Humans are profoundly social. We spend most of our lives working, eating, sleeping, and playing in groups ranging from two people up to nations and humanity as a whole.

Woven through the tapestry of our relationships are several major threads. One of these is power. The only question is, do we use it for good or ill?

Like a hammer, power itself is neutral. It can be used for beneficial purposes, such as parents protecting their children or leaders promoting the rule of law. It can also be used for harmful purposes, such as parents hitting children or political leaders praising violence against their critics.

The abuse of power can be called many things, including intimidation, fraud, discrimination, and tyranny. I’ll use a term that’s down-to-earth and gets at our nature as social primates: bullying.

Bullies are unfortunately common. Throughout history and right now today, from homes and schoolyards to boardrooms and presidential palaces, they create a vast amount of human suffering. What can we do?

The Practice.

In this short space, I’ll offer some summary suggestions. You can help them be concrete by applying them to bullies you’ve experienced or observed.

Recognize Bullies

Bullies are:

  • Dominating – Have to be the “alpha”; fear of looking “one-down”; must find targets who seem weaker; no compassion
  • Defensive – Never wrong; fault and scorn others; avoid personal responsibility
  • Deceptive – Manipulate grievances to gain support; blame scapegoats; cheat; hide truth since power is based on lies

Recognize Enablers
Some people and organizations make use of bullies, like profiting from a crime someone else commits. They might pretend all is normal, or say it’s more important to pay attention to something else, or claim falsely that “both sides do it.” From playgrounds to parliaments, people with an authoritarian personality style have an affinity for bullying leaders, and form the core of their supporters.

Protect Yourself
Sometimes you are stuck with a bully, at least for a while. Be careful. Weigh your options and do what’s best for you.

Have Compassion
Deep down, the mind of a bully is like a hell realm of fended-off feelings of weakness and shame always threatening to invade. Lots of suffering there. Compassion for a bully is not approval. It is calming and strengthening, and establishes an inner freedom: “You may have my family, company, or country . . . but you will never have my mind.”

And of course the targets of bullies deserve our care. Even if you can do nothing to help them, your compassion is still authentic; it matters to you, and it may matter to others in ways you’ll never know.

Name It
Tell the truth to yourself. Tell it to others.

And if appropriate, tell the truth to bullies and their enablers. This could be a version of that truth: “You are a bully. You cheated and lied to get your power. You act tough but you’re actually weak and frightened. You might be able to harm me and others, but I am not afraid of you. I see what you are.”

Bullies may acquire institutional authority but never moral legitimacy. They know their power is on thin ice. The more uneasy they feel, the more they make up grievances, wave the flag, and posture on the stage.

Name the lying, the cheating, the weakness. Name the fakery, name the illegitimacy.

Stand with Others
Bullies target lone individuals and minority groups to display dominance and create fear. So gather allies who will stand with you if you’re being bullied. Also ask others to stand up to bullies; sitting on the sidelines just perpetuates bullying.

And together, stand with and for those others who are bullied. It may make no material difference. But it always makes a moral and psychological difference to those who stand up – and to those they stand for.

Punish Bullying
I mean “punish” in the sense of justice, not vengeance. The act of bullying itself is rewarding to a bully, even if there’s no concrete benefit. It’s like pulling a pleasurable lever on a slot machine that sometimes delivers a jackpot: if you’re a bully, why not keep pulling? So there must be a cost. Enablers also need to pay a price; otherwise, why stop?

Since bullying is common, people have developed a variety of ways to punish it. Depending on the situation, you could:

  • With moral confidence, name the bullying for what it is
  • Dispute false claims of legitimacy
  • Laugh at bullies (who are usually thin-skinned)
  • Confront lies, including denial of harms they’re doing
  • Build up sources of power to challenge the bully
  • Confront enablers; they’re complicit in bullying
  • Engage the legal system
  • Remove bullies from positions of power

Bullies do sometimes stop bullying, occasionally with an admirable change of heart. When appropriate, we can offer ways for a former bully to rejoin the group.

See the Big Picture
Bullying is enabled and fostered by underlying conditions. For example, the political system might have become unfairly tilted in the bully’s favor; tilt it back. Bullies draw power from the grievances of others; address those grievances and reduce the bully’s power.

Bullies try to dominate our attention much like they try to dominate everything else. But there is a larger world beyond their control. It contains so many things that are working, enjoyable, beautiful, and virtuous. Disengage as much as possible from ruminating on helpless outrage, fantasies of payback, and fault-finding others “who aren’t doing enough.” Bad enough that the bully is out there in the world. Try not to let the bully invade your own mind.

Like this article? Receive more like it each week when you sign up for Rick Hanson's free Just One Thing newsletter.

Author's Bio: 

Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. His books have been published in 29 languages and include Neurodharma, Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture - with 900,000 copies in English alone. His free weekly newsletter has 150,000 subscribers and his online programs have scholarships available for those with financial need. He’s lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, his work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. He began meditating in 1974 and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He loves wilderness and taking a break from emails.