An Earnest Attempt to Humanize Bullies, Part 5

Illustration by Cynthia

One day when I was 11 years old, I came home from school, looked my dad in the eye, threw down my backpack, and announced, “I am DONE being good.” I don’t remember saying this at all, but he sure does, and apparently I meant it.

I was a really timid kid, sincerely frightened of every single thing in the world, including the Easter bunny and my own shadow. I had warts on the backs of my thighs and on my neck, an upturned nose, and bad teeth, so a lot of kids called me a pig. My family didn’t have a lot of money, and even though I know my parents did the best they could by trying to make sure I was supervised and safe after school, the truth was I didn’t have any kind of adult protection a lot of the time. I found myself in several abusive situations—one of my caretakers eventually ended up in jail. By the time I was 10, my parents gave up on sending my younger sister and me to babysitters; I took care of both of us, and I felt very much alone.

We’d moved around a lot by then, and had just left one suburb for another. The first time I spoke on my first day of fourth grade at my new school, I answered a teacher’s question wrong. I was so embarrassed that I cried until I hyperventilated and had to go to the nurse’s office. Every day between that day and graduation, I hated school.

I cried daily—sometimes in class—and had to keep a paper bag inside my desk in case my “breathing problem,” as the teacher put it, acted up. I was a weak kid, and so I sympathized with other underdogs. I started sticking up for the scrawny blond boy the tough kids terrorized after school—I’d walk home with him and yell at bullies; sometimes I’d pick up the football they’d just thrown at his head and whip it right back at them. I wasn’t particularly fond of this kid—he was a little annoying, and I don’t even remember his name. It just seemed really wrong how horribly he was treated, and I must’ve subconsciously recognized my own weakness in him.

Every morning my mom would have to bribe me to get out of the house to go to school. I had insomnia every night from stress and couldn’t wake up in the morning. I would start crying when we got close to school. My mom had to drive me around the block a few times and then basically pull me out of the car to get me there on time, and she was often late for work.

I guess that one day in fifth grade, the one my dad remembers and I don’t, I had had enough of being at the bottom of the pecking order. Don’t ask me what happened; I seriously have no recollection. I just know that one day it changed. Instead of rescuing the kids who were picked on, I started picking on them too, and suddenly I had friends. The girls who wore their jackets off one shoulder, arranged their upper lips in permanent snarls, and strategized about whom to torment took me in, and next thing I knew I was planning matching outfits with them. I started watching scary movies, I went on roller coasters, I hung out at the mall…for the first time in my life, I had a social group, and I wasn’t afraid of everything, and it was fun.

Once I had a taste of living without fear, I was unstoppable. I did stuff no one else would do, and it got me respect. I got detentions for, like, kicking kids in the stomach at recess; in fifth grade I was suspended for spraying people with a hose on a field trip to the local nursery. I’d invite one girl at a time into the dragon’s lair of the weekend popular-girl sleepover, and figure out how to secretly humiliate her by making her do stuff that made her uncomfortable.

I continued this kind of behavior throughout junior high and then on and off in high school: making out with my friends’ boyfriends behind my friends’ backs, punching girls while playing sports, deep insubordination with regard to all kinds of authority. The warts cleared up, orthodontic braces came and went, and by the time I was 16 I grew into my face a little more and felt, for the first time, that I could identify myself as “cute.” This little bit of self-confidence made me cut out the mean-girl act a bit, but the feeling that I had to constantly defend my social status did not go away—and neither did my anger.

The furiousness I felt toward the world, and my unsure footing in it, meant I had to constantly prove myself to everyone. I did this with verbal and physical aggression. It got to the point where NO ONE “disrespected” me, and in most cases I struck out first. By the time I was in my 20s, as one friend recently reminded me, I was throwing whole drinks—like in a glass—at people’s heads and bragging about how hot I thought I was. I would go to shows, and if I didn’t like the band onstage, I would pull the plug on the entire sound system. There was a girl I decided I didn’t like one night, and before she showed up at the party I was at, I figured I’d beat up her BFF just for being friends with her. Later, when the friend walked in the door, I attacked her and gave her two black eyes.

You show people you’re scary, and most of them are like, “OK then, you’re not someone I want to be friends with.” But when you’re high on your own alpha, you mistake that fear or derision for power and respect, and it feeds the worst parts of you. It can turn you into a monster, which I was for a while. And then there are always insecure people looking for a badass gang leader to make them feel strong (cf. me as a fifth-grade scaredy-cat before I found the tough girls). When you have a pack of followers validating your worst behavior, why would you ever want to come back down to the level of everyone else?

