Picture this: It’s a regular workday and you decide to leave the office for lunch. You bypass your coworkers in the cafeteria and overhear them spreading rumors about a colleague. It might be easier to shrug this behavior off as harmless workplace gossip, but in reality, this is a form of adult bullying. And according to mental health professionals, it can be just as distressing as childhood bullying.

Adult bullying, in layman’s term,s is “the act of intimidation,” says Dr. Shairi Turner, MD, MPH, the chief health officer of Crisis Text Line, a national nonprofit that provides 24/7 free therapy. Adult bullying is the act of “intimidating someone physically, emotionally, or verbally,” and it can take place in person or online. It can also occur in friendships, work dynamics, and romantic relationships.

Unfortunately, adult bullying has become so normalized that most adults fail to recognize the behavior. A recent survey by the American Osteopathic Association found that 43 percent of adults believe that bullying is more accepted. However, we can curtail this increase in adult bullying by understanding and identifying bullies’ behaviors. Below, we get into the basics of adult bullying and how both victims and bystanders can deal with adult bullies.

How to identify an adult bully

Identifying an adult bully can be hard, since their behavior is often more subtle and nuanced than a child bully.  In order to identify an adult bully, you must first understand their intimidation tactics. Adult bullies want to shame and antagonize their victims and will often do so through passive-aggressive comments, the silent treatment, or backhanded jokes, says Jeff Yoo, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center.

Another common example of adult bullying is body shaming. “This top isn’t very flattering on you” might seem like kind-natured advice, but it’s usually a disguised insult. The premise of this comments like this are the bully’s attempt at “paying themselves a cheap compliment at the expense of the one being bullied,” says Yoo.

Because bullies want to intimidate their victims, they’ll jokingly insult or make fun of them to make themselves feel better, adds Yoo. Then, they’ll use defensive phrases like “I am teasing” or “I am joking” in order to gaslight victims into believing their so-called jokes aren’t harmful or mean-spirited.

Other signs of an adult bully:

  • Purposefully excluding you from conversations or events
  • Threatening or intimidating remarks
  • Physical intimidation
  • The silent treatment
  • Disrespect of personal boundaries
  • Backhanded compliments or jokes
  • Using shame or judgment as a weapon

Types of adult bullying

The most common form of adult bullying is verbal harassment, but there are many other types, including physical bullying and workplace bullying. Read ahead for the various ways adult bullying can manifest.

Verbal bullying

Kevin Belcastro, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist at The Mental Health Center of San Diego, defines verbal bullying as “name-calling, engaging in mocking an individual, spreading gossip or lies about an individual, utilizing gaslighting, and passive-aggressive statements.” Examples of verbal bullying include body shaming and racial micro-aggressions.

Physical bullying

Physically bullying is using one’s body or physical objects to intimidate another, says Belcastro. Invading someone’s personal boundaries through unwanted physical touch, or destroying someone’s personal items are examples of physical bullying.


One common form of bullying, cyberbullying, is defined as “hurtful messages, embarrassing content, or rumors” on social platforms or through online messaging mediums like email, says Yoo. Unlike verbal or physical bullying where interactions are interpersonal, cyberbullying occurs anonymously. This makes it more damaging and dangerous, as there’s no virtual accountability, says Dr. Turner.

Workplace bullying

“Workplace bullying can occur in the individual setting or group setting, where the bullied person may feel constantly targeted by one individual bully or a group of workplace bullies,“ says Belcastro. He continues, saying that this can look like chronic criticism or repeated gossip. The premise of workplace bullying is to “single out the target, taking credit for or engaging in sabotaging the targeted individual’s work, and ignoring boundaries of the target individual,” Belcastro explains.

Can a friend be bullying me?

Bullying can occur in every relationship, including friendships. Yoo says bantering back and forth can be a sign of friendship bullying, wherein a friend insults or demeans another in an argument. Someone loses, feelings are hurt, and the cycle continues.

Friendship bullying can also look like social isolation (think: withholding invites to social events), belittling comments, passive-aggressive behavior, and even cyberbullying.

What drives bullying?

There’s no single reason why someone becomes a bully or engages in bullying behavior, but there are commonalities like childhood trauma and insecurity that explain their behavior. For example, Dr. Turner says if you look through a bully’s background, you’ll find that “they have been on the receiving end, either with a parent or an overly authoritative figure.”

Some bullies were at one point victims of bullying themselves, who then became a bully to regain a sense of control. Other times, a person might become a bully to become more self-confident or use bullying behaviors as a coping mechanism, adds Belcastro.

What are some common misconceptions about bullying?

