Have we therapists fully recognised the extent of adult bullying in our clients’ lives and in society? Or have we, like society as a whole, failed to really see what is going on?

We are all increasingly having to face the fact that oppressive behaviour of adults towards other adults is widespread, just as, in earlier decades, we had to face the reality of pervasive and systemic child abuse and neglect, and domestic violence – although denial and collusion continue, as we know from the exposure of the abuses of Jimmy Savile and so many others recently. Now as a society we are being asked to face up to and tackle many different types of adult abuse: the victimisation of vulnerable adults, institutionalised racial and sexual harassment, the street grooming and sexual exploitation of young people, the new phenomenon of cyber-bullying, oppressive and controlling behaviour in non-violent domestic relationships, and bullying at work. (At the extremes we could also include adult enslavement, forced marriage, and people trafficking.)

Much of our counselling business these days comes from workplace referrals. Many of my workplace clients tell me first about what seems to be mistreatment at work (or in other organisations or social groups), then go on to reveal the damage suffered in unsupportive or oppressive close adult relationships. Not long after, if I ask, they may talk about a poor current relationship with their family of origin that is characterised by disinterest, hostility, demands or criticism. How often do you find yourself, as I do, feeling aggrieved about the way other people seem to be treating a client, or failing to support them, while the client feels their suffering is due to their own failure? Just as they may not see how they are being actively abused or oppressed, we may not see beyond the surface presentations of ‘anxiety and depression’, low self-esteem and ‘poor coping skills’.

The research evidence for adult bullying has been building since at least the 1990s. I first encountered the term used to cover both community and workplace bullying in Peter Randall’s work.1 Studies from across the western world in the past two decades tell us more. We know that between three and four per cent of employees experience ‘serious bullying’, and nine to 15 per cent ‘occasional’ bullying.2,3 We know the extent of domestic violence and abuse in couple and family relationships (an excellent summary of the research is given in the NICE guideline on domestic violence and abuse4). Such abuse can go on unacknowledged and be invisible for years, with the victims often poorly served by the police and criminal justice system and by the other statutory agencies that should protect them.4,5 We have disturbing and growing evidence of the abuse of vulnerable adults in various settings,4 and about the mistreatment of vulnerable elderly people in our hospitals.6

We know from attachment theory research that people who offend violently against others have a high prevalence of trauma, neglect and abuse in their own backgrounds and that this, if left untreated, will lead to further disturbed and abusive adult relationships.7 We now have unequivocal evidence that childhood and teenage bullying have damaging effects into adult life – the patterns continue, for the bullies and their victims and for those who are both victims and bullies.8,9

And we know that there is bullying within the therapy and counselling profession – within services, within supervision, and within training bodies.10

Are we doing enough?

So often my clients start a sentence with ‘You’ll think I’m stupid, but...’, ‘I know this must be equally my fault, but...’ Yet this may be someone holding inside themselves the traumatic damage of exploitative control, the crushing of the spirit, the belittling, disempowering and cruelty that leaves the person cowed or terrified, depressed or numbed, indoctrinated and convinced of their own inferiority, stupidity, worthlessness and culpable weakness. When we hear in the therapy room about the misery that results from these experiences, is it enough to do the usual responses our counselling models advocate – active listening, giving unconditional positive regard, empathy and holding?

Sometimes I feel our role should include an element of active believing, ‘taking the side of’ the client and speaking truth to power – at least to the dominant power in the client’s inner world. We may need to model the actively, sometimes even angrily protective parent figure the client may never have had. In Stalking the Soul11 Marie-France Hirigoyen, who comes from a psychoanalytic background, talks eloquently about the destruction of the person’s identity, and about the dreadful processes used to achieve this by those who are skilled and devious enough to practise them. Lundy Bancroft12 is also good on the highly developed skills of victimisation shown by abusive male partners. I feel we as counsellors have a duty to know about these processes, and we need to be able to recognise them when clients are telling us about them, even when they themselves may not be aware of what is going on.

