Guilt Bullies: 8 Ways to Recognize Passive Aggressiveness

177716411_0e443b2496I have written about cyberbullying many times before.  And I have also talked about real-life, face to face, punch you in the gut, lock you in a locker bullying.  Today, I want to talk about a different kind of bullying: guilt-bullying.  This has been around as long as the playground, but I was recently alerted to it after watching an exchange with one of my teen clients and a friend.


Alyssa22: Anyways, I have 2go study for my test, talk 2morrow?
Jackiesmiley: Now? It is not for another 2 days, = ) you are such a nerd! Start tomorrow lol
Alyssa22: Whatever, I guess I have a game tomorrow so I got2 start 2nite
Jackiesmiley: Nooooo! Half of the grade has stuff tomorrow, if you get off you might miss chatting with eric…. ; )

Alyssa22:  ahhhh, I know, my mom will kill me though! I go2go, talk to you tomorrow
Jackiesmiley: Wait wait, I am so sad, I will miss you,
Alyssa22: we can talk maybe on my break in like an hour
Jackiesmiley: ohhh = ( I love talking to you because ur my BFF!
Alyssa22: OK, I will come on in an hour and checkin k? BBS [Be back soon]
Jackiesmiley: before you go!!!!!! Alyssaaaaaaaa??
Alyssa22: ya ya ya still here
Jackiesmiley: I forgot to tell you I am deciding who is coming to my skate night this Saturday.  I can really only invite a few ppl you know?
Alyssa22: oh ya…I want to go!
Jackiesmiley: are you only friends with me because of my skate night? Now all of a sudden you want to talk? That’s lame.
Alyssa22: No that’s not true, I would talk anyway I just had to study!
Alyssa22: Ok fine, I am here, how about we wait for Eric together and plan outfits for skate night?
Jackiesmiley: I knew you were really my BFF.  How did I doubt you, since you are awesome, you want to get ready with me before on Sat?
Alyssa22: Ya, cool! Excited = )

I have seen, heard and even been victim to this type of exchange before.  It also happens with teen boys when they are trying to get a friend to do something bad/hang-out with them or when pressuring girls to have sex to party.  I call these types of teens Guilt Bullies. Notice the nuances of a Guilt Bully.

1) With Pride

I worked with this group of girls in my Clique Workshops for girls.  So, a few days later, when I saw “Jackiesmiley”, I called her out on the behavior.  Do you know what she said?

“I know I am so good at getting her to do what I want!” [Laughter]

Most guilt bullies are quite proud of the skills they have to manipulate people and do it quite consciously.  Or, those who are unaware of how they do it, do not realize how manipulative it is.

2) Casually Mean

This conversation is not mean, but it is casually malicious.   Notice the “LOLs” and use of “smiley faces.”  This is an easy way to pad the snide remarks “you are such a nerd” etc.  This makes it difficult for the victim to call them out on negative behavior.  With the smiley faces and LOL’s the bully can always say that she/he wasn’t serious.

3) Shift Until It Works

Notice the shift in tactics of Jackie.  First, she uses anger and meanness to bully Alyssa.  Then, when she realizes it is not going to work, she pretends she is sad and appeals to Alyssa’s sense of friendship.    When that doesn’t work, she uses a soft threat.

4) Soft Threats

Jackie’s soft threat is telling Alyssa that she ‘might’ not be able to come to her skate party on Saturday night and loosely links it to her getting offline.  This is not an overt threat of taking an experience away from Alyssa, but it works, Alyssa wants to go on Saturday too.  Usually soft threats are stating something unpleasant without mentioning all the ways it could hurt the other person.  Jackie could have mentioned that if Alyssa didn’t stay online, and therefore was uninvited Saturday, not only would she miss a fun experience, she might not ever be invited again, she would miss out on time with the ‘group’ where they would tell stories about the night every day at lunch and doing so would jeopardize Alyssa’s membership of the clique.

Another Example of a Soft Threat: [Boy talking to girl about the fact that she will not give him a blow job] “Ya, I guess, whatever you want.  Its just that…well, it’s just that some of our friends might think it’s weird, you know, which I guess I can put up with, because I at least care about you.”

