I spent this past weekend at BinderCon surrounded by writers, pitching my book to agents (who responded favorably, btw), and receiving support from some of my favorite colleagues and friends, yesterday I got to talk about sex and depression on Lora Somoza’s Between the Sheets podcast, which was fabulous, and I’m spending the rest of the week writing with periodic breaks to meet up with some of my favorite people. Life is pretty good. It’s funny to think that two years ago today I had a conversation that almost scared me right out of my industry.
On March 22, 2014 I received a request for a phone chat from someone who I perceived to be in a position of power in my field. I accepted that request and over the course of an hour that person systematically took me apart. By the time we hung up I was convinced that my work was terrible, I was unqualified, no one respected me, and I was something of a joke in my industry. I felt “cast out of the kingdom”, as it were. Ashamed, inadequate, and like the worst of the fears that had plagued me since starting this site and entering this field were actually true. I didn’t want anyone outside of my inner circle to ever know what had happened.
So, why am I telling you about it now? Well, two years later I’m badass-ing all over the place and I’ve realized the whole thing was nonsense. It took me a long time but eventually I saw exactly why and how I had walked right into the trap of a bully. Now I want to use what I’ve learned to help you should you ever encounter a grown up bully of this nature so that you can skip right to the part where you keep on being a badass without the middle part where you believe any of their ridiculousness.
These are my 10 tips for surviving a bully when you’re a grown up:
1. Take stock of the facts
The reason for this is two-fold:
You need to own your shit– It’s irresponsible to go through life assuming that everyone who tells you something you don’t want to hear is wrong. I know I’ve grown a lot from being called out or called in when I’ve done things that weren’t right and I shudder to think what kind of person I would be if I had met those call outs with a “la la la I can’t hear you!”. Difficult though it may be, it’s important to look at the situation objectively and see things you may have done wrong. In this case my bully opened by referencing an incident that had occurred with my Sex Geekdom Portland group months earlier – it’s a long story but suffice it to say in the midst of a lot of drama and in-fighting I made a call that hurt someone. For whatever reason the bully decided that incident would be the starting point of our discussion. At the time of the phone conversation I actually already had a coffee date to sit down and chat with the person I had hurt- that was dealt with- and the situation never had anything to do with the bully at all so its presence in the conversation was strange. That said, I had indeed done something that hurt someone and so there was a grain of truth in the whole thing.
You need to be able to see what’s real and what’s not– The incident in Portland was officially the only thing about that phone call that was rooted in truth. However, because I failed to take stock of the facts I believed everything else my bully said was true as well. I believed them when they said that I was regarded by large portions of our industry as a “mean girl” and a “bitch” and was being talked badly about. Once I was onboard that train it was really easy to keep believing them when they went on to explain to me that I was a “blogger not an educator” and talk to me at length about what that meant for my understanding of the industry and for the odds that I would ever be taken seriously (spoiler alert: the odds were not good!). By the end I believed that I was not only largely disliked but that my attempts to present myself as an educator were pretty much causing people I admired, respected, and regarded as colleagues, role models, and mentors to laugh at me. I believed I was a joke. If I had taken any time to objectively look at the facts I would have realized that there was absolutely no evidence that any of that was true and, frankly, a truckload of evidence to the contrary but I let emotion mind run the show and sent reasonable mind and wise mind off on a good, long vacation together, so no fact-checking was done on this phone call at all.
Get very clear on what are and are not facts when it comes to dealing with a bully. To make this easier, don’t do what I did and talk to your bully on the phone. With no witnesses or paper trail they are free to say whatever absurd stuff they want. Ask for email or at the very least a conversation in the presence of others. Keep everyone honest. Deal with facts. Own what’s yours and discard the rest. That leaves bullies very little to work with.
2. Be familiar with your “buttons” and be honest about whether they were just pushed
When I step back and really look at the conversation between my bully and I, I can’t help but be impressed. The word “diabolical” comes to mind. Two of my biggest buttons are the fear that I’ll upset people and raging imposter syndrome. This person went right for them and hit them both hard – it was like the conversational equivalent of Stephen King’s It. It’s really no wonder I fell for it all so easily, they simply told me what I’d been afraid of hearing since I stepped into this industry: “No one wants you here, you aren’t qualified”. Because that was something the horrible voice in the back of my head had been saying all along, hearing my bully say it simply served as the proof I needed to give up on myself.
Don’t do that! Really look at what is being said to you and look at what you know your triggers are. People are cruel and will go for your weaknesses. If you can see what’s happening and recognize it for what it is you can avoid falling for it.
