15 Signs You May be an Emotional Bully … and what to do about it

“Bullying builds character like nuclear waste creates superheroes. It’s a rare occurrence and often does much more damage than endowment.” ~ Zack W. Van

Have you ever been in a relationship with an emotional bully? I have.

I once dated a girl who would fairly regularly yell or cry or call names almost every time I disagreed with her, even over silly non-issues. Any comment that was in any way at odds with her position was taken as a frontal assault. It was really quite remarkable. And frustrating.

Have you been there? Are you there now?

Bully is as Bully does

Emotional bullies are not happy folk. No bully is. Bullies are much more likely to come from less-than-ideal circumstances — a broken home, a single parent, alcohol addiction in the family.

Fear often therefore motivates the bully’s behavior. Insecurities plague the darker parts of their hidden hearts, so they try to control external conditions to keep their anxious insides from spinning out of control.

Inside, they are barely hanging on so they overcompensate by tightening their grip on everything (and often everyone) outside.

Or they push others around in a vain attempt at feeling better about themselves by comparison. But whatever the reason, the problem is that they create the very social context that undermines their relationships, emotionally isolating themselves even more, further reinforcing their insecurities and giving fuel to their fears.

Emotional bullies do the same thing for the same reason. But instead of hands, they use words (and volume). Instead of lunch money, they rob relationships of trust and kindness and respect and depth and maturity.

In the end, it’s not the reason bullies push and shove that makes them bullies. It’s the pushing and shoving itself.

Self-Awareness and the Emotional Bully

What are your arguments like? Are they calm discussions or are they punctuated by anger and rage and abusive words meant to hurt? Are you an emotional bully? Perhaps you suspect you may be, but are not quite sure.

We often go through life with blinders on, very aware of what others are doing, seeing “clearly” what motivates their behavior, while not so clearly seeing our own. Instead, we justify and excuse in ourselves the very same behavior we would never tolerate from others.

That being the all-too-frequent case, the following characteristics should provide insight into what may have largely been ignored until now.

The hope is that if you see the signs of being an emotional bully (even if only border-line or occasional), you take note, then take the proper steps in your personal growth to overcome tendencies that are likely putting stress and strain on relationships that can only bend so far.

Remember, self-awareness is the first step to an exciting life of emotional growth and happiness, even if the initial look in the mirror hurts.

15 Characteristics of Emotional Bullies

1. You Interrupt

When things get heated, your feelings and thoughts get pushed to the front of the line. The other person’s thoughts and feelings get pushed to the back seat or right out the door onto the street and into oncoming traffic.

You constantly interrupt and stuff your points down others’ throats. You don’t let them finish a coherent thought. You keep at it until they give in or give up and otherwise lie down and let you have control of the conversation.

But really, at that point no real conversation exists. One is doing all the talking (perhaps yelling) while the other is doing all the listening (or pretending to).

Still, you know you are right, after all, so why wouldn’t you be given control of the conversation, right?

The thing is, all emotional bullies have “good reasons” why they dominate disagreements. The reason is not what makes for an emotional bully. It’s how a fight is played out.

2. You Throw Fits

Anger is an effective way to control an argument. It allows you to avoid discussion, give and take, compromise and the vulnerability of seeing the situation from the other side, maybe even being wrong.

So just explode and be done with it! No need to negotiate. No need to discus. And if the person you start yelling at has a low threshold of tolerance for conflict or fears the escalation affecting the kids or neighbors, then throwing a fit is perhaps the best way to always get your way.

And that’s what bullies do, after all: They push and shove until they get what they want. The hard work of becoming the kind of person deserving of respect is traded in for the relative ease of instilling fear.

But fear has never been steady ground for building healthy relationships or personal happiness.

3. You Accuse and Blame

“You make me …” “You’re such a …” “You always …” “If you really loved me, you would …”

By leveling accusations (especially the unfounded or exaggerated or all-inclusive or all-exclusive kind), you effectively push your opponent into the corner. By blaming them, you remove the responsibility of trying to understand their position or playing by the Golden Rule from your shoulders.

When you see the person you’re arguing with as an opponent to be beat, someone you’re in battle with, rather than a partner working toward agreement, coming to a shared understanding, what’s said matters less than who wins—when in truth, nobody wins in such circumstances, at least not in the long-run.

