7 Common Reasons Why People Bully

Plus effective ways to deal with bullies.

person looking sad online bullying

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What Is Bullying?


Bullying is the repeated infliction of harm or distress on another person with the intent to control, intimidate, or otherwise damage another. It comes in all forms—including verbal torment, social attacks, physical aggression, and taunting—and can happen both in person or through social media or the internet at large. Whether bullying is brief or ongoing, it can have hurtful and long-lasting consequences that manifest in psychological or physical damage.

Sadly, bullying is quite common. And while pervasive in elementary through high school, it can also occur in other settings including with siblings in childhood and far into adulthood among work colleagues, work supervisors, friends groups, and other social communities. 

According to Pacer National Bullying Prevention Center, approximately 20% of students report being bullied, citing issues like being name-called, being the subject of rumors, physical bullying, and being left out of social activities.

The Workplace Bullying Institute found that 30% of workers have directly dealt with bullying at the office and 43.2% dealt with bullying while working remotely.

7 Common Reasons Why People Bully 

Given how damaging bullying is to others, it’s understandable to wonder why people bully in the first place. This article explores common reasons why people bully. 

They Have Emotional Trauma 

You might be familiar with the phrase, “hurt people hurt people.” While personal trauma doesn’t give anyone an excuse to hurt others, sometimes it can give us insight into how the other person works. 

“So often, people that intentionally seek to intimidate others are hurting due to their own difficult life experiences, and they lack the coping skills to manage their pain in a healthy way so they externalize their hurt onto others,” explains Michelle Felder, LCSW, therapist, and founder of Parenting Pathfinders.

They’re Insecure 

Any community can have unspoken tiers of “social status,” which can prompt people with bullying tendencies to taunt others for social gain. They ultimately feel insecure and bully others as a means to fit in or make themselves feel superior. 

“Cliques and the desire for social status are often a breeding ground for bullying,” says  Limor Weinstein, MA, LMHC. “The same is true in workplaces. Jealousy and a desire to get to the ‘top’ can lead to belittling others around you, which can happen especially in competitive work environments.”

Being mean to others also has the effect of getting others to treat you better since they don’t want to become the target of bullying. Bullies may note this (perhaps even subconsciously) and use it to their advantage. 

They’ve Been Bullied

Sometimes people bully because they themselves have been the victim of bullying. In a way, they may feel as though bullying others can protect them from the familiar experience of being bullied themselves. 

Michelle Felder, LCSW

Some people try to get ahead of the bullying they anticipate experiencing and will bully others in an attempt to protect themself by striking first. This is an unhealthy defense mechanism but is a common experience that is often at the root of someone's decision to bully.

— Michelle Felder, LCSW

It’s Learned Behavior 

Other times, bullying is learned behavior. For instance, if a child witnesses an adult bullying others—or is the subject of bullying from their own parent or adult—then they may repeat that behavior. Among adults, bullying can become a toxic part of the culture at work or in other social communities and is ultimately accepted as the norm. 

They Have Poor Social Skills

It’s also possible that someone that chooses to bully has limited social skills or has a hard time getting along with others in general.

Essentially, they lack appropriate coping skills to manage and respond to uncomfortable social situations in a healthy way.

For example, Felder says they may be resentful or jealous of the person they’re targeting, or they may feel like they aren’t getting the attention that they want from them.

They Feel Anonymous

Online bullying has been on the rise for years because that is where so many of us spend our time. The digital sphere has the additional allure of seeming more anonymous.

Weinstein says, “Online bullies are often somewhat detached from their cyber activity, hiding behind a screen and unleashing their inner bully.” This can empower them to be crueler than they’d ever be in person. 

They Lack Empathy 

Some bullies simply lack care, so they have no problem dominating, blaming, intimidating, or taking advantage of others. In that sense, they lack the ability to relate to another person's experience and understand how their terrible behavior negatively impacts people.

“They target weaker people and refuse to acknowledge the repercussions of their behavior. They are driven by a desire for power and attention,” says Weinstein. “No matter what sort of bully they are, they have not learned to be kind, compassionate, or respectful.”

