I was pretty badly bullied in high school since I was overweight, had bad skin, and had skipped a couple of grades, making me two years younger than my peers. In college, I started to “blossom”; I lost weight, I got into lifting weights, my skin cleared up, and I really enjoyed college. But those scars are always there, you know?
Earlier this year I started a new job and discovered that one of the bullies from high school was employed as one of the administrative assistants for our group. I know she recognized me because she made a joke about how much I had changed and that she barely recognized me. I decided to be polite because you need your group’s admin to make travel arrangements, handle your calendar, take calls etc.
I guess she mistook politeness for forgiveness because she had the temerity to hit on me at a happy hour last week.
I’m not proud to say I lost it and was openly cruel and mocking of her. She ended up in tears.
Now I’m sick to my stomach. Revenge didn’t feel good at all (who knew?) and I am avoiding her as much as possible. I’m afraid my boss is going to ask me why I’m wasting time on things the admin should be doing. Still, I don’t feel like apologizing to the bully admin because what kind of idiot hits on someone they used to help bully?
How do I get out of this mess short of quitting my job?
Revenge Not So Sweet After All
Dear Revenge Not So Sweet: You have to apologize, because what kind of idiot bullies a bully in righteous protest of bullying?
I actually don’t think you’re an idiot, at all. I co-opted your phrasing to make a point: You can’t give yourself special exemptions. You don’t have an exclusive claim to human frailty, and you don’t have a lifelong accountability waiver because of what you’ve been through.
Just as you were cruel to this former classmate in a burst of residual pain, she might have been cruel to you all those years ago in an expression of some pain of her own. You don’t know her story.
Not that any story could justify what she and other classmates did. You were tortured, no question; you were vulnerable, you didn’t deserve it because no human deserves it, and you’re understandably scarred. But if you’re going to treat your history as a mitigating circumstance in judging your own guilt for your recent cruelty, ridicule and “los[ing] it,” then you have to consider that she might have mitigating circumstances of her own and adjust your treatment of her accordingly.
Not because she deserves it – that’s a philosophical rabbit hole – but because integrity demands it.
You also need to admit fault for harming someone, without exception, again because it’s the right response to your own actions. That’s true even when the someone you harmed lacks the emotional intelligence (or just decency) to apologize for wrongs of her own.
The theme here is sometimes wrenching in practice, but very simple in its theory: The way out of a mess is through taking responsibility for your own actions, period. Without looking for loopholes in what other people have done.
As for that aforementioned wrenching execution: “I handled that badly,” you can say to your thoughtless former classmate. “The high school anger is fresher than I expected.”
Note, that is only an admission of fault. You can add an apology to it if indeed you are sorry for what you did. Think carefully – were you right to be cruel? Would you do it again? That calculation is again about you, your values, and your choices, not about anyone else.
I like to say thank you as a sign of appreciation when my husband walks the dog, changes poopy diapers, etc. He says it’s unnecessary because these are expected behaviors. What do you think?
No Thank You?
Dear No Thank You: Is art necessary? Are music and poetry? Herbs and spices? Is it necessary for windows to frame a nice view, or is the neighbor’s brick wall enough?
You feel gratitude, which is an emotion that makes your life richer. You are expressing that gratitude, which is an effort to make your husband’s life richer. You are modeling gratitude, which will make your child’s life richer.
There is an honorable foundation to your husband’s position, since he apparently doesn’t see contributing to the family as a series of individual, day-to-day choices, but instead as a choice he already made upfront in committing to you. Good stuff. He’s all in.
But there’s a big difference between expecting things of ourselves, which your husband is right to do, and expecting things of others, which you’re right not to do. Assure him that you count on your marriage, yes, but hope never to take him for granted.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org