This way, you can feel justified in taking some course of action a responsible person never would. After all, if it’s someone else’s fault; you’re not responsible; they brought this all on themselves; it’s their fault I’m blaming, accusing, interrupting or crying!

4. You Cry

For most people, crying is not likely a tool used to intentionally manipulate the outcome of a disagreement. At least not consciously.

The tears are often a learned response to stress or disagreement or confrontation. You interpret the disagreement as somehow a slap in your face and equate it with rejection. And, of course, there are many who are simply more prone to emotional responses to emotional pain or anger. But crying can, nonetheless, manipulate a disagreement to your favor.

A bully who bullies because his parents bullied him is still a bully. So it is with chronic criers who use their tears to get their way (this does NOT mean that all chronic criers use their tears to end or control an argument. There are people who cry easily but allow their brains and values to determine the outcome of a fight, not their tear ducts). Still, if your tears are used to regularly end the debate, then it must be said that intimidation by other means is still intimidation.

5. You Arm Your Kids for Battle

This is a low blow even for full-fledged bullies. Putting your own kids in the way of emotional trauma is indeed a cruel thing to do. And yet many parents do it anyway. They use them as ammunition or as witnesses against their spouse.

When winning a fight is more important than protecting your kids from it, you have jumped head first into the thick moral mud of the bully. Only now you’re bullying the children as well.

6. You Yell and Scream

When you shout, you’re essentially saying, “Your thoughts and opinions are irrelevant.” Yelling over another person is the same as saying they have no right to speak, to express their unique opinion and point of view.

This is the equivalent of a verbal wedgie, except it’s your position that you’ve yanked up the other person’s crack.

7. You use Profanity

Cussing is an intimidation tactic. It insulates you from having to think. Depending on how the cussing is used, it helps you avoid the real issue. If the other person is a blanking son of a hipshooter, then, by flippin hockstockers, why listen to the bum at all?

Discredit the person by depersonalizing him or her as a flapjacketed goshomatic and the message he’s bearing no longer matters. Case closed. Bullied into a corner. Win!

8. You Tie their Tongue to Lengthen Yours

Have you ever been in a fight with your spouse, a boyfriend or the next door neighbor when they say, “Okay, okay! I don’t want to do this anymore! I’m done arguing, so just stop it!”

Then they continue arguing with the pause button on your mouth firmly pressed and no such restrictions on their own wagging tongues.

That’s the emotional equivalent of saying, “I’ll keep my lunch money … and I’m taking yours as well!”

9. You Slam Doors and Throw the Remote Control across the Room

This tactic for bullying your way deeper into what you want is only one step down from actual physical bullying. Throwing objects around the house, even if not at the person is still an act of violence. It’s intimidation. And it’s wrong.

If you feel the urge welling up inside, put yourself on timeout. Go cool off. Come back when the bullying impulse has disappeared and the adult has come back home.

If when you return, the urge to break something comes back, go cool off again, as many times as it takes to stay in control — of yourself, that is!

10. You Punish

This sort of passive aggressive behavior is meant to punish the other person into submission. And if this isn’t emotional bullying, nothing is!

You ignore, hang up and give the silent treatment. You let them know in no uncertain terms that they are (or soon will be) in the doghouse for daring to argue with you.

11. You Seek Revenge

Silent treatments and the like can be a sort of revenge, for sure. But revenge-seeking includes so much more as well.

Withholding sex, leaving chores undone, coming home late on purpose, going to the bar, moving out, even sustained anger can be used as a form of getting back at another person.

All such behavior is immature, selfish and mean-spirited. They are tactics of the bully and have to stop.

12. You Threaten

Have you ever threatened divorce, suicide or unfaithfulness during an argument? If so, as the self-appointed marital and relationship ref, I call foul!

Advanced emotional bullying practitioners will be familiar with the threat-card. It’s a powerful tool for getting what you want … and sometimes even more.

Those who are emotional bullies are usually those who have deep emotional wounds, tender and painful. The problem is that in their panic to hold on to something they feel has slipped (or is slipping) away, they do the very thing that loses the others’ respect, love and empathy.

It is self-sabotage. It is a self-inflicting wound. And trust is the blood the relationship loses as it drains from the open wound self-inflicted.