3. Know that one person claiming to be the voice of many is suspect
One of my biggest regrets about this whole thing is that I lost some relationships I really treasured because I believed the whole “lots of people don’t like you” thing along with the bully’s specific implications as to who those people were. What it took me a long time to realize was that it was only the bully saying that. No one else ever spoke out against me or confronted me on anything. I took my bully at their word that (and I can still hear them say it) “You may not see it but emails and private messages happen.” What kills me about having fallen for this tactic is that I had ended an emotionally abusive relationship a few months before this happened and feel like I should have recognized it- my former partner did this too.
If anyone tries to change your behavior by speaking on behalf of a group of people (“everyone’s mad”, “no one likes you”, “lots of people are upset”), slap a big old “Citation Needed” on that sucker and give some serious side-eye to the person talking. Why is no one else speaking up? Why can’t the bully just express their own opinion? Why do they need to tell you that “everyone” feels this way? Here’s why: it makes it sound like they are helping you out, like they are telling you to lend you a hand. Then they get to be mean and act like you somehow owe them. It’s manipulative and it is cruel.
Don’t fall for it and certainly don’t let it cost you relationships.
4. Get the bully out of your (virtual) life
Due to the wonders of social media we’re all in each other’s lives constantly which can be nice for staying connected to your long distance support system but is horrible for when you have to watch your friends and colleagues engage with someone who was cruel to you, as was the case with my bully. Seriously, twice a year my feed turned into an orgy of bully love. So I put an end to that for the sake of my own sanity and so I could keep liking my friends (who, for the most part, had no idea any of this had happened). I unfriended, unfollowed and, in extreme cases, blocked my bully on social media. I also used a Chrome extension called “Fluff Busting Purity” which allows you to filter terms from your facebook feed. I have mine set up to not show event names, people’s names and some hashtags so I won’t be hit in the face with other people’s posts about my bully and their doings. It’s lovely. Twitter also allows for the muting of words, phrases, hashtags, names, etc, allowing me to do the same there. Instagram is really the only place I still run into mentions of them and that’s been less of a problem over the years for reasons that will become clear in a little bit.
I created an online world in which the bully didn’t exist. I highly recommend this to keep yourself focused and your bully out of your line of vision. Remember, your computer is pretty much a doorway into your home and no one is entitled to enter it, even just via your facebook feed.
Need help keeping folks out of your virtual home? This article has instructions for blocking on various networks.
5. Have a support system
You need other people to help you through this, voices to drown out the bully’s because, if you are anything like me, that’s going to play on repeat in your head for a while and the negative voices are always so much louder than the positive ones. So, enlist people to help you. I would never have gotten through this whole thing without the fabulous Elle Chase who told me starting 5 minutes after the phone call (when I was super-believing everything I’d just been told) that it was all bullshit and that I was better than all of it. She has been my advocate non-stop for the last two years and dragged me (kicking and screaming at times) through the process of getting past this. Another huge source of support for me has been Stephen Biggs who met me in the aftermath of this incident and thus was greeted by “Hi I’m JoEllen and I’m not qualified to do this work”. Without his support, faith, and constant assurances that I am in fact qualified to do what I do, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near where I am right now. Finally, the (many) other people bullied by my bully who I’m not going to name because, reasons, have been a tremendous source of encouragement, kindness, and reassurance that none of this was my fault.
Round up your dream team and keep them close at hand. Also be aware that someone who mistreats you has probably mistreated others, find each other. There’s strength in numbers.
6. Recognize shame and (try to) meet it with rational thought
I didn’t tell anyone outside of my inner circle what happened for a really long time, I just kind of quietly slunk away. Why? I was ashamed. I came to understand this a bit deeper last week while listening to Brene Brown. When discussing the difference between humiliation and shame Brown explains that humiliation happens when we know we don’t deserve what has, in this case, been said. With humiliation we are often hurting but able to tell others – vent and rant and get it out. Shame, on the other hand happens when we think we deserve what has happened or in this case, that what was said was true. Then we don’t want to tell anyone because, well, someone said I suck and I suck- there’s not much of a conversation to have.
That’s shame. Not “they said I’m (insert awful, scary thing)” but “I AM (awful scary thing)”. I really believed that I was the worst and I thought that if I told people what the bully had said they would stop and think “You know what, now that I think about it, JoEllen does kind of suck”. It took me a long time to recognize the shame for what it was. For so long I dressed it up as not wanting to get people involved in “petty high school nonsense” (a sentiment I stand by) but I recently realized that since no one knew what happened, no one could support me and that lack of support was leading to me resent people, which wasn’t fair… but I didn’t want them to find out what had happened. You can see where this is going.
Recognize shame when it crops up and try to combat it with logical thought: In my case the logical thought train goes like this- “I’m ashamed by what they said and don’t want people to know -> What happens if they know? -> They might agree -> And then what? -> They wouldn’t like me ->And then what? -> Someone who agrees with unfounded rumors about me wouldn’t like me and that’s no big loss” The logical thought train can go a long way in unpacking shame and making things less scary.
