September 09, 2007

The serial bully

The serial bully is an adult on the outside but a child on the inside; he or she is like a child who has never grown up. One suspects that the bully is emotionally retarded and has a level of emotional development equivalent to a five-year-old, or less. The bully wants to enjoy the benefits of living in the adult world, but is unable and unwilling to accept the responsibilities that go with enjoying the benefits of the adult world. In short, the bully has never learnt to accept responsibility for their behaviour.

When called to account for the way they have chosen to behave, the bully instinctively:

a) denies everything.
- Variations include Trivialization ("This is so trivial it's not worth talking about...")
- The Fresh Start tactic ("I don't know why you're so intent on dwelling on the past"
- "Look, what's past is past, I'll overlook your behaviour and we'll start afresh")

This is an abdication of responsibility by the bully and an attempt to divert and distract attention by using false conciliation. Imagine if this line of defense were available to all criminals ("Look I know I've just murdered 12 people but that's all in the past, we can't change the past, let's put it behind us, concentrate on the future so we can all get on with our lives" - this would do wonders for prison overcrowding).

b) quickly and seamlessly follows the denial with an aggressive counter-attack of counter-criticism or counter-allegation, often based on distortion or fabrication. Lying, deception, duplicity, hypocrisy and blame are the hallmarks of this stage. The purpose is to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for their behavior. Often the target is tempted - or coerced - into giving another long explanation to prove the bully's allegation false; by the time the explanation is complete, everybody has forgotten the original question.

Both a) and b) are delivered with aggression in the guise of assertiveness; in fact there is no assertiveness (which is about recognizing and respecting the rights of oneself and others) at all. Note that explanation - of the original question - is conspicuous by its absence.

In the unlikely event of denial and counter-attack being insufficient, the bully feigns victim hood or feigns persecution by manipulating people through their emotions, especially guilt. This commonly takes the form of bursting into tears, which most people cannot handle.

Variations include indulgent self-pity, feigning indignation, pretending to be "devastated", claiming they're the one being bullied or harassed, claiming to be "deeply offended", melodrama, martyrdom ("If it wasn't for me...") and a poor-me drama ("You don't know how hard it is for me ... blah blah blah..." and "I'm the one who always has to...î "You think you're having a hard time... "I'm the one being bullied...").

Other tactics include manipulating people's perceptions to portray themselves as the injured party and the target as the villain of the piece.

Sometimes the bully will suddenly claim to be suffering "stress". Alleged ill-health can also be a useful vehicle for gaining attention and sympathy.

By using this response, the bully is able to avoid answering the question and thus avoid accepting responsibility for what they have said or done. It is a pattern of behavior learnt by about the age of 3; most children learn or are taught to grow out of this, but some are not and by adulthood, this avoidance technique has been practiced to perfection.

A further advantage of the denial/counter-attack/feigning victim hood strategy is that it acts as a provocation. The target, who may have taken months to reach this stage, sees their tormentor getting away with it and is provoked into an angry and emotional outburst after which the bully says simply "There, I told you s/he was like that". Anger is one of the mechanisms by which bullies (and all abusers) control their targets. By tapping in to and obtaining an inappropriate release of pent-up anger the bully plays their masterstroke and casts their victim as villain.

When called to account for the way they have chosen to behave, mature adults do not respond by bursting into tears. If you're dealing with a serial bully who has just exhibited this avoidance tactic, sit passively and draw attention to the pattern of behavior they've just exhibited, and then the purpose of the tactic. Then ask for an answer to the question.

Bullies also rely on the denial of others and the fact that when their target reports the abuse they will be disbelieved ("are your sure this is really going on? "I find it hard to believe - are you sure you're not imagining it?"). Frequently targets are asked why they didn't report the abuse before, and they will usually reply "because I didn't think anyone would believe me." Sadly they are often right in this assessment. Because of the Jekyll & Hyde nature, compulsive lying, and plausibility, no one can - or wants - to believe it.

Denial features in most cases of sexual assault, as in the case of Paul Hickson, the UK Olympic swimming coach who sexually assaulted and raped teenage girls in his care over a period of 20 years or more. When his victims were asked why they didn't report the abuse, most replied, "Because I didn't think anyone would believe me". Abusers confidently, indeed arrogantly, rely on this belief, often aggressively inculcating (instilling) the belief ("No-one will ever believe you") just after the sexual assault when their victim is in a distressed state. Targets of bullying in the workplace often come up against the same attitudes by management when they report a bullying colleague. In a workplace environment, the bully usually recruits one or two colleagues who will back up the bully's denial when called to account.