I’m not a mean girl anymore, but it was hard work to change. That persona was so much a part of me that I was being paid to be her—I was writing as her, living like her. Then I started to notice that many of the people around me didn’t actually like or respect me—they were just afraid of me. And that made me feel bad. When people had criticized my actions in the past, I had chalked it up to envy (every mean girl’s refrain: “you’re just jealous”)—but now I was beginning to realize that they were right. My behavior was pretty awful, not cool or glamorous at all. The cruelty that had been my suit of armor was shattered by all this truth, and I was left defenseless, devastated.

I felt like I was headed toward emotional disaster, and probably worse, so I fled the social situation I had created. I moved across the country by myself, to see what it was like to not have anyone around who knew me, so I could look at myself and see what was really there. I started to learn real, internal ways to develop self-worth and confidence, instead of getting disposable versions of those feelings in the form of applause for being an asshole.

A good friend once told me that you basically have two choices for how you go through life: you can let bad experiences harden you, or you can choose to be soft, to stay open (and vulnerable). The latter choice is the brave one. It’s much harder, but I’d already tried abrasiveness and look how that turned out. So I started doing what cheesy greeting cards call “the little things,” like smiling at people, and I noticed how just that small gesture of kindness seemed to lift people up a bit. I used to feel like people had to “earn” my courtesy or care; but I learned that if I give those out freely, it’s like I’m giving myself a gift, because it only makes me feel more confident and secure.

These discoveries didn’t fall into place automatically like neat puzzle pieces forming an image of a beautiful swan bathing in a glittering waterfall. I’ve had mean-girl outbursts here and there since then. I had to work hard to shake my old ways—I went to therapy for four years and learned how to name my emotions and control my reactions. This helped my anger subside, and consequently my issues with safety and protection dissolved as well. I was a pretty drastic, near-terminal case, and who knows what kind of happiness I could’ve found for myself if I’d gotten started earlier.

It’s tempting to bury my mean girl and forget she ever happened. She’s embarrassing to me now, and she’s made it difficult to rescue some of my older friendships. But the memory of her is good for reminding me of the wounds people carry that others might never see, and she gives me strength to be kind to people who, on the surface, seem like they don’t deserve it. Being nice all the time doesn’t guarantee that you don’t sometimes get treated like a rotten bag of kale forgotten at the bottom of the refrigerator drawer. Someone else’s cruelty is not your problem, though—the integrity and sense of accomplishment you get from relentless, genuine kindness is never-ending. It’s a source of true power. ♦

Liz Armstrong lives in Los Angeles, writes for a living, and believes no amount of glitter is too much.

45 thoughts on “An Earnest Attempt to Humanize Bullies, Part 5”

    1. Thank you so much, Laia! This is the most flattering response I get from people, when I confess how out of control and crazy-mean I used to be at times, and they’re like WHAT?! Reminds me of how far I’ve come. Thank you.

  1. I was a dirt-poor child-abuse survivor who got bullied mercilessly in school, and GUESS WHAT? I didn’t end up brutalizing others.

    NICE TRY at humanizing bullies, Rookie, but I’m not buying it. We all make choices, and to give bullies voice to justify their terrible, life-ruining behaviour is just a waste of space in your magazine.

    1. I am really sorry that you were bullied mercilessly. I’ve been bullied and teased myself but that does not mean we do not deserve to from the bully’s point of view, in this case, an ex-bully who has changed. As humans we can and do make bad decisions we regret later on but we can also change our actions and be the person we want to be. The ability for that change to occur is what is what can make us powerful. I don’t see anything wrong in admitting and sharing our mistakes.

    2. I agree with you in some respects. There’s no justifying here, simply explaining where it comes from in an attempt to promote compassion for everyone.

    3. Wow, um, way to miss the point. Liz is not justifying hurting anyone, she’s simply recognizing her mistakes and explaining the hurt place that they came from. It takes a lot of courage to make yourself vulnerable like this so I’m sorry for your bad experiences but there’s no need to put down the work of others.

      Beautiful piece, Liz! :) Thank you for writing.


    4. i don’t consider it a waste of space if some people read it and it helps them to see that bullies aren’t powerful beings with no weaknesses of their own, which, according to some people, it has.

      if you have a better idea of something we could do in this series, i’d appreciate hearing it.

    5. I don’t think Andi has missed the point. Some people are the brunt of harsh bullying throughout life, and some bullies don’t change. Many congratulations Liz for overcoming her insecurities and cruel persona, but some of her victims may never forgive her, just as Andi may never be able to forgive her tormentors. It’s wonderful that some people can make amends, but it’s absolutely necessary to allow the victims to voice their hurt even as we acknowledge how bullies have been victims too.