How to Deal With Bullies

No matter what type of bullying you or a loved one experiences, it’s painful. Here are some ways you can help deal with bullies now and move forward:

  • Acknowledge the behavior is unacceptable: The first and most important step is to be aware of the important fact that the behavior is happening and is not acceptable. 
  • Don’t bully back: It’s understandable to want to fight back, but bullying the bully in return isn’t the answer. Chimere G. Holmes, LPC, says, “There is no need to compromise your good standing. Fighting back will not solve anything and sadly, it satisfies the bully and can become too dangerous.” In fact, studies show that fighting back can even make things worse.
  • Tell someone: Whether that be a teacher, boss, colleague, parent, or friend, let others know about the situation. These figures can help intervene and advocate for you or the person being bullied. 
  • Hold them accountable: Be direct about the impact the bully has on you or a loved one. You can say things like, “The way that you’re speaking to me isn’t OK. Please don’t do it again.” Be specific about what’s problematic, be clear that it’s unacceptable to you, and give the person that’s bullying an opportunity to make a change.  
  • Discuss bullying with your child: Younger children know that being bullied hurts, but they may not recognize it’s not normal or OK. Felder says it can be helpful for parents and caregivers to talk with children about how to identify bullying, how to react to it, and how to help others being bullied. Additionally, inform your child that they should not bully anyone else because research shows that bullying has negative mental/physical health outcomes for victims.
  • Get a safety buddy: When dealing with an unrelenting bully, it can be helpful to stick close to others you trust. Not only can they help intervene and act as a witness, but they can deter the bully in general. 
  • Become an upstander: One of the most effective things a bystander can do is to become an “upstander.” This is someone who boldly speaks up to stop the bullying in its tracks. Simple ways to intervene are to question the bully’s behavior out loud, change the topic, or recruit an authority figure. 
  • Recognize that the bullying isn't about you: People who are bullied may feel like there is something wrong with them and that's why they are picked on. The problem is always the person who bullies, not the person who receives the abuse. 
  • Avoid reacting and walk away when possible: People often bully in order to feel in control of others due to the reactions their abuse creates. By not reacting to the behaviors and walking away, you are able to deprive them of this sense of control. While behaviors may escalate in an attempt to force a response, they are likely to give up when they don't get a response. If you are dealing with cyberbullying or hostile work behavior, practice only responding when it is necessary or important to your work duties.
  • Avoid/minimize the risk of crossing paths with the bully: Look for ways that you can minimize or avoid contact with the bully. This might entail avoiding places where they hand out or changing your route to work. 
  • Practice empowering body language: Research suggests that people tend to feel more confident and empowered when they stand up straight, broaden their shoulders, stand with feet apart, puff out their chest, and point their chin up. Bullies tend to feel more intimidated by people they perceive as confident.
  • Your safety comes first: If you have received threats that cause concern for your safety or the safety of your loved ones, contact local authorities to take steps to ensure your safety.

A Word From Verywell 

Bullying is unfortunately a common part of the human social sphere, but it doesn’t mean it’s OK or that it should be ignored. By better understanding why someone might be bullying you or a loved one, you can address the issue head-on and help stop the bullying. And remember, another person’s choice to bully is about them and their internal trauma—not you.

People are more likely to experience depression if they have been bullied, particularly if the abuse occurs over a long period of time. If you have been bullied and are experiencing symptoms of depression, talking to a mental health professional can help.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center. Bullying statistics.

  2. Workplace Bullying Institute. 2021 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.

  3. Davis S, Nixon C. The youth voice research project: Victimization and strategies.

  4. Rettew DC, Pawlowski S. Bullying: An UpdateChild Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2022;31(1):1-9. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2021.09.001

  5. Weineck F, Messner M, Hauke G, Pollatos O. Improving interoceptive ability through the practice of power posing: A pilot study. PLoS One. 2019;14(2):e0211453. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0211453

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.