Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Set Limits on Bullying in Congress—and Anywhere Else

In today’s world, personal attacks are often rewarded, but we can stop them.

Key points

  • Bullies need those around them to set limits and impose consequences on their behavior.
  • Setting limits with a warning of the consequences sometimes gets bullies to stop.
  • It’s important to follow through with consequences if the behavior continues.
Mehaniq / Shutterstock
Source: Mehaniq / Shutterstock

Bullies and bullying appear to be increasing rapidly in today’s world culture. This is especially noticeable since the pandemic, with hostile and personal attacks occurring in the workplace, at family gatherings, online, at school board meetings, on airplanes, on the sidewalks of New York, on highways (road rage), and in many committees, from volunteer groups to national legislatures. Bullying has now reached the highest levels of government and society—the role models for cultural standards and future behavior. Recently, the news media repeatedly showed an exchange of personal attacks in a public meeting of the House Oversight Committee of the U.S. Congress.

Yet we are not helpless to simply accept this. In this post, I discuss how bullying can be handled in committee meetings, but the same principles of setting limits and imposing consequences can be applied anywhere bullying occurs. I explain this in depth in my book Our New World of Adult Bullies, and the following is one example: the Respectful Meeting Policy.

Personal Attacks

Personal attacks have power. They typically include comments about a person's personal looks, the way they dress, their intelligence, their morals, and their sanity. These are personal qualities that have nothing to do with disagreements on issues, decisions, workplace tasks, or government debates. They are instead designed to dominate others or destroy them. These are common statements for those involved in family violence, workplace bullying, community disruptions, and certainly online.

Such attacks are generally done by bullies who have a pattern of such behavior and tend to lack empathy, remorse, and emotional self-control. These are normal brakes that most people have on their own interpersonal behavior, especially in public. But these are generally lacking for those with Cluster B personality disorders or traits (narcissistic, antisocial, borderline, and histrionic), who are about 5 percent of the adult population.1 While not everyone with a Cluster B personality lacks these specific brakes on their behavior, those who fit a bullying pattern of behavior often do have these traits.

Primitive Emotional Power

Personal attacks use primitive emotional power to instantly activate primitive emotional responses deep within us—especially defensiveness—often beneath our conscious awareness. We share several emotional response systems with all mammals, including fear and rage.2 It feels like we are personally in danger and in primitive times this was often a warning sign of future violence against us. If an individual or group starts speaking to us or about us in bullying terms, it may activate others to treat us that way as well.

While some may say “Just ignore him or her,” or “It’s just a meaningless insult,” the target of such bullying usually can’t just do that because, at a primitive level, the person realizes he or she may actually be in danger, either physically or in terms of their group reputation. If a community witnesses you being bullied without a strong response, you may lose status and be further bullied by others. In the workplace and other settings, this is sometimes called “mobbing.”3

A Respectful Meeting Policy

So, what can be done? I recommend that committees and other work groups have a respectful meeting policy, like the one that I developed for an organization facing such disruptive behavior several years ago. This policy states the following:

“At _______ organization, much of our work is accomplished at meetings. In order to ensure the smooth, respectful and efficient management of meetings, the meeting chairperson shall manage the Agenda and the right of members to speak. On rare occasion, a meeting member may become disrespectful in communicating their information and opinions. In such a case, the meeting chair shall immediately ask the meeting member to revise their manner of speech to be respectful. In the event that the meeting member does not thereafter speak respectfully, the chair may announce a short break, in the meeting chair’s discretion. Other meeting members shall support the chair in making such decisions. During the break, the chairperson can determine whether the member will improve their speech or need to be removed from the meeting, or whether to simply end the meeting.”4

Anticipating Bullying Behavior

In today’s world, everyone can anticipate having to deal with a bully sooner rather than later. If the chairperson for the congressional committee had anticipated such behavior, he could have pounded his gavel immediately to stop the person who was making the personal attack. Then he could have admonished her as suggested in the Respectful Meeting Policy and determined whether further action was necessary. In this case, the chairperson was caught off-guard, and instead of stopping the personal attack, he just listened to it without taking any action. This created an opening for the target of the bullying to counterattack with a similar personal attack, then another member added more to the counterattack.

Unfortunately, in our new world of adult bullies, we all need to learn to restrain our instinctive primitive urges to fight, flee, or freeze, and to instead stop and think what an appropriate modern response should be. For example, the target of the personal attack in Congress could have turned to the chairperson and insisted that he enforce the Respectful Meeting Policy without making her own personal attack and thereby show that she was above the fray as an adult in the room. In the workplace, those who can brush off a personal attack like this without engaging with it are often held in the highest esteem.

One or More Bullies?

While the target of the bullying may not have had prior patterns of bullying behavior, the common primitive response made her look like she was equally involved in bullying behavior. This is very common in “high-conflict” situations, so all of us need to practice not reacting to bullies. The news the next day reported the event as having two equal contributors, not one.


Don’t be a bully or overreact to one. Don’t let yourself get emotionally hooked. Be prepared. Get training in managing bullying and other high-conflict situations. It gets easier with practice.


American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 734.

Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012), loc. 42–43 of 1075, iBooks.

Bill Eddy, Our New World of Adult Bullies: How to Spot Them - How to Stop Them, Health Communications, Inc., 2024, 26.

More from Bill Eddy LCSW, JD
More from Psychology Today