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‘Why Am I Still So Angry at My Former Bully?’

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Hi Polly.

I am 55 years old, and I live in the suburbs outside the town where I grew up. In 2014, my dad started to go down hill, and now I stay with him full time to take care of him. Cut to five years later, my savings are gone and my 17-year-old car is on its last wheels. He is still hanging in there (thank God), but I worry constantly about money, food, medicine, my car and all that so he doesn’t have to worry about these things. My mother and brother have both passed, so it’s just him and me. And then it will be just me.

I was a sensitive kid who was relentlessly bullied starting in elementary school right after we moved out here. I would be the one in the middle of the playground bawling because kids would make fun of me for crying. Vicious circle, huh? I realize now that I did bring some of that on myself because of my behavior, but I got way more shit to eat than I deserved. I also was a poor kid from an unstable home in an affluent neighborhood. But kids are mean and I should probably get over that. And I have for the most part. But does it ever really leave you?

Well, in junior high I got in with a group of four girls who had similar interests. We formed a unit, a squad, a gaggle of friends lead by Kim. Kim would alternate between being my friend and picking fights with me and excluding me. This would happen over and over until one last time I just walked away. I was not going to beg her to take me back into the group, so I was friendless for a while in eighth grade. That was hard enough, but then Kim and the others started rumors that I was gay. These days, I am glad people have a more “Who cares who you like?!” attitude, but in junior high in the late ’70s, that was tough. It really isolated me for a while there even though I am actually not gay.

Years went by, I found my people in a very competitive high school choral program and graduated fairly well adjusted. Kim and I ended up going to the same college, and we became friends of sorts. She actually helped me once by letting me stay overnight in her dorm room when my roommate and I were fighting. Nice of her, really.

After college, I worked good jobs in exciting fields and did well for myself. I married, divorced (no kids), and even got the opportunity to work overseas and make good money. A happy life, I would say.

I found Kim on Facebook ten years ago and she accepted my friend request. Not much communication, but she would post well wishes from time to time and seemed to know who I was. Well, a few weeks ago, the singer Eddie Money passed away. I posted an article on her timeline about it and said, “Remember when we saw him in college?” She replied back, “I guess?!”

I was just gutted when I read that. So you mean to tell me that after all the shit I went through with you in junior high and the friendship we were able to forge in college, you don’t remember me? All of that crap just bubbled up and I started to give her a piece of my mind, telling her what a horrible child she was and how she should have a reckoning about that, and asking herself about the energy she put out in the world (she actually does energy work as a sideline). Okay, I might have overreacted a bit there.

I stopped typing. I erased it all. And instead of posting all that mess on her timeline, I unfriended her and blocked her. That’ll show her. You know, if she noticed.

My question is this: How do you move on when this stuff bites you on the butt from time to time? Why do I rage so much at people who are not in my life anymore? It’s like a loop in my head of all the folks who wronged me and did not love me like I deserved. I am a good person who tries hard to treat people right because I know how rejection and thoughtlessness can really hurt.

Why am I raging over a woman who has not been in my life for over 30 years? God, even typing that seems so pathetic.

Still Hurt

Dear Still Hurt,

You’re raging because you feel powerless. There’s no easy way to express to her just how deeply she hurt you when you were younger. There’s no acceptable way to tell her that her casual dismissiveness is obnoxious. So you have to disappear instead, never knowing if she even noticed that you’re gone or if she remembers you at all.

We live in a casually dismissive world. Careless indifference is the reigning tone of our deny-your-feelings, fake-chill-your-way-through-everything culture. Obviously, there are pragmatic reasons for keeping things on a surface level most of the time. It would be dicey to dive into everyone’s deeper issues at every juncture. But let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that the eternal imperative to make every goddamn thing under the sun light and breezy at all costs or be branded as a nutjob forever is a regular source of irritation and pain for many of us.

That said, here we are. We can’t single-handedly incite a tonal shift. Because the problem isn’t just Kim, it’s a baked-in feature of our society, that it’s somehow more acceptable to appear careless or forgetful or to outright lie than it is to be invested, to have a functioning long-term memory, and to ask for accountability from those who’ve wronged you. It’s understandable that, when Kim reappeared in your life, you didn’t have the option to say, “Do you remember starting rumors about me when we were younger? Have you ever thought about how hurtful that was?” It’s understandable that you friended her on Facebook and maybe hoped that some acknowledgment or some hint of concern or interest might bubble up there.