What he is not saying, but still saying:
-Everyone else is doing it
-You are weird
-You are uncool
-You will be out of place with my friends
-My friends could convince me that you are uncool, because I am unsure about this
-Something is wrong with you for not wanting to do this
-Not many people care about you
-To prove you care about me, you better do this.

5) Guilt

See the line: “look how much I care about you’ is sandwiched into the conversation above.  GUILT.  Guilt is a huge tool now.  Teenagers are great negotiators and they have learned how to use guilt on people they want something from.  This is true passive aggressiveness.

6) Reward

Notice in the IM conversation above, as soon as Alyssa decides to stay online, Jackie rewards her.  This reinforces Jackie’s relative ‘dominance’ over Alyssa and makes Alyssa want to perform well for her.  It also helps Jackie make sure that Alyssa feels that staying online was ‘worth it,’ and by design, that Jackie is worth it.  The reward idea that many guilt bullies use, also helps cover the fact that they were just subtly mean and used soft threats by distracting their victim with a great prize.  The victim leaves feeling like they won something and therefore forgets the other negative feelings.

7) Cyberbullies Enabled

Guilt bullies have always existed, although I personally think that with this generations negotiating teens, it has become more pronounced.  The internet, IM, Facebook, MySpace has only further enabled Guilt Bullies by giving them more avenues to work their ‘magic.’

8) “Just Joking”

I hate this.  In my clique workshops and girl training.  I often teach girls how to approach each other about interactions and situations that have been difficult.  Guilt bullies are very, very good at using the “But, I was just kidding!” Or, “can’t you take a joke!” The use of smiley faces and LOL’s helps Guilt Bullies pull this off.  I have girls call them out on this and make a pact ahead of time that that, cannot be an excuse.  If they are kidding they should say up front that something is a joke…and jokes do not ever need to be mean.

How to deal with guilt bullies? The first thing is to be aware of these patterns. If you enable your kids to recognize when they are being guilt bullied, they will not be bullied and better able to stand up for themselves.  If you have a guilt bully, talk to them about what kind of power it brings them and what the long-term effects are of using this kind of interaction to get their way.  Awareness of this toxic behavior is key.

This post is dedicated to Andrea Zak, who has only ever treated people with kindness and is one of the friendliest people I have met!

Tags: , , , ,

4 Responses to “Guilt Bullies: 8 Ways to Recognize Passive Aggressiveness”

  1. Stuart Fleming
    April 30, 2009 at 6:20 pm #

    Fantastic article Vanessa! As you were describing the tactics of Guilt Bullies, I realised the same behaviour can be seen between parents and teens, especially when it comes to money…
    “If you loved me you’d give me $20” (teenager master negotiator)
    “Keep spending like that and you’ll wind up a bum on the street – kidding!” (frazzled parent)
    Dr William Glasser is someone who understands this very well – his book ‘Choice Theory’ explains the differences between the 7 Caring Habits of a relationship and the 7 Deadly Habits. Interestingly, we never use the 7 Deadly Habits on our best friend…
    Here’s to guilt-bully-busting!
    Stuart Fleming
    Creator of the Money Mindset Mob.
    Enthusiastic believer in independent teens.

  2. Vanessa Van Petten
    May 3, 2009 at 5:33 pm #

    Thanks Stuart!

  3. Blaise Alleyne
    July 10, 2009 at 5:00 pm #

    This is a great analysis of subtle tactics in manipulation, but I really think you’re stretching the definition of “bullying.”

    Being a jerk and manipulating someone like this is mean, but is it really the same type of thing as other sorts of bullying? Why not call it manipulation instead of bullying? How do you define bullying?

    Is every kind of mean behaviour bullying?

  4. Andrea
    September 25, 2010 at 11:19 am #

    I’m googling myself in a workshop to come up with an anecdote about googling one’s self and stumbled across your blog post. Thanks for the shout out; it’s easy to be kind to people that are so generous to begin with. Hope you are well! Let’s catch up by e-mail!

Leave a Reply