Have you ever spent time around a self-centered bully?

In TV shows and movies about these tyrants, the hero, or anti-hero, defeats the bad bully through ingenuity and strength, but the strength does not usually come from brute force. It is often kindness that wins the day.

There have been times over the years when faced with such brutal verbal attacks by a tormentor that I have made myself less than in an effort to find a win/win. I’ve shrunk my posture, skimped my words, tried to take up less space in the world. There have been times I have stood strong, unbreaking against the mean person. Both efforts were what I discerned the situation called for, but with either approach, I’ve never won. In the first, I lose a piece of myself. In the second, I lose peace of mind.

I’m a life-long redhead known for being stubborn and headstrong. Are those simply better, kinder words for “bully?” I would not like to think so, but I’m sure you could find people in my past who would declare, “Yes, RoseMary bullied me once….” They would describe some act that I’d be horrified to remember—as much or more if I had no memory of being such a person toward them.

Yet, here are two times I admit to…

Around eighteen years ago, I worked in a three-person office—two women and one fellow. He drove me crazy by always trying to read my mind to figure out what I wanted him to do. I never asked him to attempt this trick—my mind is a scary place to be. I simply wanted him to do his job, which, while demanding, wasn’t difficult. The harder he tried to please me, the tougher I was on him. I’m not proud of my behavior and the end result was that he quit. Several months later, he came back to visit. 

He looked quite imposing in full military dress, standing tall, doffing his hat as he walked in. With a stroke of grand humor, he presented a gift for me from Fort Irwin, located in the brutal Mojave Desert—a miniature saber letter-opener. He told me that my behavior toward him, sharp and pointed, showed him that he needed to learn to stand up for himself. He loved the Army, the self-confidence they instilled, and graciously hugged me for helping him get there.

Although my participation in his story had a happy ending, how I treated him never sat well with me. 

When we were around seven years old, a still-loved cousin and I were playing a game. I said something that tipped this normally mellow fellow over his sweet natured edge and he hit me as hard as he could right smack in the gut. He took the wind out of my being-in-charge sails literally and figuratively when he said with kid wisdom, “You aren’t my boss!”

Overtime, you gain perspective…

What does a bully win, I have wondered, each time he/she defeats their opponent by browbeating and humiliation, by deploying thoroughly unwarranted attacks? 

Do they attain their sense of validation from berating others and making them feel small?

What a terrible way to go through life.

Egomaniacs are unpopular for a reason…

I don’t know that anyone, outside those Hollywood heroes, ever wins against a self-proclaimed, narcissistic, most-noteworthy-in-their-world person. How can you fight such deeply ingrained self-important logic? If a person’s paradigm—is that they are of extreme importance to the world they live in, of more value to it than you and your insignificant opinions or needs—how do you ever impact that? I’m not sure that we can. 

That level of bully-self-assurance demands professional help.

As that tot fighting with her cousin, tears filled my eyes as I rushed to Mom to tell her that cousin Tim knocked the air out of me. My wise mother would have asked, “And what did you do to prompt that?” Not implying that Tim was right to hit me—ours was not a physically violent family—but more to place blame where it possibly could have belonged: On her redheaded kid’s shoulders.

Perhaps I would have admitted to part of the truth, perhaps not. I was never very good at lying to either parent and they were good detectives at sussing out when their tots were telling the truth or conspiring against it.

Mom would have called her sister-in-law, who would have reprimanded my cousin. Mom would also have given me a stern talking to about not ordering the neighborhood kids around—ninety-five percent of them cousins. Tim and I were probably mad at each other for a hot summer’s day, forgot about the fight, and went back to be best friends until life took us separate directions. Years later, I made sure he knew how valuable it was for him to teach this domineering kid to act a little differently. He helped me learn to deliver my message in better words.

What bullies fail to comprehend…

The bullies, living in their own inflated universes, are missing out on so much of life’s joy. With each action declaring their superiority, carrying their over-inflated egos around, they miss opportunities to be kind, to share vulnerability, to connect with others on a deep emotional level.

Recently, my older sister and I were discussing some of the things our mother did utilizing her wicked sense of humor. She was a dastardly little minx who loved to howl with laughter and who had the patience of Job when it came to setting up a joke. Mom would tumble the pieces into place, quietly standing back to watch what happened. Each bit of mischief was always good natured, always in fun, always with the pure intent of keeping our lives light. From her, Jackie and I moved on to talking about Dad and how he brightened a room every time he entered one. People always wanted to welcome him and spend time with him.

We discussed some of the persecutors we have had the misfortune to know. That sometimes despite the acerbic front they put on, we are able to find the kind heart inside. You take a chance and stand up to them, alerting them to how they make you feel. Their behavior may not become saintly, but you sense a subtle change—at least toward you. If you’re fortunate, sometimes your friendship is enough to sway that other person to a new world view, to see a new way to approach other people.

At other times, the bully is so self-righteous that all you can do to save your soul is to purge them from your circle of friends—or family, if that’s the case. Anything you say to them, because of their unrestrained sense of self, holds no worth and they write-off your opinion as inconsequential. They believe in their core that you cannot possibly be finding fault with them. That is when it is time to withdrawal from their negative orbit and move onto others, to the folks who want to lift you up and bring joy into your life.

Like our parents were so good at doing.

Our effect on others…

Those folks, those who care about the impact they have on the world around them, are the people I try to emulate. They are the non-bullies, the ones who want to share smiles with others, not battle them—that’s who I want to be. Not that person who drives someone to enlist in the Army—even if he loves it.

I would rather continue to reach down into my inner recesses to find the best me I am capable of being and stand as that person against the tormentors. Winning or losing isn’t what matters—the balance between those places is a commonality we can share. That place, that middle ground is where we achieve the peace of mind we need by being our honest, faulty selves, in the face of adversity.