Why do people bully?

The graphic shows a purple box with a white swirly shape in the middle, representing the distress of those being bullied and those who bully. There are speech bubbles and lightening bolts, to represent the actions associated with bullying.

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I’m Viktoria, 18, studying Psychology and volunteering at The Mix!

What is bullying?

Bullying is broadly defined as any behaviour that is intended to cause psychological, social or physical harm.

Why do people bully?

Those of us who have experienced bullying, or have seen its effects on our loved ones, know all too well how confusing and upsetting it can be. We often ask ourselves, why do people bully others? 

Many of us tend to believe it’s our fault if we’re bullied. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Psychological research has shown that the cause is always connected to the person displaying bullying behaviour. 

Why do people bully others?

  • Having low self-esteem and wanting to feel better about ourselves
  • Wanting to improve our social status
  • Feelings of anger, jealousy and low self-esteem
  • Having experienced bullying ourselves
  • Being emotionally neglected
  • Struggling with mental health disorders such as depression
  • Social problems
  • Media influences
  • A culture of bullying behaviour

Bullying to feel a sense of approval

One reason for bullying can often be an attempt for power, dominance and worth. Those of us who show this type of behaviour have often struggled in our lives, resulting in a desire to feel superior to others. 

This leads us to attempt to “put down” others, typically through some type of embarrassment. If we are able to include others, such as by embarrassing or harassing someone in front of large groups of people, or on social media, we begin to feel a sense of superiority and social approval. This is further intensified if our audience joins in too.

Bullying because you have been bullied

One common pattern of those of us who have experienced bullying, is starting to behave in the same way ourselves. This can be an attempt to experience a sense of power in our lives after being stripped of it within our own experiences.

Whilst it may seem contradictory that someone would inflict a similar pain to one they have experienced, this is a common cycle seen within other patterns of abuse too. It’s a defence mechanism where we may believe that by bullying others, we will be immune to being bullied ourselves. Unfortunately, this creates a vicious cycle.

Bullying to cope with low self esteem

Issues with self esteem also play a vital role in bullying behaviour. Those of us struggling with insecurities move the negative attention from ourselves to others as a way of hiding how we feel about ourselves.

The types of bullying behaviour we may engage in, such as insults, often reflect the types of thoughts we have about ourselves. For example, if we are struggling with insecurities about our appearance, we deflect this by insulting others on how they look.

How can we be empathetic to those who bully?

The reasons for bullying are by no means an excuse. However, it can be helpful to be empathetic when we are faced with bullying or see it happening.

By being aware of the common reasons why bullying happens and understanding that it does often come from a place of stress and trauma, it’s easier to switch our response to empathy rather than feelings of anger or despair.

How can being empathetic help us?

  • It allows us to shut down the idea that we are responsible for the bullying we experience
  • Empathy and understanding are not the desired reactions, which could lead to a decrease of the bullying behaviour
  • It promotes creating stronger, healthier relationships that can help reduce bullying

Empathy is key in resolving and preventing bullying. However, that being said, it is still important to deal with bullying in other ways. 

Other ways to deal with bullying

Speak to someone – anyone. It’s important to allow yourself to express your feelings and find support. Try speaking to your parents or carers, or speak to a member of school or college staff, who have a duty of care to support you. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to anyone about it in person, use the helplines linked at the end of this article.

Attempt to resolve the situation with the person displaying the bullying behaviour, only if it is safe enough to do so. Having someone with you can be helpful, such as a teacher or a relative. Sometimes people aren’t aware of the damage their behaviour is causing or even if they are, confronting them about it can stop them.

Remember, only intervene if you feel it is safe to do so. Never retaliate, as this can often make the situation worse. If you don’t feel safe to intervene, consider whether you could calmly steer the person experiencing bullying behaviour out of the situation by leading them away from what is happening or by speaking with them after to ask if they are ok

Focus on your stress levels. Engage with your breathing as often as possible, especially when you’re actively being bullied. Try the 4-7-8 breathing method which involves inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 7 seconds and exhaling for 8. This will slow your breathing rate down, removing your body from the fight or flight response and therefore, allowing you to think more clearly and to handle the situation better.

Overall, understanding the psychological reasons why people bully helps us to be empathetic, which eases our feelings towards the situation. This, in combination with seeking support, sets up the best pathway for handling bullying.

Support for bullying

Further support is available through multiple free services. It can help to simply have someone to talk to.

Next Steps


Updated on 13-Nov-2023

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