I attract female bullies

Since I was a child, I've been bullied by women. They seem to seek me out. Is it me?

Published September 16, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Hi Cary,

I'm finding that female bullies have a habit of showing up in my life over and over. It's fine when it happens on a personal level. I can recognize mean, jealous women and do my best to avoid them in my personal life but professionally it is another story.

This has been going on since I was just a child, with my own mother being one of the first females who betrayed my trust. All through my childhood she chose to allow men in her life to be physically abusive to me and would not leave them no matter how much I pleaded with her to. Then, of course, there were the female "friends" at school were always trying to "toughen" me up with their mean behavior, saying it would be eventually be beneficial to me as it would make me stronger as I got older.

I got away from these so-called friends as soon as I realized how damaging they were to me. My mother sent me to a therapist as a teenager and through counseling I learned to treat myself better by trying to navigate around these people that would inevitably mistake my kindness for weakness and try and take advantage of me. Also at the encouragement of my therapist, I got out of my abusive home life. I then tried to proceed with my life as if I didn't have all this negative baggage from the abusive home life. I worked my way through college at various retail jobs as college kids do. The majority of these jobs were around women, though, and I found myself the object of mean, bullying type of behavior again. It didn't surprise me; a lot of these co-workers didn't feel like my intellectual peers and so I just ignored their behavior and tried my best to get through these low-level working environments until I could get a "real" job after my college graduation. I felt like once I got into a more professional atmosphere my peer group might be one in which this type of juvenile bullying behavior wouldn't be so prevalent.

Now two decades and multiple jobs and career paths later, I have found that the same female bullying type of issues that I have been dealing with all these years are still coming up. I try and just go with the flow and I always try to have compassion for people and understand their side of things if they find fault with me. I also try really hard to always see the beauty inside someone even if they seem negative or angry on the outside. I try to stay positive and hope that if I just do good work and try to be a nice, positive person, that the mean women will lose interest in me and move on. This tactic has worked for me in the past but after holding my last job for almost 10 years, it was this type of bully situation that finally cost me my job. No matter how independently you work, in an office you still work as a team to some degree, and you do need to have a support system of some kind. I have tried to find jobs where I can work as independently as possibly but still these bully type of women seem to find me and target me with gossip and rumors and before I know it, I seem to be the most hated person in the workplace.

I know I don't need people that are going to pick on me in my life but it seems life keeps handing me this situation where it wants me to deal with this and I just don't know how to. I'm in the legal field now and it's very competitive and the culture has more backstabbing type of behavior than ever going on, with the job market being so tight right now. I know I am going to encounter this situation again. I know I will just keep trying to be true to myself and stay a kind-hearted person through dealings with these bullies that I keep encountering, but from a practical standpoint how do I maintain any kind of career when this keeps happening?

Bullied by Women

Dear Bullied by Women,

Since you are working in the legal field you are probably familiar with what an evidence-based argument would be. It can't be based on your intuition or your feel for how people are treating you. It must be based on clear examples of deception, threats, lies and rumors spread about you, etc. If there is a trail of evidence that some person has mistreated you, I think you have to confront that person. I think it will do you good. So start collecting the evidence. Start writing down what is happening. Start building your case.

Documenting this will have more than one benefit. Writing down and analyzing exactly what is being done will let you reflect on the patterns and how they relate to your early life. You may begin to see a family pattern, i.e., one person plays the mother role and allows others, stronger people, to come into your sphere and mistreat you. And you may also identify times or moments when you freeze up and become that child again, and repeat behavior from your childhood that is painful for you. Then, when you have a clear enough picture of a person's behavior, it is time to confront that person.

But, you may say, the behavior is more subtle than that. Well, then you must work harder to identify what exactly is happening.

You don't say exactly what this behavior is, so I will have to take an example out of my own imagination. Say the bullying at work involves someone you work with telling others that you are not capable of certain kinds of work, in order to get that work for herself. Say you have mentioned to this person that you are going to take on this assignment, and then she goes and tells your supervisor, in a subtle way, Oh, she doesn't have much experience in that area, are you sure you want to entrust that to her? She's not very good with that kind of thing. You know, people can be subtle and say, Oh, not that I'm putting her down, I just don't want the project to get into trouble, or I don't want her to get in over her head -- seemingly concerned statements that are actually undermining your autonomy. So if you have a narrative like this, because you have been documenting this, then you need to go to that person and present it.

Well, you arrange to talk with that person and you say you have a grievance, a problem, an area of conflict you want to discuss. And then you narrate what you have observed. You say, on this date you told me this. Then this happened. Etc.

It may seem to you that this is aggressive, and it is in a way. It is good aggression. It is self-preservation. But it is also good for the other person. The other person needs to hear what she is doing. She needs to hear that her behavior is actually harming another person. She needs to hear the difficult truth.

We all need to hear the difficult truth. A husband needs to hear it. A wife needs to hear it. Brothers and sisters need to hear it. Parents need to hear how what they are doing is affecting their children. Children need to hear how what they are doing is affecting their parents. And co-workers need to hear how their behavior is affecting others. Bosses. Workers. Etc.

Why? Because often when we are harming people we ourselves are acting out unconscious patterns, and these patterns are not helping us be happy. We would not choose to be this way if we could change; when we are undermining others, we are creating tension and fear. These patterns are based in beliefs that we are not safe, that people will not help us, that the only way to survive is to hurt others. Those beliefs are deeply painful; they arise out of mistrust and fear. It may take years for us to change but hearing how our behavior is affecting others can be a powerful inducement to change.

And collecting this evidence and presenting it to another person can be a powerful step for you. It will make you feel that this pattern does not have to continue, that it can change. It will make you feel like you are finally standing up for yourself.

So that's my advice. Fight back. Fight back with the truth. Confront.

It probably won't go all that well at first. That's OK. You are just starting out. As you do this more, you will learn what works. You will learn to hear the other person become angry, and just listen. Let that person become angry. Tell the person that you want to see some change.

Your attempt to do this may also show you something you had not realized before about yourself. If you find it hard or impossible to do, then that will indicate to you that you are more conflict-avoidant than you had realized. When we try to do something as simple as document and present to another person the evidence of their behavior toward us, and the effect it has had, if we find it impossible to do, or we find ourselves making excuses not to do it, then this is a clear sign that we need to change. We need to learn to do this because it is a fundamental human social skill. We need to be able to talk about difficult things with other people. If we can't do it, then people will walk all over us.

You don't sound like a deeply conflict-avoidant person, much less someone who has the clinically defined avoidant personality disorder (which, incidentally, is retained in the revised DSM-5) but you may be employing techniques that rather than decrease conflict instead encourage it. For instance, your response of trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes is a kind of internal management of your suffering. It does nothing to stop the behavior because it doesn't put the person on notice that what they're doing is harming you.

I hope this doesn't sound like "blaming the victim." What I am suggesting is that you empower yourself in response to these threats. I encourage you to evaluate my suggestion, look at the evidence, and if you find any behavior that might fit this definition, look into ways to change your own behavior. After all, you cannot change other people. You can, however, gain new skills in responding to them.

By Cary Tennis

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