13. You Unbury the Dead

Do you reach back as far as you can go to make the point you want to make, dredging up what should rightly be left in the past?

Are you more concerned with winning the point than honoring the right to keep past mistakes that have long been overcome, stopped, corrected, made up for, repented of, buried there?

Are you more interested in beating your opponent into submission that honoring human decency?

People have the right to change. And once changed, to be treated as that changed person. Otherwise, you may win the battle, but at a tremendously high cost.

14. No one’s Feelings Count … (but yours)

If you have placed your heart in the position of being the lifeblood of your relationship, it becomes easier to justify bully tactics because your feelings are the only feelings to be considered in a fight.

But tears should never justify bad behavior. Feelings should never trump values and human decency. Anger can be communicated without viciousness. But if only your feelings count, then what you say in an argument and how you say it becomes irrelevant.

After all, it’s only your heart that matters, right?

15. Preemptive Anger

If your temperature gauge is always set at anger as your first response to, well, everything, you can successfully manipulate disagreements to your favor almost every time by virtue of your reputation.

Knowing how you will likely reply (because that’s how you almost always have) your partner may throw in the towel long before the main event even begins just to avoid an emotional slugfest.

A preemptive win, perhaps. But a huge personal development and relationship loss.

Now What?

The good news is that emotional bullies don’t have to remain emotional bullies. And while the steps to move away from emotionally bullying others in an argument may be difficult, those steps are very much worth the effort and the discomfort the effort will likely produce.

After all, the very reason emotional bullies bully is not being met by the bullying. Certainly not in the long-run.

While the reason one person will bully their way through an argument may be different from another, the long-term result is the same: another strain on yet another relationship, further pushing that relationship to the edge, sacrificing love and trust and compassion for another win.

So, what if you recognized yourself in one or more of the arguing styles above? Don’t worry. All is not lost. Happiness can’t be swallowed in one bite any more than an elephant can be. Just a bite at a time will do.

The following are some of those small bites to consider …

3 Ways to Stop Being an Emotional Bully

1. Accept the Whirlwind

For some, the idea of letting someone else “challenge” their opinion is tantamount to being kicked in the gut. It hurts. They feel their person, not just their position, is being ripped apart. They don’t differentiate between who they are and what they think about a given topic.

Their identity equals their opinion. One is the other. So when such a person’s opinion is challenged, they feel their very being is being challenged and invalidated. There is nothing left but self-defense. And so anger and shouting and cursing becomes the emotional means of circling the wagons while under attack.

The thing is, they’re not under attack. The person is not being ripped apart. No spears are being thrown at their very existence. They are just words. Opinions about a topic. An argument as an expression of two differing ideas, not the rejection of a person.

It might be scary. Still, walk into the openness of an open-ended disagreement anyway. Let the rush of uncertainty and unpredictability and even chaos wash over you. Allow it. Be curious about your growing anger or frustration or fear or anxiety.

Accept life as something bordering the chaotic, as terrifying as that thought may be to you. Let go of your grip on it. See where the discussion takes you.

Maybe it will reinforce the opinion you had to begin with. Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll compromise. Maybe you’ll find yourself convinced.

But where you end up on the other side of a disagreement is nothing to what the quality of the relationship is afterward.

Disagreements can be opportunities to nourish love, respect and mutual understanding or to poison such essential traits to a healthy relationship.

So value the relationship more than the emotional wall you’ve built. Because ultimately it’s the protective walls in our lives that keep others from getting inside of us. And when we keep others out, we undermine the very relationships we hope to provide us with the love we may have missed growing up.

2. Care more about the Person than the Win

As you enter a disagreement and the pulse starts racing, stop and tell yourself that they too have a right to disagree, that they can disagree with your position without discounting or discrediting or invalidating you as a person. Remind yourself that to the degree they disagree with you, you are in fact also disagreeing with them.

This cognitive acceptance is an important first step to emotional acceptance. And often (over time), holding this kind of dialogue with yourself is enough to open your heart as well.

3. Take it a Step at a Time

Don’t push yourself faster than you can go. But don’t use your comfort zone as an excuse to stay put and make everyone else pay the price of your insecurities. Own them. They are yours. Not your spouse’s or your kids’ or your friends’ or anyone else’s.

They may have been ingrained by someone in your past, but even they don’t own them today. You do. Never justify making someone else pay the price of keeping your insecurities safe and well-fed.