      1. Honestly, we started this series because so much of the rhetoric about bullying divides people into two classes: bullies and victims. But in most of our experiences, no one is purely one or the other, and to define yourself as a pure victim, and to see bullies as inhuman monsters, only exacerbates the problem. We are doing this series to show that we are ALL bullies, and we are ALL victims, and the more we understand one another, the less bullying will happen. At least that’s our hope.

    6. I understand Andi’s comment, people used to try justify ‘my’ bully when I was in junior school – she comes from a really harsh background etc. – but I’d just think of all the people who’d seen worse and are still amazing people, who are kind and true.

      I also think that some people handle situations differently to others, and for some people, aggression is their way for externalizing their pain. It’s not right and it’s totally unacceptable, but we can try to understand it. We can also try to sympathise with them, because it can’t be easy on their side either.

  2. hi. i wrote a comment before, then you published and then deleted it. the comment was neither rude nor hateful nor off-topic. when you allow comments but delete ones that don’t suit you, it’s pretty bad for fostering any sort of discourse. if i had written, “hey good job! kudos! you don’t give people black eyes anymore and are on the road to enlightenment,” instead of my original comment:

    “I was a dirt-poor child-abuse survivor who got bullied mercilessly in school, and GUESS WHAT? I didn’t end up brutalizing others.

    NICE TRY at humanizing bullies, Rookie, but I’m not buying it. We all make choices, and to give bullies voice to justify their terrible, life-ruining behaviour is just a waste of space in your magazine,”

    would you have kept it?

  3. I admire your bravery, I can imagine how difficult it must be to literally ‘make over’ your personality and face up to this much darkness. I congratulate you on your growth, I only hope that others can follow your tracks.

  4. I love this piece. It totally convinces me that being kind to people, even when they sometimes do mean things, is better than talking behind their back/being a bitch back. That’s really hard to do but you guys inspire me to try harder. Thank you <3333

  5. It’s horrible but throughout the article I just felt insanely jealous of the author. Stuff sucks and yet I am nice all the time. I am nice when I want to scream, “NO I HATE YOU SHUT UP” and it just makes me angrier.

    So maybe I am missing the point of the article but I think the reason the author is able to be so genuinely nice now is because she was so awful before. And I really admire both sides of the spectrum.

    1. You are super strong, Nia. I agree with what I think you’re saying, that it’s kind of … odd to be patting someone on the back for transforming from a person they really shouldn’t have been in the first place. Like, don’t the nice people of the world who didn’t have to “learn a lesson” get a place to be appreciated too? Well, I appreciate you, if that means anything? You’re doing the hard work. And I’m sure your friends and family do too… and all of your future romantic partners will too. It all eventually matters, it really does. You’re gonna be light years ahead of most.

      And as for just freely being out of control and mean, it didn’t actually feel good inside. It was a rush, and sometimes fun, but if you look at photos of me from then and photos of me from now, I looked hard and unhappy when I was acting out. That power surge is a spike that only lasts as long as one battle. So much better to not battle at all.

    2. I don’t know if it’s about her being more genuinely nice than people who have been nice all their lives.

      It’s about explaining where her cruelty was coming from. Cruelty and hatred always comes from somewhere. It doesn’t mean we have to ‘go there’ to actually be really nice for real.

      Some people are just good people (and let’s keep in mind, ‘nice’ doesn’t always translate in ‘good person’).

      I’m glad for the author :). I was not a bully with most people (and didn’t pick on unpopular kids) but I have quite a bit of guilt about some things from high school. Some of us can get really horrible.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this! It’s a great reminder to look beyond appearances.

    You can look at the typical “mean girl” and think “What a horrible person” or you can think “Wow, I wish I was that popular”, but either way you’re missing the mark. I think that any bully deserves just as much respect as the next person. That’s where things begin to change.

  7. Thank you for this article! it means a lot to me because I have done and said some things that I am not so proud of and this article reminds me that I can always fix my attitude.

  8. When I suffered bullying I turned violent too, as a defense mechanism. However, I only vented my anger at my own bullies… so I didn’t make any friends because of it.
    After a while, the \Don’t mess with me\ attitude worked well, but people were really afraid of me.
    Some of them still are, even though I’m not violent any more… so yeah, there’s lots of downsides… but I don’t think I would be able to deal with it in any other way at the time. Being vulnerable really is hard, and painful.

