Column: These are bullish times for adult bullies

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My bully radar developed fairly early in life.

In junior high, I got caught in the crosshairs of Roderick. He would routinely tease me, then he took it a step further. I distinctly remember the day, during a class trip to the opera, when he stood next to me, positioned one arm in front of me and one behind me, then smacked me in the chest and the back so hard that it made feathers fly out of my down jacket.

I tried moving away from him, but he followed. Then I tried rolling my eyes, as if I didn’t care. But, after the third or fourth assault, I started to tear up. An observant classmate watched the entire episode and went to find his father, who was a parent chaperone on the trip. Mr. Esclamado came to my rescue, positioning himself between me and Roderick for the rest of the afternoon.

Roderick was always getting into trouble. He did not return to school the following year, and I’ve always wondered what happened to him. He taught me to stay on the lookout for bullies and sparked my instinct to support those who become their targets.

Most children outgrow their bullying behavior, learning throughout childhood and adolescence how to manage aggressive behaviors and successfully engage with peers. But when those lessons aren’t learned, it’s generally because those people have what Bill Eddy calls “high-conflict personalities.”

Meet the adult bully.

These are the people who blame others for everything and never look within. They think in all or nothing terms, such as win or lose, friend or foe, hero or villain. They regularly have extreme emotional reactions that can range from aggressive talk to physically hurting their targets.

I am bringing this up now because these are bullish times for adult bullies.

Weaker social relationships, disconnected families and heavy reliance on technology have all given bullies an advantage in recent decades.

I only need to scroll through social media to see how our ability to relate to one another has declined. It’s hard to read some of the things people write online. They seem to invest a lot of time in crafting harsh responses rather than thoughtful feedback.

We are living in a moment when everything, from who should sing country music to whether more of us should consider electric cars, is a polarizing topic. As the next presidential election draws nearer, I can imagine this will only get worse.

You’ve likely run into someone who fits the description of an adult bully. These are people we encounter at work, in our communities or in our families.

Eddy, a San Diego based therapist, co-founder of the High Conflict Institute and author of “Our New World of Adult Bullies,” estimates adult bullies make up 5 to 10% of the population.

He was surprised that so many of them have found support groups on social media. “In the past they would have felt isolated by their families and their communities,” Eddy said, “now they find each other and reinforce their negative thinking and bad behavior and try to impress each other.”

This spring, we watched a round robin of bullying on Capitol Hill as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Texas Rep. Jasmine Crockett traded barbs about each other’s appearance.

Those are the bullies under the spotlight, the ones we read about in headlines but that behavior is contagious.

“Seeing so many images of bullying in the news, in movies, and on social media, may be entertaining at one level, but its training at another level and increases the likelihood that people with bullying tendencies will copy this behavior. Especially for young people, it starts seeming like the new normal. For people who are potential bullies, it gives them permission to go ahead,” Eddy said.

They may look different but bullies have the same personality traits and the same predictable patterns of behaviors. They don’t or won’t stop themselves from trying to intimidate people, so it is up to others to take them down.

Bullies trigger our primitive responses leaving us unclear on why we may react to them the way we do.

They rally supporters to spread lies until the false information they are sharing seems true and they seek out advocates to defend and dismiss their bad behavior.

Bullies always play the victim and are quick to project their own hurtful behaviors onto other people. They desperately want to be leaders.

Eddy says we need to stop them by not tolerating their behavior. We should avoid them entirely or at least set appropriate boundaries if we can’t remove them from our lives.

The worst thing a bully can feel is a loss of power.

So if we can’t rid the world of bullies, we can at least expose them.

Eddy suggests we might even practice having empathy for them.

I’m not there just yet, but unlike bullies, I am open to changing.