The most common misconception of adult bullying is that the bullying is always intentional. It can be, says Belcastro, but not every case is. “At times these behaviors are maladaptive coping mechanisms the bully uses as a means to cope with current stressors,” Belcastro explains. “These can be passive-aggressive statements, engagement in the use of micro-aggressions, and other behaviors.”

Another common misconception is that victims are sensitive and have a victimhood mentality—in reality, words can hurt, regardless of your age. Not all jokes should be masked as humor, especially if they’re demeaning or belittling.

What are the mental health effects of bullying?

Both bullies and their victims experience harmful mental effects including increased risks of self-harm and anxiety, says Dr. Turner. Victims, specifically, have higher rates of anxiety and depression and will undergo physical changes like hair loss and changes in appetite. Bullying has been shown to1 lower self-esteem and impact the victim’s social skills. Too, productivity and work ethic can suffer if bullying happens in the workplace, Dr. Turner adds.

Studies show2 that the long-term effects of bullying on mental health are overwhelmingly negative: Bullying has been linked to a lower probability of finding work and even increases the probability of death before age 55.

How to deal with adult bullying

Typically, authority figures and school administrators intervene when a child is getting bullied. But what’s the case when an adult gets bullied? It’s complicated, as adult bullying comes in many forms from interpersonal to online.

For bullying in the workplace, human resources can be contacted in order to stop the harassment and intimidation. For friendships or romantic partnerships where the intimidation is person-to-person, it’s up to the bullied individual to stop the behavior. Whatever the source of the bully may be, here are a few steps victims can take to stop adult bullying.

1. Set firm boundaries

Boundaries are important in any relationship. Setting boundaries lets a person—whether they’re a bully or not—know what is or is not okay in a relationship. If a bully breaks your boundaries, they’ll know their access to you is revoked.

2. Keep your distance

Belcastro recommends providing space away from the bully. Naturally, that’s easier said than done, especially in the workplace. When dealing with workplace bullies, Dr. Turner says to communicate with your manager or human resources and ask for space away from the perpetrator. That can mean moving to a different team or even switching desks.

It’s also important to choose your battles. Bullying is a stress-inducing experience and confronting your bully can heighten your negative emotions. Sometimes, it’s better to keep your distance and avoid any interactions.

3. Don’t take it personally

It’s hard not to take a bully’s remarks personally. Words hurt! But try not to internalize a bully’s behavior, says Belcastro. “Work on not internalizing and taking the bully’s behavior personally through working on coming to an understanding that this is an issue with the bully, not you,” he says. “It is important to work on remaining confident and standing tall in your own truth.”

How to respond to bullying as a bystander

If may be tempting to mind your own business during tense social situations, but adult bullying is not the time to remain a silent bystander. Witnesses to bullying should either diffuse the situation or confront the bully, if safe and appropriate. By not doing so, bystanders are condoning a bully’s behavior, Belcastro says.

Responding to bullying as a bystander takes courage. It’s not easy, “but if one person steps forward and supports another person who’s being intimidated, then it’s saying you’re not alone,” says Dr. Turner.

If you want to confront a bully but are unsure of how to, here are a few tips:

  • Check-in with the bullied individual and let them know you’re an available resource.
  • Steer the conversation away by changing the subject.
  • Defend the victim by questioning the bully or openly stating disapproval of their behavior.
  • Report the bullying to human resources or a manager.

When to seek professional help

If the bullying continues despite enacting the steps above, it may be time to tap in someone of higher authority, whether it be your job’s human resources department or in extreme cases, your local police department. If you are in immediate danger of physical harm or are experiencing repeated harassment, you can file a restraining order that will legally prohibit the bully from contacting you.

Because bullies use isolation to intimidate their victims, it’s important to have support, whether that’s through a trusted friend or a therapist. A trusted friend can be an ear to your struggles, but a therapist can help you process what happened and help you “work on increasing a positive sense of self and confidence to set boundaries with the bully,” says Belcastro. Ultimately, if the bullying impacts your mental and physical state, it’s time to see a therapist. Remember: You don’t have to deal with the bullying alone. There are trusted mental health professionals who can help you overcome bullying and stop it from happening again.

If you or someone you know is currently being bullied or abused and is in immediate danger, you can call or text 988 to speak with someone from the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. 

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.

  1. Dou, Yunru et al. “Bullying Victimization Moderates the Association between Social Skills and Self-Esteem among Adolescents: A Cross-Sectional Study in International Schools.” Children (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 9,11 1606. 22 Oct. 2022, doi:10.3390/children9111606

  2. Blanchflower, David G, and Alex Bryson. “The adult consequences of being bullied in childhood.” Social science & medicine (1982) vol. 345 (2024): 116690. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2024.116690


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