider themselves to be a bully.

The Flamboyant Bully: Often a person in a position of authority or high regard. This individual takes pride in their wielding of power and their brutal reputation. This is bullying in plain sight, this is the phone thrower, the one who humiliates a person in front of colleagues, the deliverer of massive tantrums that cause everyone in the vicinity to stare at their shoes in silence. The person who hides behind the dubious phrase ‘One who doesn’t suffer fools gladly’, whatever that actually means! Famous examples are: certain football managers, Harvey Weinstein (when he wasn’t coercively controlling women for sexual purposes) and, allegedly one current Home Secretary.

The Reluctant Bully: Carer fatigue often leads to this. Adult Safeguarding originated in the late eighties/early nineties as a response to increasing awareness of ‘elder abuse’. The bone-weary daily grind of looking after someone who is totally dependent on you with little reward or recognition can lead to neglectful, dangerous practice and callousness. This can be someone trying to do their best and failing. The sense of failure and isolation adds more fuel to the fire.

The Bully Leader: One who bullies and co-opts others in to carrying out acts of abuse. These individuals somehow manage to create a social environment, usually a workplace, where bullying behaviour is legitimised and institutionalised. Right-thinking staff succumb to peer pressure, they either leave or are too frightened to say anything. In the end it may be easier for them to simply go along with it. Things get to such a stage where all normal methods of addressing abuse are effectively disarmed.  Winterbourne View is a prime example, where a relatively junior member of a care team was able to intimidate and coerce colleagues at all grades, including senior staff, to accept appalling acts of abuse. Findings from the Winterbourne Serious Case Review changed the way all health and care organisations in the UK approach institutionalised abuse.

Steve Wilcox
Safeguarding Lead, Psychiatry-UK
November 2021