Also, go read, watch and listen to anything Brene Brown has ever said. Seriously. It will help.
7. Understand that sometimes it is personal (and actually, that may be preferable)
We love to tell people that “it’s nothing personal!” when someone hurts them in a professional context but, I have to tell you, the moment when the weight of this whole situation lifted for me took place about a year ago (or a year after the horrible phone call) when it got back to me that the bully had made comments implying my work was ethically questionable. How? I have no idea. They hadn’t asked me any questions about it or looked into the work in any way, this was simply trash talk dressed up as concern. In that moment it hit me: it had nothing to do with my work- this person simply didn’t like me and decided to use the power they had to do something about that. I don’t know why and really it doesn’t matter (hell, I know I’m not everyone’s cup of lube), what matters is that something I had been seeing as a (possibly true) critique of my entire professional life was little more than a personal grudge based on (from what I can tell) nothing. In one day I went from being unable to think about the situation without crying to actually laughing about the absurdity of it. It was personal, they just don’t like me, and that’s fine!
A bully may try to tear you down and make you doubt yourself and what you do by pointing out your alleged flaws and failings. Before buying into what they say you need to ask yourself “Is it possible that they just don’t like me? And do I care about that at all?”
8. Remember who you are- a soundtrack may help
There were times when this whole thing would really get me down. When I would watch my friends and colleagues engaging in my bully’s event and posting happily about how wonderful it was, I felt like I was not only no longer part of that world but like my friends and colleagues agreed with the bully- they saw what that person saw in me. When that happened I would take a moment and remind myself who I am: I’m JoEllen motherfucking Notte. I have survived burying a parent, ending a marriage, and rebuilding my entire life. I moved myself across the country, I built The Redhead Bedhead from scratch, and when no one else had done the work to find the data on sex and depression I needed, I did it my damn self. My work helps people, my voice matters, and my hair is awesome.
I’m kind of a badass.
And you are too. Make your own list, an inventory of badssery if you will, right now so that if you find yourself facing down a bully (or any other source of self doubt) you can use it to remember who you are. I’m not saying it’s always easy, sometimes when you’re dealing with stuff like this it can feel like your detractor is drowning out everything else- that’s when I use music. Really loud music. I advise keeping a playlist on hand, a badass soundtrack. Here’s the playlist I use when I need to remember that I’m a badass:
Like the playlist? It’s on Spotify.
9. Have some empathy
I can hear you groaning from here. I’m not saying you have to be nice, I’m not saying you have to see their side, I’m not even saying you have to forgive. I’m just saying try to employ some empathy for the person who has bullied you because, if nothing else, it will help you to see that their bullying most likely had nothing to do with you. In my case, I came to realize that the things my bully said to me were very likely indicative of their own insecurities. Our backgrounds in the field are quite similar and it’s possible that we shared the same fears and insecurities making me an easy target for the bully’s ire. This isn’t uncommon, often we get caught in the crossfire of someone else’s insecurities, or anger, or fear and while that doesn’t make it fair or right, knowing it might give you a better understanding of “why” and let you walk away a little lighter, without that voice that wants to tell you that you deserved it.
I know that you may just want to tell them to suck it but take a moment to have some empathy, you’ll be surprised at how much better it can make you feel.
10. Keep doing what you do
Okay, this is the part where you get to tell them to suck it. In the words of my grandmother “The best revenge is living well” and a fabulous way to do that is to just keep going. Do your work. Do it well. Learn, then learn some more– learn enough that you’re the person people come to when they want to talk about your favorite topic. Align yourself with people who make your work better (and maybe give you a bit of much-needed confidence) so you can learn and grow and have someone who supports you there to tell you if you’re screwing up. Just keep going. Bullies want to fill you with doubt – don’t fall for it. Block out that doubt with a wall of knowledge, good work and fabulousness.
Keep on going. Be the rock star that you are. Then, when you’ve proven your bully wrong, silenced the voices that tell you they are right, and kicked all sorts of ass, then you get to tell them to suck it.
Being the target of an adult bully sucks, no question about it but there are things you can do to come out of your run-in with one feeling strong, empowered, and ready to take on the world. If that’s not comforting enough, I’ll share some more words of wisdom from my grandmother: “What you put out into the world comes back to you times 10”. Nothing happens in a vacuum, people see how bullies act and eventually figure out exactly who and what they are. So keep on going, keep being your awesome self, don’t let them beat you because, if your bully is anything like mine, one day you’ll get to stand back and watch them reap what they’ve sown and it will be immensely, if a bit sadly, satisfying.