If you were bullied or excluded as a child or adolescent, it might not surprise you to learn that studies have shown how peer victimization can have long-term effects. That’s certainly been the case for me.
For decades, I’ve struggled with low-grade depression, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy and underachievement that have persisted despite years of therapy. I won’t argue that my mental health issues stem only from the bullying I encountered in school, but those experiences ― and my lifelong shyness, hypersensitivity and self-consciousness, which made me a perfect target for bullying and exclusion ― have had a lasting effect on me.
One day in 2019 while I was procrastinating at work, I started thinking about a girl who had rejected me in 7th grade. The rejection still stung whenever I thought about it. I wondered if she remembered how she ended our friendship and if she had any regrets.
Suddenly, I had an idea. Why not interview my former classmates from middle and high school — not only the people who bullied me, but all of my female peers, including the bullies, the bullied and those who seemed to be neither — about their experiences with the social scene when we were growing up in our Westchester, New York town? It seemed like such a good idea that I brushed aside the discomfort I felt about contacting people who, in some cases, I hadn’t spoken to in 40 years!
Thanks to social media, it was easy to find many of my former classmates. I began sending messages to them describing my project and I asked them if they would be willing to participate. Many of the women I contacted responded immediately. While some claimed they didn’t remember much about those years, others were enthusiastic and told me they had a lot to share.
So far, I have interviewed nearly 30 people, and I’m hoping to interview many more.
Sometimes individuals bully others because someone is bullying them. That was certainly the case with one former classmate I contacted who had relentlessly tormented me during middle school. At first, she was reluctant to talk to me. She ignored my initial Facebook message but when I followed up, she wrote back, “Simone, hope all is well with you. It’s a little hard for me to participate in this. I was not always nice to you. I am so sorry for that.”
I responded and reassured her that I was interviewing all of the women in our class and not singling her out. A few minutes later, I was stunned to find my telephone ringing. It was my former bully.
“I’m so sorry,” she said repeatedly during our call. “I swear I’m not a bad person. I think about what I did to you all the time. I don’t know why I chose you. I had a miserable home life.” She revealed some of the trauma she’d been through and, though I might have guessed that my classmate came from a troubled background, hearing it from her own lips made all the difference. I was finally able to forgive her, and (I hope) to help her to forgive herself.
“'I’m so sorry,' she said repeatedly during our call. 'I swear I’m not a bad person. I think about what I did to you all the time. I don’t know why I chose you. I had a miserable home life.'”
I was surprised to learn that many of the “popular” girls paid a steep price for maintaining their social standing. As one former cheerleader told me, the girls in her clique were so mean to each other that she grew up distrusting other women. “I didn’t have a real female friend until I was 43,” she told me.
Another woman — whom I had also considered popular, smart and beautiful — learned early on that “loneliness was bad and I’d have to sacrifice to have friends.” She shared a story about being part of a group that excluded a classmate in 7th grade. “I was culpable and I think I immediately and forever thought that was my personal weakness. It was cruel ... I still feel guilty all these years later.” Subsequently, that woman called the excluded group member to apologize for hurting her. She later told me that the interaction brought great relief to both of them.
I spoke with about five women who were extremely athletic during their middle and high school years. All of them said that their athleticism served as a protective factor when it came to managing the social pressures of childhood and adolescence. Being good at sports made them feel confident and broke down barriers between the cliques that existed at school since they played on teams with members of various friend groups.
As one woman who transferred to our school in 9th grade told me, “I think because I was a swimmer, I had a certain amount of confidence. I had a recognition of my abilities and it gave me credibility and people didn’t pick on me.”
Another athlete shared a touching story about being a team captain in gym class. She recalled how, when picking teams, one girl in our grade was always chosen last. “One day, I don’t know why — I decided to pick [that girl] first. When I look back I can still see the smile on her face. It changed me that day. It made me realize that winning wasn’t the most important.”
