Yes, Bullying Happens to Adults, Too — Here’s How HSPs Can Protect Themselves

A man bullies a highly sensitive man

Unfortunately, bullies often target people who may seem “weak,” like HSPs. But there’s a way for you to use your sensitivity to “fight” back. 

It happened again: The minute I entered a room at work, people immediately went from talking to complete silence. Often, a passive-aggressive comment about how few shifts I had picked up would follow. 

I knew pretty early on that the culture of my workplace (a retirement home) was toxic, as I was consistently scheduled outside of my availability. (This was despite the fact that the position was a side job to me and I had plenty of other obligations, including a full course load at school.) Guilting and shaming were used often to quiet employee complaints and make us say yes to double shifts. 

When I first decided that I would reduce my workload and transition into a career that actually made me happy, the subtle — but ever-present — shaming from fellow employees and managers intensified. I began getting physical symptoms, like weak legs and headaches for days after each shift. I was miserable, but felt trapped: I needed extra income to make my career change possible. In essence, I was being bullied.

Research, too, shows that many people who experience bullying feel trapped — and, often, highly sensitive people have trouble navigating this. Let’s take a look at why this is the case.

What Is Bullying — and How Does It Affect HSPs?

Those of us who were bullied for being too quiet, too passionate about our hobbies, or for crying too easily may have felt relief when we graduated from school… only to find that bullies never go away. 

Whether your bully waits for you at the office each morning, torments you at family gatherings, or is someone you’re in a romantic relationship with, know that you don’t have to put up with poor treatment anymore. You are strong enough to protect yourself from bullying. But how? First, let’s explore what bullying entails. 

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), bullying is repeated, aggressive behavior where harm or discomfort is intended. It can be overt with physical or verbal abuse — or it can be covert and involve sneakier tactics that are more difficult to detect by others. 

Bullying is harmful to all victims by causing negative mental health outcomes and lowering self-esteem. But because we highly sensitive people (HSPs) have such intense depth of processing capabilities and emotional reactivity, bullying can leave especially deep scars on us.

Sensitive types seem to make the perfect target for bullying — but not for the reasons you might think. Bullies tend to target victims for several different reasons, yet one common thread is always present. Despite the fierce, powerful facade they try to maintain, bullies are deeply hurt and insecure. They go after people who threaten them.     

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So, as a highly sensitive person, you will not be a target of bullying because of weakness, incompetence, or perceived lack. Research done on workplace bullying, for example, reveals that the opposite is true. Victims of workplace bullying tend to be very competent, dedicated, and well-liked. Those three characteristics are often used to describe HSPs, too, who take their commitments seriously and make it their mission to help others. 

Understanding the fact that I wasn’t being bullied because there was actually something “wrong” with me was transformative, and I encourage any HSP struggling with a bully to acknowledge this important truth. 

Even though you don’t see your giftedness, or the way others gravitate toward you, your bully does — and this triggers a deep sense of lack in themselves. With this knowledge, how can you move forward and protect yourself against bullying? Here’s what’s worked for me — and my wish is that at least some of these tactics work for you, too.

6 Ways HSPs Can Protect Themselves From Bullying

1. Work on your self-esteem by recognizing, and adjusting, your limited beliefs. 

It’s never pleasant to know that someone is trying to hurt you, but this is especially true when your self-esteem is lacking. (And if you grew up as an HSP who was continually told they’re “too sensitive,” it’s easy to not be super confident.) 

When you have a negative perception of yourself, it’s easier to let other people’s actions affect you negatively. That’s why bullies tend to target people who seem to lack confidence. So how can you improve your self-esteem so that bullying rolls off your back? 

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix to low self-esteem, as it involves a large-scale upheaval of long-held beliefs about ourselves. The process starts with being able to recognize the negative, or limiting, beliefs that live in our minds. These are often subconscious thoughts that place limitations on our abilities. But the good news is — you can change them.

Journaling was the most important activity I used for drawing out negative false beliefs about my lovability and capability. I had to pay close attention to the language I used (I still do sometimes) and what messages I was sending myself and others through my actions, like failing to care for my physical needs. Developing my self-esteem (not perfecting it) began with challenging my critical inner voice.

2. Exude confidence through your body language.

Sometimes, you’ll have to fake it ‘til you make it. Even though you don’t always feel confident, exuding it through your body language can help you avoid giving bullies the idea that they can mess with you. 

Similarly, according to the facial feedback hypothesis, smiling can make us feel happier. So the same effect may occur with confident body language. Try to make eye contact with people when you talk to them, keep your head up when you’re walking, and try not to slouch or fidget. The more confident you appear, the more confident you will feel.

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3. Connect with others — don’t isolate yourself.

If you’ve experienced bullying, your first impulse may be to self-isolate as a protective mechanism. This was certainly my experience. However, as safe as this might feel to you at first, isolating yourself will only make you feel worse. 

Even when you’re not being bullied, social isolation has been shown to cause depression, anxiety, suicidality, and even premature death. If you’re dealing with the distress of dealing with a bully on your own, don’t. Instead, work on establishing a support system, whether it’s your family, friends, a therapist, or an online group. This way, you’ll find kinship in how you’re feeling — or at least a listening, supportive ear.

4. Develop hobbies and passions — they lower stress and are good for your mental health.

Not only can your hobbies be a healthy distraction from the unpleasant effects of bullying, but they can also help you develop your confidence through self-mastery. The times in my life when I was bullied and excluded the most, I really threw myself into my creative hobbies — writing and drawing. I also tried to make new friends as best as I could. I was glad when I was successful, but when I was alone, I didn’t lose hope because my hobbies and passions kept me going. 

Research, too, has found that hobbies can help reduce stress and also help boost someone’s mood. Other findings have discovered that hobbies can also help improve social connection, as well as help your mental health by decreasing depression and anxiety. And since we highly sensitive people are deep thinkers, we tend to put our all into things, including our hobbies.

5. Instead of revenge, extend compassion toward your bully.

While you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Love your enemy,” easier said than done, right?

As I mentioned earlier, bullies are often very hurt people themselves. I mean, imagine being so unhappy that you deliberately hurt people to feel better about yourself. When someone hurts you, it’s natural to want to get them back with a smart comeback or other forms of revenge. 

I can certainly be vengeful myself, but this won’t achieve anything — it’ll just continue the bullying cycle and make you a bully, as well!

So extend compassion toward your bully. As an HSP, this won’t be difficult for you, and doing so will make it easier to let go of unhealthy resentment. And who knows? Maybe it’ll show your bully how to be a better, more decent human being. It’ll probably catch them off-guard, that’s for sure, and they’ll likely start to leave you alone.

6. Tell someone about the bullying.

When you get bullied as an adult, there can be a sense that you need to attack the issue on your own to demonstrate your strength. But what’s more important, maintaining an image of strength — or being healthy and happy? 

Telling someone about the bullying you’re experiencing can make you feel less alone, and is also important for your well-being. If you’re dealing with a bully at work, telling a supervisor could help initiate disciplinary action. If you’re afraid to do this, you can start by telling a friend or coworker (perhaps they’ve been bullied, too).

Unfortunately, bullying is a global problem that adversely affects too many of us. You’re not bullied because there’s anything “wrong” with you and you certainly don’t deserve poor treatment. You have everything you need to defend yourself against your bully — your sensitivity. It equips you with all the strength you need.

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