When I was a patient at Larue D. Carter Memorial Hospital, we had a few bullies on our unit. One, named Katie, ruled through physical force–and at a whopping 500 pounds, that was easy. Another one, named Angel, enjoyed provoking people to self-injure and was even responsible for a couple of suicide attempts. Both were probably sociopaths, in addition to having borderline personality disorder (BPD). Such people can dominate your life if you let them. So how do you take your power back?
Stand up to the bully
One day Katie was on the phone well past her allotted time. I asked to use the phone for a work-related call. Long story short, Katie cussed me out and threatened me. Staff separated us, but she came back and glared at me. “Move,” she growled.
I have no idea where I got the strength, but I said, “No.”
She shoved me as hard as she could. I don’t remember what happened next, but other patients told me I went flying “a good four feet” and bounced off the ground. I hit my head, but used an aikido maneuver to lessen the severity of the fall. Staff called a “code green” (psychiatric emergency) and put her in restraints. The staff took me to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with a concussion, and filed a police report.
Suddenly, everyone on the unit had the courage to stand up to Katie. Staff, which had previously ignored her threats and on-staff violence, started documenting everything. Other patients refused to do her bidding. Eventually, she was transferred to the violent unit after attempting to break a staff member’s thumb.
Standing up for yourself works, even if the bullying gets worse at first. Bullies are cowards at heart and, more often than not, will back down if confronted. Even if the confrontation ends in violence, like it did in my case, the bully may back down. Katie never laid a hand on me after that.
Ignore the bullies
We tolerated Angel well past the point of sanity. After she provided the weapon in a suicide attempt that triggered another suicide attempt, we had a unit meeting to discuss the problem of her behavior. Angel refused to listen to our concerns and walked out; so staff and the rest of the patients discussed how to deal with this. I took a rather Mennonite view of the situation and recommended a nonviolent solution–shunning her. Staff said that while they couldn’t, wouldn’t, and shouldn’t do it, we were more than welcome to. Thus began a unit-wide campaign of ignoring Angel.
Shunning doesn’t work when it’s just one person. It has to be a majority or an impressive minority of people who participate. Since it was most of the unit, it worked. At first Angel tried to provoke us, but we made it a point to let her know we were ignoring her. This infuriated her, but not enough to where she modified her conduct. She threatened everyone who was shunning her, leaving notes on our doors, and even tried to attack a few of us. Eventually she, like Katie, was transferred to the violent unit where, by all accounts, she did better.
Ignoring the person can be a liberating decision. Bullies often want attention, and when you refuse to give it, you take away their power.
If all else fails, fight the bully
As a pacifist, I hate to recommend this, but if all else fails, if you have absolutely no other alternative, fight back. As I said earlier, bullies are cowards at heart. They go after people who won’t fight back, not people who will.
I had a neighbor recently who was a bit of a bully. She, one day, started cussing me out and challenged me to a fight. I’m not proud of my response, but I took off my glasses and said, “Okay, I’ll fight, but you have to throw the first punch.” She backed down.
Taking your power back from bullies
I’ve never had to fight to take my power back from a bully–standing up for myself and ignoring the bully have almost always worked. But if physical violence is present, you have the right to defend yourself, and sometimes, being willing to defend yourself is all it takes to scare the bully away.
The goal is to reclaim your power, whether by standing up for yourself, ignoring the bully or defending yourself physically.