My conversations with some of my classmates confirmed that many of the girls who appeared to have their lives together ― and even be thriving ― struggled just like the rest of us.
“I always felt like an outcast, like a little brown mouse,” said one woman who I thought was one of the prettiest, most athletic and well-liked in our class. “I’ll never forget the 7th grade dance. I was really excited about my outfit,” she told me. “I remember walking in and seeing this group of girls looking me up and down and giggling. It seemed like the whole dance stopped and I realized how mismatched I was. I thought, I am really out of touch; I am really uncool. I went to the bathroom and cried. Then I called my mother and she came and picked me up. To this day, I still feel like I can’t put clothes together.”
It was challenging to locate some of the women who were the victims of the most severe bullying. I assumed many didn’t want to be found and had chosen to leave their childhoods and adolescences far behind and never look back. However, I did manage to track down a few.
One woman told me, “I hated my school experience and experienced intense bullying ... It wasn’t until I reached high school that I located a community of people, and it was my perception that we were considered the ‘hippies’ and we carried a sort of stigma related to that.”
Another woman recalled being bullied at various times throughout elementary and middle school. “My mother told me to ‘turn the other cheek,’ but that didn’t work,” she said. “I had no way to stand up for myself, and at that age, kids don’t stand up for each other.” In 9th grade, she dropped out of school and ran away, eventually ending up in a private school where the bullying was even worse. In a third school, she said, the “kids had issues. I became a bully and I would kick them with my clogs. I got suspended and I remember thinking, Now I’m the strong one.”
“I was also forced to admit that I wasn’t always kind to others. While I do not believe that I ever overtly bullied anyone, I certainly gossiped about others and shunned classmates who I worried might threaten my own tenuous social status.”
As I continued my project and began to process what I was learning, I unexpectedly found myself reflecting on my own behavior during those years. I realized there were times when I chose to feel like a victim. I know there were classmates who admired my musical talent, who thought I was pretty and kind, but in some instances, I was too preoccupied with my own victimhood to recognize their affection.
I was also forced to admit that I wasn’t always kind to others. While I do not believe that I ever overtly bullied anyone, I certainly gossiped about others and shunned classmates who I worried might threaten my own tenuous social status. This was crystallized for me when a couple of women I interviewed mentioned that they felt “invisible” in school. “I wasn’t bullied, I just felt pushed aside like I didn’t belong here or there,” one woman told me. “It was just a feeling of being unwanted.” Hearing this made me regret not reaching out to her and others when I had the chance.
I was gratified by almost every conversation I had with my former peers. While some of my impressions were validated (everyone I talked to seemed to recognize the same peer hierarchy), I found that others were completely off base. Being able to zoom out and get some perspective after all of these years underscored that we can never really know what’s going on in other people’s lives. And, though I may have been hurt by some of these people, learning about what they were experiencing has pushed me to be less judgmental about others.
This project has finally given me the opportunity to forgive the women who rejected and tormented me. After decades of hurt and resentment, I now see them as they were — young girls experiencing their own trials and tribulations, some common to many of us, others more painful than I can imagine.
Perhaps most importantly, the experience of reconnecting with these women has helped to diminish years of insecurity and shame. I no longer see myself as inferior to the “popular” girls. In fact, my project has been greeted with admiration and excitement from many of the women I sought to impress so long ago. These changes have increased my self-confidence, and I have a new belief in my power, courage and worthiness. What’s more, my improved self-image has had positive implications for my work, relationships, and general sense of well-being.
I won’t say that this type of project is right for everyone and I can’t claim that others will get the same results if they decide to reach out to individuals from their past. For some people, leaving the past behind might be the right way forward. Not everyone changes. Not everyone will be open to discussing what happened, much less to expressing contrition.
But, for me at least, confronting my childhood demons has been tremendously healing, and that’s something I wish for everyone, no matter who they are or were ― no matter how they hurt or were hurt.
Simone Ellin is a freelance writer and associate editor of Jmore magazine.