    1. Being vulnerable is hard, and painful. But I think it pays off more then being harsh and violent. You can open yourself up and get really hurt, (sometimes causing you to close up). But sometimes through that vulnerablity you can find someone who, after time, and work, will open up to you. You make friends, and for the most parts you don’t have have a long list of apologies to give, or secrets you need to forgive yourself about. (not that you don’t hurt people will you’re being “vulnerable)…. But you probably already know this, and you seem like a strong person. I’m sorry that you were bullied….. i’m glad that you’ve grown, and stop being violent :)

  9. At first, when i was reading this i felt a little disgusted by your actions. But as i read more, i mean, you were able to accomplish something so important that many, many people rarely do- you checked yourself! I mean, it sounded like you had such a sense of, well, entitlement ( no offense). But you recognized it and changed it- which is amazing. Not alot of people are willing to recognize that theyre wrong- even less do something to change. Im glad you were able to. It shows that people can and do change for the better, which makes me a little less cynical. Thanks for the story!

  10. This story is simply impressive and your will is amazing. It is nice to see that the bad decision I made yesterday doesn’t reveal the future.

  11. This is absolutely beautiful and very inspiring. I’m not sure how sure I am with this next statement. I think this article will encourage to re-examine the ways I understand the people around me. Thanks so much for this.

  12. Clearly this isn’t a sugar-coated story but it’s so good to hear the other side of the spectrum. I am glad Liz is improving now and I have to say, there’s something so brave about her; the way she pulled through to realize her mistakes. That must have been real hard.

  13. As someone who was bullied relentlessly till I was about 12, this was so powerful to read. One of the girls who used to bully me, I recently found out, was suffering from severe depression at the time because of her learning difficulties. I don’t agree with andi at all. This isn’t about justifying a bully’s behaviour… It’s about explaining that a lot of the time our bullies are just as much victims as we are.

    1. I am really sorry about your experience. When I was younger 12-13, I was really insecure about my friends and social standing. (shallow right?) Because of that, I was a mean girl. Recently I have taken some steps back and reasserted by attitude. But it is important to understand, the way you do, that every bully has something else going on. Bullying in itself is an expression of power because the bully has lost control in some other area.

  14. I live in Washington, DC and I have no idea where any thrift stores are. Does anyone know of any good thrift stores in the DC area?

  15. I think this is a really great article Rookie, but it still really weirds me out. I’m kinda feeling like Nia on the whole thing, and I know it’s wrong because you’re great and lovely now and it wasn’t entirely your fault I guess and everything but ohmygoodness I’m sorry but this is really strange for me.

    If the girl who bullied me was to write this I’m not sure if I could forgive her. It’s been a year now since I’ve truly escaped but good god I’m bitter. Insanely bitter. It lasted for six years and it’s still affecting me. It destroyed the little confidence I had (I’ve always been the overly sensitive kid) and now I’m only starting to be able to build it back now. Slowly. Sometimes I wonder if I just should have been tougher.

    To be honest though I couldn’t imagine her doing something like this. Not yet. She’s incredibly immature still. Sometimes I try to reason with what drove her to it, but I don’t know. I just can’t, not yet. And I’m sorry for that.

    I know that none of us fit purely into either ‘bully’ or ‘victim’. Or ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I think we’ve all been been part of both at some point. It’s odd. I just want to say though that I’m proud of you for getting through it. I don’t know you, but I’m proud (oh man I hope that doesn’t sound too self-righteous or whatever). At least you’ve made a change.

    Oh man this is so long and ranty
    Apologies, it’s ok if you want to reject this MASSIVE WALL OF RAMBLING

    1. You know what’s the worst? Is that I blocked so much of this out, because it made me feel so bad. And that probably the people I hurt have held onto it. It is a weird article, a weird subject, and it’s weird to get attention for 1. being bad and 2. reminiscing and then basking in the glow of turning “good.” (And honestly, sometimes I still can be insensitive… like most people, I guess, but I feel like I’ve used up all those points in life and it’d be a good idea to just be nice.)

      Self-esteem is fragile for everyone. You shouldn’t have been tougher. That’s the point–the toughness is a hard shell that cracks very easily. Mine did, over and over, until I was in the danger zone.

      Apologies don’t always come. Learning to be OK with that is seriously rough. I couldn’t apologize now, because like I said, a lot of stuff I don’t remember. People tell me stories and I’m like, “OH MY GOD, THAT’S HORRIBLE.” Though my meanness was kind of a blanket statement of my personality, no one was a direct target, it just seeped over almost everything.

