A while ago, I posted a Facebook status regarding one of my childhood tormentors. She had, upon encountering some of my relatives, said that she remembered me and asked that they say hi to me from her. I had a little vent but didn’t say that I hated her, believed her to be a bad person, or anything like that.
Regardless, I had unwittingly put out a former bully bat-signal. People I knew claimed that I needed to forgive her, that she could have grown up to be a perfectly wonderful young woman, that I ought to give her a chance, and so on. The justifications given were an exercise in typical bully apologetics: Kids are cruel. It was so long ago. Maybe she was trying to apologize to you. Why didn’t you just ignore her? Someone was probably hurting her, too. I doubt you were never mean to another kid.
I couldn’t believe that people I knew (and who, presumably, liked me) were trying to get me to be sympathetic towards a bully instead of being sympathetic towards me.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since. My personal resentment and hurt aside, the reactions of the former bullies were unhelpful at best. If the end goal is to prevent more bullying and promote more humanization on all sides, here are my suggestions for those who have come to realize that they were bullies.
What Not to Do
- Re-victimize/traumatize the people you know who were tormented by people like you, especially if they are expressing their pain. Insisting that the victims be far more loving towards their bullies than the bullies ever were to them is immeasurably hurtful.
- Project your own defensiveness. You feel bad but you also want others to know that you aren’t overall a bad person despite having done what you did. Demanding empathy of people, however, is not going to make them feel better about you or their experiences.
- Make excuses and justifications for bullying behavior. Those of us that were more among the victimized than the victimizers as children have heard it all before, trust me. It didn’t help when we cried about it as children and it doesn’t heal any of the lingering pain we might feel as adults.
What To Do
- Make what you say about your friend, not about you, by acknowledging their pain and then, if it’s helpful, relaying your perspective in a way that is constructive. For example:
I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I used to be a kid like your bully; if it’s any comfort, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing and wish I could take it all back.
- Focus on preventing bullying. As someone who used to bully, you are better equipped than any victim to recognize bullies and potential bullies and stop them in their tracks. Your remorse can serve as a cautionary tale.
- If you really would like to make amends, in lieu of trying to get your current friends who were victims of bullies to feel sympathetic towards their past tormentors, you could find your victims if you can and apologize sincerely to them. Again, be sure to make it about them, not you. For example:
I apologize if this is a trigger to or intrusion on you, but I wanted to admit that I once was a shitty person who did something terrible to you. You don’t have to forgive me, reply to me, or even interact at all with me ever again, just know that I sincerely regret my senseless meanness and wish you all the best.
I am saying this as someone who has issued such an apology not once, not twice, not three, but four separate times, wholly unsolicited. That’s not to say that I’m a saint. Au contraire, it just goes to show that even those who experienced more victimizing than bullying are nonetheless capable of being, on occasion, bullies, or at least exhibiting bullying behavior. We are also capable of realizing that “forgiveness” for past behavior, whether solicited indirectly through current friends or directly through past victims, is not something for which a bully, no matter how reformed, has the right to ask.
After all, don’t childhood bullies do enough harm as it is without growing up to pressuring the bullied into empathizing and absolving the past behavior?