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My friend recently texted me asking if she's mean to people and/or a bully, explaining to me that people at work told her she was. Unfortunately, she has a handful of negative characteristics and a generally rough personality. So, basically, yes, she tends to be rude to others and then plays the victim which furthers people's dislike for her. "I don't know how drama finds me all the time, I never start anything!" (exact words I've heard many times.)

I've stuck by her for many years, but I don't know how to respond. I've always avoided the question in the past (she's asked for years) by giving her a half-hearted, round-about answer.

I am afraid to lose her as a friend primarily because I am one of her only friends, but I need to tell her the truth. I'm positive she won't take it well (given other times of honesty), and she'll likely play the victim.

My goal is to present the honest information to her regarding her behavior towards others, without giving her the opportunity to turn it into victimization.

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Your secret weapon: potential form

Here is what I would say if I were in a similar situation:

Honestly? Yeah, you can be.

Critical portion bolded. If your friend is determined to play the victim, there isn't going to be much you can do to prevent her from doing so. But saying that she has demonstrated the capacity to be mean and a bully accomplishes a few things for you.

First, it elides a lot of the victim mentality. You're not passing judgment on her as a complete person, you're pointing out that you've seen her act that way and so yeah, you can see how someone might form that impression of her. By shifting the discussion away from things she fundamentally is you can instead talk about things that she has done. If she wants to try explaining those things away that's her business, but laying out things that 1) definitely happened, and 2) people perceive as mean and/or bullying behavior makes it clear that it's not about people ganging up on her-- it's about how she acts.

Second, if your friend is only looking for validation of her behavior (as suggested in another answer), this lets her feel some of that without allowing her to just dodge the issue. She isn't fundamentally a bully all the time (perhaps; I don't know her), and some people might truly be unfairly critical of her. But talking about specific events brushes all of that aside. However many unfair situations there might have been, those specific examples are not among them. You'll have something specific to talk about, not a pile of subjective opinions informing your impression of her overall character based around all the things you recall her ever having done.

Finally, if your friend is legitimately unhappy with those issues being fair descriptions of her, this framing makes it easier to see a path forward. "You are mean and a bully" sounds like she has to start changing fundamental, deep flaws within herself, which is a big goal. "You can be a bit mean and bully-ish sometimes" sounds like those negative traits are real but just a small part of herself as a person, and she's already got plenty of better behavior to expand upon. It's a much more manageable goal, and identifying situations where those qualities tend to come out can help her improve.

  • This is exactly what I was looking for. I know victimization will be hard to avoid, but I think taking this route will definitely minimize the chances. It covers all the bases. – Gwendolyn Oct 30 '18 at 0:38
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Having been in situations where the person asks for one thing but is clearly hoping to justify their own position/feeling that is contrary to your opinion in most cases I would choose as well to avoid the issue. If you do choose to voice your contrary opinion I found choosing one situation in particular and focusing the criticism on that. Don't say they were wrong, as this is directly challenging their belief about themselves, but lead them to understand that by trying to point out that there may be other ways their actions could be seen. Here you can take as soft or harsh a tone as you like in trying to lead them through the situation and will impact how much they take out of the conversation.

Unfortunately having not had to employ this technique recently I can't recall the situation leading to me using it last. I do remember that while they were a little disappointed with the answer I think it's a bit inevitable challenging someone's belief like this instead of avoiding their question. After some discussion about the situation though they were less disappointed and perhaps a bit more mindful of their behavior in that situation.

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