But that’s also why this casual slight of hers is all the more painful to you than you would’ve expected. When she reemerged in college, you knew you couldn’t say, “Do you remember the things you used to say to me when we were younger?” You probably wouldn’t have gotten a lot of satisfaction from her response. But speaking up might’ve given you the sense that you’re someone whose needs and desires matter. You have a right to tell someone when they hurt you. You have a right to remind someone of the pain they caused.

There’s no part of me that thinks it would’ve been easy or even a very good idea to speak up to Kim in college. That’s not how people do it in our culture. You don’t confront people about their past offenses. You pretend that nothing gets under your skin. But 30 years of pretending takes its toll.

So the first order of business is this: Give yourself some space to feel angry and upset about what you went through. You may have learned to play nicely and pretend that no one hurt you, but some core part of you is still in pain over how you were bullied as a kid. It’s time to own that lonely little kid, let her out of the dark, and give her some love. That sad girl deserves your love, and your respect, and your compassion, every day.

I want to add here that this is important for everyone alive: Your feelings don’t have to pass some moral litmus test to make them worth feeling. You can feel all kinds of things for all kinds of fucked-up reasons, and it’s still important to allow some room for whatever you’re going through and wherever you are. A lot of suffering and confusion (and depression and anxiety!) on this planet springs from labeling our emotions as “bad” or “embarrassing” and then shoving them under the floorboards.

The more you show love and compassion for that core, hurting part of you, the more likely you’ll be to stand up for yourself and your needs. But you have to decide that you’re a person with rights and needs first. You have to honor your own desires and know that even if the whole universe calls anyone with feelings a nutjob, you’re not living that way. You’re going to do things the way YOU do them.

It’s important to notice when your anger is off the charts, of course. If that’s the case, it’s going to be a challenge to speak up effectively. You’ll need to grapple with your pain at a deeper level. Anger and rage are often a sign that you’re not treating yourself with enough care. Just as it makes perfect sense that you didn’t confront Kim years ago, it makes perfect sense that you’d neglect yourself a little in your current role as the caregiver for your ailing father. Every day, you have to set aside your own needs and feelings in order to take care of him. You’re the only one left who can play that role. And after he’s gone, it’ll just be you alone picking up the pieces. I know you realize this, but my God that’s difficult. You’re living through a rapidly unfolding catastrophe, every single day. You’re confronting this impending loss, and the loss of your mom and the loss of your brother, too, every morning and every night.

Anything could wreck you under these conditions! The slightest ill wind, the faintest hint of malice or rejection. Current traumas kick up past traumas. You’re tough, you’re surviving, you’re making it work, and then something in the air shifts and you’re transported back to that playground, watching your tears hit the gray asphalt, feeling your nose start to run and hating yourself for it, knowing that no one is going to come and make things better. Sadness that intense doesn’t just lift as time passes. You carry that kind of despair in your cells.

I know that flavor of loneliness and melancholy. I know how you can smell it on an early autumn morning, something musty rising up from the leaves on the lawn. I know how desperation and longing can appear in a puff of chalk dust, or in a wave of cut grass across the sidewalk. When you grow up in a family where everyone is loyal but somehow no one knows how to get your back, you ride these currents of loneliness through your life. Small things that people do matter a lot to you. Small things they say bring all of that pain back.

Now I have to tell you the truth: I don’t think Kim forgot you entirely. I think she forgot about going to see Eddie Money. I think she remembers who you are, but she’s a forgetful person in general. She might just have forgotten half of her childhood, partially because she’d rather not reckon with the person she was for years: careless, hurtful, reckless. Trust me that you’re not the only person who’s been hurt by her. It’s extremely likely that she’s had to answer for her behavior before, and that she’s already ashamed of how she behaved when she was younger. Most people who do “energy work” are pretty sensitive to other people’s emotions. Her reply might’ve been evidence of that. She can sense that you care a lot about how she treats you, and that feels like a heavy responsibility to someone who’s already haunted by guilt and other people’s mixed feelings about her. Her reply “I guess?!” is a way of hiding. I don’t remember but I’m putting that on you. I don’t want to leave you hanging by not replying at all, but I really don’t want to stroll down memory lane with you. I don’t want to think about the person I used to be.