Begin today to see life from the vantage point of another persons’ perspective. You’ll be amazed at the broadening of your own.

Short Term vs. Long Term

So often, when we find ourselves acting the role of the emotional bully, we are thinking very short term, right now, this fight, what I want this moment. We are effectively third graders using adult words to express adult themes in extremely immature and self-defeating ways. We should know better.

And, in fact, we often do. Perhaps you see yourself in some of the characteristics of an emotional bully, but feel you don’t really “use” the yelling or crying or anger as a “tactic” to win a fight as much as it is simply an emotional reaction in the moment.

Still, the reason or motive is largely irrelevant to whether the bullying is happening. Whether consciously planned or habitually acted out or emotionally and spontaneously reacted to, the behavior is what identifies a bully as such, not what’s in the bully’s heart.

Maturity and compassion requires something of us. It takes work. It demands internal growth. Sometimes it requires a good solid dose of humility to see what we’ve been hiding from. Sometimes it means getting on bended knee. Sometimes it means seeking professional or clerical help.

Fear and pain and a very thin layer of emotional skin can make dealing with the larger issue very scary. But there is a larger issue than the immediate argument. The larger issue is you. We are often our own worst enemies. We so often stumble over our own feet.

But the promise of peace at home, adults being allowed to be adults in their own homes, rationally discussing what has been emotional volcanic activity so far is a goal worth pursuing.

Besides, what’s the alternative? Keep shoving others into emotional corners, disallowing them a voice, preventing them from speaking their minds? Or fighting so hard to stop them from hitting you square in the heart of your insecurities with yet another onslaught of disagreement and challenge and opinion?

None of the alternatives lend themselves to happiness. So stop pursuing them. Exercise the courage to take a higher road.


Of course, it takes two to tango … and to argue. That’s a given. We all make communication blunders. We all bring baggage to every relationship we enter. But since we can never truly change someone else (they have to change themselves), I suggest starting with the only person we have any real control over.

Here’s the hope, the light that flickers at the end of what may appear to be a long and lonely tunnel: Often, when we choose to change, the relationship does too, sometimes in unexpected but marvelous ways.

Hold on to that thought as you begin the process of looking deeply in the mirror at your naked soul and seeking help to change.

Self-awareness can be a powerful thing. But whatever the next step is for you, please take it. Your relationships and your happiness very well may depend on it.

A Note to the Bullied

While this post is directed at the emotional bully, arming them with the power of self-awareness in hopes of igniting the desire to make some changes to their lives, their relationships and therefore to their happiness, I can’t leave the bullied out of the discussion altogether.

No one should ever live under the yoke of tyranny. The first thing a tyrant does when he ascends to power is to obliterate the free press, free speech and the right to assemble.

Those rights can’t end within the walls of a relationship. When voices are stifled, resentment replaces the words. When ideas and opinions are pressed down, other things get squeezed out, like love and passion and self-respect.

But verbal communication is not the only way to communicate. If things are bad, try the written word. It may give the bully in your life time to think. Go slow and build from there.

Teach the emotional bully in your life the higher values of the right to speak your mind. Don’t shove it down their throat if you value the relationship, but don’t submit to silence either.

If even the written expression of your thoughts and opinions and disagreements keeps erupting in ugly confrontations, then it may be time to press for outside help (even if only for yourself), perhaps seeking inspiration from above and insight from a marriage and family counselor.

If that doesn’t work, there may be bigger decisions for you to consider that a person on the outside is ill-equipped to help you make. Still, freedom (where it is being seriously threatened) seems worth protecting even if at the expense of commitment to things like vows.

Final Word

I’ve laid down over 3,600 words in this post because I’m convinced emotional bullying goes on a lot more than most people think. I wanted to be fairly exhaustive in my discussion of a serious block to people’s happiness. Our relationships matter. They matter a lot.

My hope is that some of you will take to heart what I’ve written here, that lives will be reevaluated and steps taken to improve what may have been a festering sore in the happiness of your relationships.


So, what do you think? Have a overstated the idea of emotional bullying? Have you seen signs of borderline emotional bullying in your own life? In others? And how have you handled emotional bullies you have encountered? This is a question I haven’t addressed here in the post, but would love to get some feedback, perhaps to use in a future follow-up post.

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