Serial bullies harbor a particular hatred of anyone who can articulate their behavior profile, either verbally or in writing in a manner which helps other people see through their deception and their mask of deceit.

The usual instinctive response is to launch a bitter personal attack on the person's credentials, lack of qualifications, and right to talk about personality disorders, psychopathic personality etc, whilst preserving their right to talk about anything they choose - all the while adding nothing to the debate themselves.

Serial bullies hate to see themselves and their behavior reflected as if they are looking into a mirror.


Bullies project their inadequacies, shortcomings, behaviors etc on to other people to avoid facing up to their inadequacy and doing something about it (learning about oneself can be painful), and to distract and divert attention away from themselves and their inadequacies. Projection is achieved through blame, criticism and allegation; once you realize this, every criticism, allegation etc that the bully makes about their target is actually an admission or revelation about themselves. This knowledge can be used to perceive the bully's own misdemeanors; for instance, when the allegations are of financial or sexual impropriety, it is likely that the bully has committed these acts; when the bully makes an allegation of abuse (such allegations tend to be vague and non-specific), it is likely to be the bully who has committed the abuse.

When the bully makes allegations of, say, "cowardice" or "negative attitude" it is the bully who is a coward or has a negative attitude. In these circumstances, the bully has to understand that if specious and insubstantive allegations are made, the bully will also be investigated.

When the symptoms of psychiatric injury become apparent to others, most bullies will play the Mental Health Trap, claiming their target is "mentally ill" or "mentally unstable" or has a "mental health problem". It is more likely that this allegation is a projection of the bully's own mental health problems. If this trap is being used on you, assert "projection" as a defense against disciplinary action or as part of your legal proceedings.

It is a key identifying feature of a person with a personality disorder or psychopathic personality that, when called to account, they will accuse the person who is unmasking them of being the one with the personality disorder or psychopathic personality from which they (the bully) suffer.


Of over 5000 cases of bullying reported to Bully OnLine and the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line, in at least half the cases, the bully is having an affair. The affair has little to do with friendship, and a lot to do with strategic alliance in pursuit of power, control, domination and subjugation. In a further quarter of cases, there's often a suspected affair, and in the remaining quarter, there is often a relationship with another based not so much on sexual attraction but on a mutual admiration for the way each other behaves.

If the bully is a male in a senior position, he is often sleeping with a secretary or office administrator, as this is where he gets his information and where he spreads his disinformation. Sometimes the female junior can be identified by her reward, e.g. being the only person allowed to hold the keys of the stock cupboard (everyone has to grovel to her if they want a new pen), or being put in charge of the office in the bully's absence when there are others who are senior to her who would make more appropriate deputies.

Most serial bullies have unhappy and unsatisfactory private lives that are characterized by a string of broken relationships. If you are the current target of a serial bully and taking legal action, a little digging into the bully's past, including their personal life, will usually unearth some unsavoury facts that the bully would prefer not to be made public. In some cases, serial bullies have been found to have criminal convictions for fraud, or to have been compelled to attend therapy or counseling for their habit of compulsive lying, or they might have a record of domestic violence. Under normal circumstances making these facts part of the proceedings might be considered unethical; however, if you're the target of a serial bully, the circumstances are not normal.

Validity of testimony

Because of the serial bully's Jekyll and Hyde nature, compulsive lying, charm and plausibility, the validity of this person's testimony cannot be relied on in disciplinary proceedings, appeal hearings, and under oath at tribunal and in court. Emphasize this when taking action.

Mediation with this type of individual is inappropriate. Serial bullies regard mediation (and arbitration, conciliation, negotiation etc) as appeasement, which they ruthlessly exploit; it allows them to give the impression in public that they are negotiating and being conciliatory, whilst in private they continue the bullying. The lesson of the twentieth century is that you do not appease aggressors.



Anonymous said...

The one I really hate is "let's just agree to disagree", which in a power-inequality is as good as dismissing the underling's view without appraisal.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your articles and support on this blog...

Knowledge is power...

And I am fed up with being a target of colleague/s whom I believe bully me... using sophisticated and difficult to prove tactics....

...and pretend to meet with me to discuss the issues...

...when I believe they meet with me for further sport...

...they are not much fun.... when we should be spending our time doing much needed research....

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...


Your colleagues do not use sophisticated tactics, they use sneaky tactics.

Don't elevate them with the term "sophisticated".