Post-traumatic stress is now widely recognised as a long-term effect of workplace bullying.2 If we hear from our clients about acute anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, sleep disturbances and phobic reactions, it may be important to teach them to recognise post-traumatic symptoms, and to realise that keeping going in abusive situations may only be exposing them to yet more traumatic damage.

I have found Patrick Carnes’ concept of the trauma bond useful,13 which he applies to many situations – marriages, workplaces, religious groups, business partnerships etc. In answer to the frequent question asked about those who put up with exploitation for a long time, ‘Why do they stay?’, he goes beyond the familiar ideas of ‘script’, ‘repetition compulsion’ and ‘disturbed attachment model’ to argue that the very processes of repeat entrapment and betrayal, and the resultant trauma effects, can have an addictive quality all of their own. This can include the ‘misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings and sexual physiology to entangle another person’. ‘The unnatural intensity can make all other situations seem superficial,’ he says.

Should we also help those who bully?

How should we as counsellors view those who have bullied and oppressed others? Is it just ignorance, learned behaviour, cultural practices – or defences against their own trauma or insecurity? Does bullying derive from a problem with addictions or impulse control? Should we be offering unconditional positive regard to all involved?

Noreen Tehrani, a respected commentator on workplace bullying and trauma, advocates standing back to view the whole bullying drama and its four protagonists – the four roles of persecutor, victim, rescuer and avenger – and offering unconditional positive regard to all the players.14 In a presentation to the 2014 BACP Practitioner’s Conference,15 she talked of traumatised organisations and teams becoming stuck in a form of traumatic functioning in response to repeat stresses, and so needing intervention at the organisational or systemic level. (In workplace counselling I have heard of situations in which one member of a team was perceived to be the problem, then disciplined or dismissed, but the team remained dysfunctional, so the outcome was as ineffective as casting out a scapegoat.)

However, this approach, I feel, may not be an adequate response to those situations when the bullying is in fact a systematic, skilled, devious, highly-developed process, specifically (and consciously) used by the bully to obtain a sense of power and gratification from the pain inflicted on, and the damage to the lives of, the victims. This may be at the social, group level – gang bullying, favouritism, career-wrecking – or at individual or family level. It can be a form of sadism or perversion, the acting out of destructive envy. Such ideas are explored by Joseph Berke in his extraordinary survey of human evil and malice,16 and Morgan Scott Peck in his description of the type of person he calls ‘the People of the Lie’, who act as if they were decent citizens but destroy the psychological health of those close to them.17 Pat Craven18 and Lundy Bancoft12 both argue that attempts to just understand and offer empathy to violent and controlling men are misguided. They advocate robustly confronting their wrongdoing, because of the evasions they use to deny what they do, and educating their victims, or potential victims, about the hard reality that some perpetrators just want to bully and oppress and, if not prevented by society from doing so, have to be recognised and avoided by the vulnerable.

When clients don’t want to change

I have also encountered with some clients what I would call the ‘enslaved mentality’ – a set of attitudes and behaviours deriving from a profound cognitive schema, or set of script beliefs, that can entrap clients in a place of malign dominance, despite our most caring counselling support. These seem to be mostly learned through traumatic experience in childhood (neglect, rejection and treatment as inferior – the ‘Cinderella syndrome’), and reinforced later in controlling adult relationships characterised by deception and mind games (well-described by Hirigoyen11 and Bancroft12). Such clients commonly tell me how they did all the housework and sibling care as a child and teenager. They may now still be compulsively, tenaciously searching for the approval, love and comfort they were denied then – but, sadly, in exactly the wrong place, with the wrong person/people. They may roll over instantly when offered any reciprocal social transaction by powerful people; they feel compelled to play the part offered, take the blame, accept failure etc – saying no is next to impossible and, if attempted, may leave them terrified and disturbed to the point of compulsive self-punishment. The only exception may be that they will have made courageous efforts to protect their children, if not themselves.

