The toughest guys in my high school were friends of mine. I thought it was because I was afraid of them. I didn't understand that their fear of me was just as deep. I was the kid who gave people nicknames, trapping them and making it impossible for them to escape. I won't repeat the wide variety of cruel tags I put on people, but I assure you they were unintentionally vicious
At my thirty or maybe it was our fortieth-year H.S. reunion, a woman named Kathy approached me. She was still attractive, petite, and easily recognizable, even after so many years. I smiled as she approached, until she told me - not a trace of fun in her expression or tone - that I was the worst bully in our school. She said I had made her life a living hell, and not just hers, but also that of many of her girlfriends and pals.
I was shocked. "How could I be a bully?" I asked. "I couldn't have punched my way out of a paper bag, and besides, I have always been afraid of everything: matches, sharp objects, tall buildings, my dad, dogs, cats, goldfish..."
She was not charmed or amused, and she interrupted, "You and your gang of popular pals would stand in the big foyer that led to the various hallways where classrooms were and snicker, comment, and tease people who walked by, especially the girls who weren't cheerleaders or future porn actresses."
This was one of those conversations where you know the person speaking to you is telling the truth, even though you yourself can't remember the details.
Kathy finished her comment, "For a whole school year, in rainy Seattle weather, my girlfriends and I walked around the outside of buildings to get to the hallways where we needed to go, just in order to avoid your bullying, teasing comments."
I told her I was sorry, and she gave me kind of a "humph" and walked away to fill her wine glass.
We were in our late 40s or 50s by this time, and after all these years, my apology wasn't going to be enough for her to put away thirty or forty years of resentment towards me.
I can't explain with certainty how or why I believed, at such an early age, that it was okay and felt safe to mock and tease my peers, ruining their days. Perhaps it was influenced by an overly loving mother, but whatever the reason, I must have believed that in life, one is either the hunter or the hunted. Despite my fluctuating self-esteem, which ranged from self-loathing to absurd grandiosity, I was able to more often play the role of the predator, although I was oblivious to my actions.
Social bullying is a form of bullying that involves damaging someone's reputation or relationships. It can occur both online and in person, and can be either direct or indirect. The impacts of social bullying on the victim's mental health, self-esteem, and sense of belonging can be profound. It may result in depression, anxiety, feelings of loneliness, and even suicidal thoughts. If you or someone you know is experiencing social bullying, it is crucial to reach out to a trusted adult, such as a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend, for assistance. You can also find more resources and information on how to prevent and stop social bullying on these websites:
While much has been written about the impact of social bullying on its victims, there has been comparatively less attention given to the effects it has on the bullies themselves. This might be because popular culture often portrays bullies as receiving their comeuppance in the end. Characters like frat boys, high school jocks, and arrogant individuals with names like Lance, Bradley, or Biff are typically depicted as losing the girl and experiencing humiliation by wetting their pants in the climax of the story.
Leaving the fantasy world of fiction behind, what are the real-life consequences of being a bully, whether you know you are one or not?
Research indicates that bullying is detrimental to both the victim and the perpetrator. Bullies are more likely to experience academic difficulties, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and substance abuse. Their social relationships and self-esteem can also be negatively impacted, leading to struggles in maintaining friendships and romantic relationships. If not addressed early, bullying behavior can persist into adulthood, with bullies being more likely to engage in criminal and violent behavior. Hence, it’s crucial to intervene early and provide support for both the victim and the bully.
While many of these long-term consequences were true for me - multiple divorces, drug use, legal problems from time to time, a pretty violent temper - it wasn’t until my interaction with Kathy at our reunion that I realized that I’d been a bully. We were full-grown adults with a lifetime of other issues to complain about. My blindness to this truth had no impact on her, and even after all these years, memories of the pain my behavior had caused her were still there.
I mentioned earlier my overly loving and attentive mother, her sweetness, and constant support. It took me many years to realize that both her abuse of alcohol and approach to her life were heavily influenced by my father. He was critical, judgmental, dismissive, and constantly annoyed by me.
My father never laid a hand on me in terms of punishments and consequences for my “bad” behaviors. He used mockery and rejection. He was jealous of my mother’s attention towards me and her unconditional love. He didn’t dare show the depth of his disdain for me in front of her. But when she wasn’t there to protect me, which was more often the case as her drinking became a more serious problem, or when I was alone with him, I always felt in danger. Not of physical abuse but of emotional cruelty. I had no insight into what was happening. When you’re a kid, whatever life you are living feels “normal” because you have very little perspective.
Adding to all this, the fact that I was an extremely over-sensitive child; I couldn’t stand seeing any unkindness to animals despite my fear of even domesticated pets like dogs and cats. Any angry or mean-spirited word, any violence scared me and sent me into shock. I had every psychosomatic condition imaginable: boils, styes in my eyes, terrible hay fever and allergies, nail-biting, nightmares, and sleep-walking. I was always afraid.
I started growing late. At 16, when I got my driver’s license, I was 120 lbs and about 5’4”. By 18, I’d grown close to 6’, although I still only weighed 140 pounds. I was skinny with thin arms and legs. Despite loving sports, I wasn’t successful athletically. However, I was awarded a Certificate of Achievement for Athletics in the 1959-1960 school year, a document I still cherish for its early “everybody-gets-a-trophy" sensibility.
Between my junior and senior years of high school, getting laid was a big deal. Once I’d taken that step, sex became a constant need and challenge. Indeed, the way I treated girls was a form of social bullying too. I couldn’t understand how any “good” girl could possibly have sex with me. So once I had a girl, I rarely wanted anything to do with her anymore. This likely left more than a few perfectly nice, lovely, and sweet girls bewildered.
I can trace without much difficulty what I believe the root causes of my bullying behavior were: a lack of ego integrity, complete confusion regarding self-esteem, mixed messages from my parents, and thus the constant need to seek the love and support of friends and peers. This has never really changed. I’m still the same person I’ve always been.
But now, I have a little bit more insight into myself than I ever did before. Making it as a writer - a lifelong dream that for my first 50 years of life felt increasingly unattainable and impossible - finally happened after I’d pretty much lost all hope. A fourth marriage and relationship that survived terrible losses and enormous successes with a grown-up who brought balance and sanity into my life. Becoming a parent and realizing the humanity of my parents - just a couple of human beings doing the best they could to figure out how to do life.
To deal with a problem, you must see it clearly, own it, and accept the truth of it. This doesn’t always fix it, but without these steps, it surely won’t.
So Kathy, here’s another apology along with a sincere expression of gratitude for helping me see myself differently than I ever had before - as the skinny, physically weak, fearful, cowardly bully that I was."