Relationships

How to spot if your friend is actually a bully, and what you can do about it

If you are wondering if your friend is a bully, they probably are, otherwise you wouldn’t be questioning their behaviour. 

Scarlett V Clark is the founder of Smart Girl Tribe, a community that champions female empowerment. Her debut book, The Smart Girls Handbook: How to Silence Self-Doubt, Find your Purpose and Redefine the Impossible, is out this month. Here, she talks about her experiences with bullying among friends, how to recognise it and what to do about it. 

Did you have a best friend in school or college, or maybe later at work who had the ability to make you feel worthless or like you were not enough? Perhaps you have been friends with a colleague who celebrated with you when you secured that promotion but belittled it behind your back? As we navigate adulthood it is easy to tell ourselves that cattiness and gossip are surely left in the playground. Yet, bullying within friendships is common among women, even if we don’t talk about it.

On average, female friendships last 16 years, which is six years longer than the average romantic relationship, so it comes as no surprise that whether good or bad, friendships have a significant impact on our mental health. Toxic friendships are hugely detrimental to our lives and confidence so you need to register the signs early on to be able to nip them in the bud. Life is too short and beautiful to have unsupportive or manipulative friends. A friendship isn’t worth while if it’s with someone who will judge you, gossip behind your back or even compete with you. Often, you might not even realise that a relationship has turned toxic or unhealthy.

Sometimes we accept emotional abuse from a friend in a way we never would a romantic partner. Friendships should be treated just like any other relationship. With so much history and many memories it might seem easier to stay in a bullying friendship but it is vital to your happiness and wellbeing to walk away from this friendship before it meta-sizes.

If you are wondering if your friend is a bully… they probably are, otherwise you wouldn’t be questioning their behaviour. 

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The ‘frenemy’ – is your friend a bully?    

According to Stopbullying.gov, women are more likely than men to experience non-physical bullying such as verbal abuse, rumour spreading, exclusion and cyber bullying.

In middle school a close friend of mine would be lovely in front of me but would host parties inviting all the other girls in my class and intentionally exclude me. I had just moved to the local town and was seen as new and interesting. Through no fault of my own, her former best friend wanted to be my best friend and the boy she had a crush on took a liking to me. It was clear that her behaviour stemmed from jealousy but not wanting to cause conflict or drama, I stayed quiet in the hope it would stop. 

I even made excuses for her, knowing the family issues she was experiencing. However, it just got worse - she ridiculed me for my academic accolades and would deliberately try and set up situations to embarrass me in front of my friends. It wasn’t until I had sought advice that I was able to see this friend for what she was. I also discovered that her mother was acting the same way toward my mum. Bullying between friends isn’t age exclusive and can happen at any point of a person’s life.  

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How and why bullying starts

Humans naturally seek conformity, and in my experience, an insecure person will try to make those closest around them feel the same way in order to validate their own emotions. 

If you look back on your friendship and can see that over time your behaviour has altered around them for the worse, it might be time to forgo that relationship. Has anyone else close to you commented on how much you have changed since you have known this “friend”? 

If you have been falling victim to peer pressure, forgetting about your values or ditching your own passions to carry out theirs, this is a sign that you are dealing with a bully. True friends will encourage you to be the best ‘you’ possible and will make you feel whole and authentic. Start hanging out with other friends of yours as well – they might help you realise how toxic your bullying friend has been.

Saffron, 25, a writer from Hampshire, was shocked when her best friend Lucy* started to pick on her throughout university. “We’d have sleepovers, go on too many nights out and shopping trips together, it was the perfect friendship but I should have read all of the warning signs: hurtful comments that turned into twisted jokes, remarks about my boyfriend and feeling like I always had to do whatever she wanted. I could no longer recognise myself and others in my support network started to comment on how much I had changed.”

I had an interesting conversation with Liam Hackett, author of Fearless and founder of Ditch the Label, on Twitter once. He told me this happens a lot. According to Hackett, victims often try to avoid punishing the bully, possibly because they don’t want to admit to themselves how toxic the relationship is, so instead they change themselves.

The Smart Girls Handbook book cover
The Smart Girls Handbook is out 4 March 2021

Know the signs 

One of the tell-tale signs that your friend is a bully is that they make you feel unsafe or insecure. A bully often sees something in you that threatens them, and as a result they will try and weaken you through either intimidation or reasoning – from taking credit for your work to belittling your success to gossiping about you. 

When your friend tries to mock you, rather than get angry simply laugh, they will soon see you as a boring individual who can’t be weakened. Laughing at yourself won’t give the bully any satisfaction either because you are literally claiming the words back. Spend time investing in your own self confidence. This bully sees how talented you are and feels threatened. It’s not fun if the other person won’t engage, so rather than rise to their insults and dim your light, shine brighter.  

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Emily, 21, a trainee-counsellor from Wales, says: “My friend was the ring leader and I was one of the chosen girls she liked, so I instantly felt pressure to please her. She threatened to use my eating disorder against me. She would highlight how much or how little I was eating especially in places such as women’s changing rooms.” 

It is natural to trust friends and disclose personal experiences. If your friend is sharing this information with others, without your permission, they might be emotionally bullying you. A true friend will always respect your circumstances and will never exploit them.  

How to deal with a bully

Bullies are only nice towards you when it is convenient for them. Bullying doesn’t happen immediately, often because they will subconsciously weigh up your strengths and weaknesses before they strike. When an opportunity arises, they try to lessen your power. Notice who is clapping when your dreams come true. Is your friend congratulating you or are you feeling hints of passive aggression?

It can be a lot of work to become bully-proof. It starts with taking action and confronting them. Even though not all behaviour warrants the same response, ignoring severe bullying can reinforce it. Setting up a frank and honest conversation with your friend is the first step. Sit down and explain that moving forward you need space, as you would when romantically breaking up with someone. If you are worried about their reaction, bring another friend along with you for moral support.

A bullying friend is not genuine – they won’t support you and will often put you down in front of others or will disclose your personal information. After confronting them you may choose to end this toxic friendship. When you decide to end it, start spending time on yourself, dedicate time and space to heal.

Cutting a bullying friend from your life could be one of the most empowering and liberating things you ever do. It means recognising your value and taking action. Given that close friendships can still hold the same intimacy as romantic relationships it doesn’t make it any less heart-breaking but ultimately you can only gain from getting rid of the toxicity in your life. Healthy friendships are full of joy and happiness, both of which you are fully deserving of. 

Scarlett V Clark is CEO and Founder of Smart Girl Tribe and author of The Smart Girls Handbook, published by Trigger 4 March 2021, £10.99

Images: Robin Gentry/EyeEm via Getty, book cover courtesy of Trigger

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