Everyone has their shit. But we’re not diving into this so you can mend things with Kim or understand her better. I just want you to understand that her reply was ambiguous. I don’t think it adds up the way you think it does. I think the despair you carry around in your cells has taken this small reply, this tiny artifact of the past, and amplified it into something significant and meaningful.

Why? Because you’re facing an impending disaster with your father every morning and you don’t know how to feel it and still survive. Your feelings are bubbling to the surface at the slightest provocation. You aren’t treating yourself with enough compassion and care, and you don’t have enough ways to show your true feelings and express the strong, generous woman you’ve become. You need more. That’s what your cells are telling you. Your cells want you to ask for more.

Kim is the worst person to work this out with, though. You need to work this out with yourself. You need to build a new relationship with yourself that makes more room for your rights and your desires and your deepest wells of despair. You need to clear out some space for your rage and frustration at how you were treated years ago, and how you’re treated now. You need to imagine a new life where you can tell people exactly what you need without apology. If you’re good to yourself and you build a stronger relationship with yourself and you give yourself what you need more often, your voice won’t sound angry when you stand up for yourself.

Recently, some old friends of mine were making plans and they behaved in a way that I thought was careless. It wasn’t a big deal, but it bugged me. This was something that would’ve been a big deal to me a decade ago. It would’ve hurt my feelings. I would’ve encountered it as a sign that there was still something broken about me, that people could still treat me that way. I would’ve experienced it as evidence that my friends never really loved me or cared about me that much, not in the past and not now.

But because I’ve built a better relationship with myself and I’m compassionate toward myself when sadness and insecurity bubble up, I can take some time and examine my feelings before I say anything I might regret. (I’m not saying I’m never tempted to lash out! But I’ve learned to shut up in order to protect myself and others.) And because I trust people when they tell me they care (in a way I didn’t just a few years ago), I can remember that my friends have told me they care about me many times. Because I believe that I’m worthy of good, sensitive friends, I believe them. Recognizing that I’m valued and that we’re all very independent people who don’t necessarily compromise that easily, I can look at the situation and put it into perspective: We all have our shit. These are good friends. They were careless, and that’s annoying. But they didn’t hurt me. I feel irritated, but not angry. I don’t have to clean this up or address it, but if it does come up, I can talk about and assert my needs without blaming anyone just for being fallible and human.

That doesn’t mean that small things don’t sometimes make me feel much sadder or angrier or lonelier than I expect them to. But when that happens, instead of eating myself alive or blaming myself for it, I let it in and try to … enjoy it, almost? I try to embrace what’s there. I recognize that strong emotions are a sign that I’m alive, I’m fully invested, and I can feel the history of pain and longing living inside my cells. That history is a gift that allows me to feel more awake, and more connected to other people.

That’s what I want for you. You’re going through this very hard time in your life, but it’s also beautiful. And when you build your relationship with yourself and give yourself the compassion and love that you need, every single day, instead of beating yourself up for being human or feeling enraged at someone who was always just a ghost and always will be, your entire world will change. You won’t feel helpless and alone, because you’ll savor your feelings — all of them — instead of running away from them.

The despair inside of your cells is also joy. When you smell that sadness on an early autumn morning, there might just be a glint of hope around the edges, sparkling in the leaves in the trees above you. When desperation and longing appear on a puff of chalk dust, you’ll let it ask you, What do you need today, to feel alive? Who understands this sorrow? Who can trace this little wave of cut grass across the sidewalk, and feel the heartbreak of a world that greets despair and even generosity and survival with a dismissive shrug? Who knows the quiet rage of navigating a world that pretends not to remember a thing?

And even if you can’t think of anyone to talk to, even if it’s just you left standing, once again, savor that feeling. Say it out loud: I remember. When you honor your memory, you honor the joy that lives right next to your sadness and your rage. When you refuse to pretend, you draw people to you, people who believe in the truth, even when it’s frightening or sad or unnerving. Together, we will say to the wind: Thank you for this wretched day. Thank you for this magnificent catastrophe. 


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Ask Polly: ‘Why Am I Still So Angry at My Former Bully?’