Adult Bullying & "the Shoulds"


By Tom Andre

I worked with a woman in her sixties who always did things her own way. She would literally stop and smell the grass. She would get excited by the butterflies in her garden or the way a single rain cloud moves down the beach. She has lived her life trying to always be kind and put others' interests before my own.

Sometimes people are unkind to her in very specific ways. They dismissed her opinions, and told her she was "doing it all wrong." They tried to take advantage of me in small and large ways, as if she would not notice. She is tough, but it got to her, and she couldn't help but wondering if she really was doing "it" wrong? And what is "it" anyway?

There is a word for what people did to her: bullying.

Bullying does not end with grade school - it just changes form. Adult bullies often appear to be enforcers of the "Shoulds" - unwritten social measures that are often both arbitrary and culturally specific.

Enforcers of the Shoulds will go out of their way to tell you everything from how to peel a banana to what to wear to the beach to how you are supposed to feel about what is happening in the world. Sometimes it comes in the form of an eye roll. More often, it's mansplaining. In any case, bullies feel better when they remind you exactly how far away you are from their own particular set of Shoulds.

It's more complicated because some of us find the Shoulds helpful. We live in a highly competitive, constantly changing society that often leaves us feeling isolated or powerless. A sense of belonging can be hard to come by, and shared Shoulds like cheering for our local team can connect us as a community. The problems arise when we treat the Shoulds as a single true way of being, instead of one valid option among many others.

It's particularly difficult to be yourself and to try to be kind and put others ahead of yourself in a world that glorifies power instead.

Bullies often mistake kindness for weakness. But choosing your own way is often tougher than conformity.

There is more good news: there are a lot of people like my dear client out there. Many people who outwardly embrace the Shoulds secretly want a life closer to the one she already has. There are a lot of people - even bullies - who would secretly love to smell the grass, marvel at the butterflies and chase rain clouds. She could teach them a thing or two.

By Tom Andre

‚ÄčI am a licensed marriage and family therapist working in El Segundo and Century City (Los Angeles), California. I have experience working with a broad range of problems, and I have a special interest in the lifelong questions about identity, meaning and purpose. Additional areas of interest and experience include grief and loss, parenthood and fertility, and trauma.