      I don’t know that I deserve “support” for coming clean and talking about the transformation… I think by writing this I was trying to show that people can change, that often the mean one is in a worse place than you might be, and that being nice is super useful in terms of empowerment. Not that you need to take in the bullies and heal them, but just to be aware and try not to let the launched cruelty hit you.


      1. I think what gets me is that I know that she hasn’t changed, and that she will probably do it to someone else. And it doesn’t look like she will change. I mean she’s only sixteen and I know that THERE’S LIKE A WHOLE LIFE AHEAD OF HER but as a hormonal teenager the concept of the future and change is just like TOTALLY IMPOSSIBLE. I’m not expecting an apology, I never have. Damn, it’d be nice, but yeah. I dunno.

        Hell, to be honest I’m not sure if she actually knows if she did something wrong. I kind of wonder if she felt bad for any of it, but all I can imagine of her is as an emotionless selfish little girl and I just can’t picture it. That doesn’t mean that she didn’t though.

        I was also really hungry when I wrote that. I get really emotional when I’m hungry ohoho

        It’s a really great article though. Thank you for this. And y’know it has made me feel a bit more ok about the whole situation. I’m starting to accept that it happened. What hurts the most is the regret that I let it affect me for so long, and I know you said that it’s not about being ‘tough’ but oh man I am truly angry at myself for it. Really cannot get over that.

        I’ve just got to forget it and get on with life now, and I am. I’m still a little shy, and sensitive but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was before. I am, naturally, a quiet person, even when i don’t feel shy.


  16. Awesome article…my findings and attitudes have been very similar in regard to my behavior toward the world.

    In other news, as I was reading this, my mind wandered briefly to just how killer it is that your website has nice, large print. (What’s up with 7 pt. font in a shade of light grey?) You *know* your readers are girls with glasses, and you typeset accordingly. Bravo! :~)

  17. I stand on the side of humanising bullies. Some people are awful and they stay awful, but others need a bit of compassion… Here’s a story from my teen years I’d like to share to show my reasoning.

    I was bullied for 6 years, 3 of them by the same girl. She hit me almost daily. She was crazy, but my best friend at the time worshipped her so I had to stick it out. She frightened me, and she abused the teachers, even making some of them cry. In the end, she was expelled, and suddenly life in school was so much easier. I was free!

    Or so I thought. After her expulsion, she contacted me online via IMs on AOL. Casual questions, asking how I was. Although I was a bit puzzled, I kept in touch with her. We actually became friends. Eventually, through little things she revealed, it turned out she’d had a horrible upbringing. Her dad had abused her, I won’t go into details. Her mum didn’t care. She fell pregnant 7 times during school by 7 different boys, but lost each child. She was an alcoholic, and ran away with someone to a big city. Eventually she came back with a baby, who could give her what she wanted: unconditional love, and the ability to love unconditionally in return.

    I don’t know what happened to her. I like to imagine she’s still living happily with her son, living quietly.

    Her upbringing doesn’t excuse her behaviour. But it helped me to realise there was a reason for her behaviour: she envied me. I had (still have) a loving family and had never known abuse or poverty. I forgave her a long time ago.

    God that was long, sorry!

  18. Reading some of the comments here, it seems like it might be useful to explore the flip-side of this series, the long-term effects of bullying on those who bear the worst of it–and strategies for coping. I can speak from my own experience as an adult who tried to stop being “so sensitive” and block that childhood/teenhood trauma out for years, only to have a professional evaluation conclude that I, in fact, have PTSD. (The worst is when your own parents are the bullies…) Constant stress from bullying actually physically changes the brain for the worse. For those of us who had little support growing up the effects can be devastating, including a lack of emotional control that makes forming stable relationships very difficult because the brain is stuck in fight-or-flight mode. I’m sure there are many among your readership who have experienced something like this and could benefit from some guidance, if only to validate their hurt and point them to other resources. Just something to consider. Thanks!

    1. Just wanted to add that for years I tried to understand my bullies and forgive/forget, but that empathy got me only so far. The fact remains that I experienced physical changes in my nervous system that require therapy.

  19. I appreciate this article and I can see its earnestness. I hope the ‘bullies’ in primary and secondary education systems can turn their ways around before they have regrets. Even though victims have the worst of the bullying, maybe those victims need to understand there are a lot of factors behind the bully’s behavior. Even as a victim of bullying and ptsd, I really can’t say I have never said or thought or stared at someone else unpleasantly. at the same time, its kind of rude to talk down on someone elses comments on this article…

  20. I’ve bullied and been bullied… this is really great to read from a first person and very honest point of view.

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