Another rule by which they feel forced to abide is that no one must be left ‘abandoned’, even an abuser who has briefly relented in a moment of remorse or discomfort. Trust and respect must be given back, even to someone who has repeatedly betrayed them. Any lack of love and care from others must be responded to with a redoubling of trying to please. There is no recognition of ‘compassion fatigue’ – self-sacrifice is due to all who appear to need support. With all the world’s suffering, their own is too petty to complain about. Failure to give totally perfect care to another (a dying relative, perhaps, who has never been good to them) is a cause of deep guilt and grief. Any shift towards giving up these behaviours, which we as counsellors might regard as therapeutic progress, may feel instead like a loss, the end, a life’s work failed.

Such a client may be over-compliant in therapy, never telling us when we have got it wrong for them, and allowing us to become over-sure of our skills, and even unwittingly oppressive.

This may go hand-in-hand with what could be called the ‘compulsive empathic tendency’ – trying to deal with another’s bad behaviour by understanding: ‘He/she must be hurt inside, feeling threatened etc. I must forgive and try to help.’ Some children seem to be by nature highly empathic creatures, picking up on the feelings of the adults around them and feeling it is their responsibility to help them. This can be easily exploited by a parent who does not understand appropriate parent–child roles. But empathy can be destructive when it is misplaced. I often feel I want to explain to clients something that may seem obvious to most of us – they do not owe empathy to those who have repeatedly mistreated them – or at least not until they have got away from those people to a place of safety, and recovered their strength and sense of self-worth. (It is, of course, very hard to divorce your parents.)

How could we respond?

Our counselling approaches are powerful tools to counteract the effects of bullying – as long as we fully recognise what has been going on. We can ensure the client feels seen, heard and fully believed, held, valued, comforted, liked, empathised with, and shown the ‘protective parental reaction’. These are the very responses, in fact, that the bullies in their lives will be actively withholding in order to keep them disempowered. They will be deceiving, denying and belittling their pain, to make them feel like a non-person. As one of my clients told me, ‘I am a joke.’ For some such clients, our responses may feel at first unfamiliar and even threatening, and may take a long time to have effect. Some clients seem to need to take our caring responses in small doses, or even leave counselling, to come back at another time.

A note on anger – the counsellor’s righteous anger on behalf of the client may not always be experienced as helpful. Too often I have been mortified to realise that the client has felt it as anger towards them – impatience at their weakness or vulnerability. We know anger is needed to power a robust reaction against mistreatment – but for them, any anger in the air may just mean danger – and their showing it in childhood may have led to humiliation and further punishment. Yet I also believe we should not sit by impassively while we hear stories of dreadful mistreatment. We too then become another bystander who saw but did nothing, who didn’t want to be disturbed.

But for clients who have suffered prolonged adult bullying, and who are caught in a trauma bond – an element of educative, even de-programming work, at the right time, is, I believe helpful. This may involve teaching the client about the signs of PTSD and how to heal from it; encouraging them into better habits of self-care, and to let go of keeping going in abusive situations (such as taking time off sick from work). It may involve telling clients about the standard techniques used by bullies everywhere (and in which we can become experts if we listen to our clients’ descriptions of how they have been treated), so the client realises it’s not something about them causing it. They will not have been the first, and they may need to be told that. It may be useful to show them models of controlling people, such as those described in Pat Craven’s Freedom Programme.18

This ‘educational’ approach may replicate the kind of parental guidance that these clients have never had. There are many self-help books out there too12,19 that we can suggest to clients, alongside our own active interventions to gently challenge their indoctrinated interpretations of bullying behaviour.

If I were inventing another brand of therapy, I might call this ET (emancipation therapy), or DUT (dis-unempowerment therapy). But then, is that not what our therapy is mostly about anyway?

Patrick Quinn has spent a working life as a therapist in mental health services, and continues to co-ordinate a BACP-affiliated staff counselling service in the Hull area.


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16. Berke JH. The tyranny of malice: exploring the dark side of character and culture. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1988.
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19. Horley S. Power and control: why charming men can make dangerous lovers. London: Vermilion; 2002.