Friday, July 2, 2010

Is "Sorry" Ever Good Enough?

"Zoe" furrowed her brows as if in physical pain while she told me the story, and asked me, almost imploringly;

"What could I say to her? I was supposed to disagree - to take control of the situation, somehow - but everything she said was true."

Zoe is finishing up her training as a psychologist, working in a psychiatric clinic where she is responsible for running group therapy. There are a range of personalities, backgrounds, and clinical presentations amongst her clients - many have mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, some have addictions, whilst others suffer from post-traumatic stress. All are on shaky ground in many respects. There's a lot of pain in the little room from which she runs the afternoon groups. And a raw nerve was touched last week.

One group member, "Rachel" told the group about how she had been a bully as a teenager. She related in detail how she had emotionally, and occasionally physically brutalised a particular girl she disliked, isolating her socially and effectively running her out of the school. Zoe sighed as she told me this part of the story, because, in her words, "She said she felt sorry, but Rachel sounded a lot sorrier for herself than for the things she did to that other girl. She was trying to relate it back to how troubled a teenager she, herself, had been. She had a point, but... well, I can see why it triggered what happened next."

What happened next was that another group member, "Jane", threw a chair at Rachel. As Zoe frantically tried to calm the situation, Jane screamed that bullies like Rachel had ruined her life, and that she didn't want to sit here listening to a sob story about how hard it had been for them to do it. And it was right then that Zoe faced her worst professional dilemma so far. She was obliged to defend Rachel - but she secretly agreed with Jane.

I can understand how torn Zoe must have felt. She, I, and many millions of other people around the world can remember only too well what it was like to be on the wrong end of a high school bully. When I was 15, the new Queen Bee pulled a Rachel-style attack on me, and it's painful to admit that, a decade later, I still have occasional nightmares about that time. Within a few short weeks, she had orchestrated a coup that permanently cost me the girls who had previously been my best friends. Of course, she didn't stop there. In typical Queen Bee Bully style, there were my secrets to disseminate, nasty rumours to be spread, and boycotts to be organised. To this day, I'm still not sure why I was the particular object of her wrath - but then, the motives of bullies are generally mysterious to their victims. All I know is that she was wrathful, ruthless, and extremely efficient in her stated aim of destroying my confidence and shrinking me into a miserable wreck for the remainder of my high school years.

Two years after I was shredded by the bullies, my old best friend, who had not spoken to me since, decided to try to apologise. I was at an end-of-school party when she approached and asked rather nervously for "a moment to talk". For a moment, I was so happy I nearly choked on my beer. Maybe, after all this time, she was going to say she was sorry for how she had treated me, and maybe try to patch up our friendship which, despite everything, I still missed. Maybe she was going to admit that Queen Bee had been wrong.

She did apologise, in a sense. Once we got out of earshot of the other partygoers, she told me that she felt "pretty bad about everything". She hoped I could forgive her, she said.

I was caught somewhere between happiness and indignation. I tried to keep my voice steady.

"After all this...? Well, I mean, if you want to sort of make an... effort to --"

That's as far as I got. Her eyes flickered nervously as she stammered;

"Oh no! I mean, not like that... like, make an effort or anything...", she trailed off lamely, and suddenly there was almost a nakedness between us of perfect understanding.

"You don't actually care what you did to me, do you? You just want me to forgive you so you don't have to feel bad, right?" My voice shook a little and a tear dripped down my nose during the long pause before she shook her head, sadly, and walked off. We never spoke again.

Would sorry have been good enough if it had come with reparations?

I can't say. All I know is that it felt empty to hear her ask for forgiveness without ever needing to suffer, or acknowledge the suffering she caused me. Jane must have felt the same way, listening to Rachel talk about her past and ask the group to acknowledge her experience. Jane's life had been scarred by people like Rachel, and now Rachel was asking for forgiveness, sympathy - all the things she had not shown her victims. To Jane, these were the crocodile tears of an unrepentant predator.

In the end, Zoe had managed to defuse the situation, calm Jane down, and get the group back on track. But she was shaken, having realised a weakness she hadn't known would affect her professionally. Part of her had wanted to stand up with Jane and yell at Rachel that Sorry wasn't good enough, and that No, she was not understood. She was Not Forgiven. Of course, she didn't. Her years of training served her well, and she ran through her usual spiel about how the group was a space where we had to show respect for others and allow them to express themselves and how criticism should be brought up in a respectful way and yada yada yada.

"But the whole time," she said to me later, "the whole time, I felt so wrong inside."


  1. Wow, just found this blog. Very impressed.

    I might be able to offer some insight - I was both bullied and a bully in primary school at different times. The most I can say in my defense is that I was bullied first and the bully afterwards. I also eventually made the connection and utterly erased that behaviour from myself.

    Does my being bullied excuse/justify my bullying? Absolutely not.
    Does it explain it? Yes.

    In my experience, bullying is fundementally about power. Taking it or losing it.

    In order to be bullied you must accept it to some degree or another. Letting it go early on establishes a pattern and things tends to get worse from there.

    You quickly become very sensitive to the dynamic that's established. If the bully sense a threat to the power they've gained, they seek to rectify it (or flee if it's serious). As the bullied, you try not to appear threatening after seeing the response such threats get you.

    In my case, I think this lack of power lead me to try and find it in other relationships - I became a bully over weaker kids.

    Funny thing was, I neve made the connection. I enjoyed being the bully. It caused me pleasure because it granted me control I lacked elsewhere. I felt vaugely guilty about it, but that was easily ignored. You don't want to empathise with the pain you're causing the other person because to do so would massively undermine your self-image as a good person.

    One of my best friends took several years before he could discuss his bullying of me - he had to recognise the fact he had done the wrong thing.

    I on the other hand, speculate frequently about tracking down the people I hurt (and I now recognise how badly I hurt them - empathy's a bitch) and apologising. Strangely enough I keep putting it of and finding excuses.

    I suppose I should bite that bullet.

  2. Thankyou, Gordon, for sharing your story. You've definitely given me some food for thought.

  3. You're welcome, and thanks for not sticking the boot in (god knows I deserve it).

    Interestingly the same principles I noticed behind my bullying seem to apply to just about every bad behaviour going.

    How often do you come across a misogynist who would describe himself as one? Or a rascist who will publically declare it?

    We all want to be good people and will work hard to build and maintain that self-image. The problem is, we have such a wide variety of ideas of what is 'good'.

    Secondly, if you don't get feedback on your actions (ie. the bullied kid submits and/or apologises; you are praised for poor acts by your friends/family/community; or you simply don't come across anyone who disagrees with you) then those values are often far to ingrained to change easily by the time they are seriously challenged.

    To question such a fundemental aspect of yourself would threaten everything built on top of it - your relationships, career choices, day to day behaviour, humour - everything.

    That is one hell of an ask. And unfortunately just pointing out the error is no way going to resolve the situation.

    Christians are a great example. I agree with about 95% of what a modern mainstream Christian beleives. But just try pointing out the obvious errors in their system. They freak out and fall back on 'faith' or get really emotional. If you push them hard enough they will fight back on whatever points they can.

    They're not protecting the obvious error in their values - no exactly - they're protecting everything else that they feel is based on thos beliefs and would come into question if they accepted that error.

    As frustrating as it is, the only real way to win across people with regressive ideas is empathy, education and intolerance.

    Which is a real pain in the arse, since regressives get to use all the easy methods - hate, loudness, appeals to ignorance, fear

  4. I was bullied. There has been no apology and frankly if there was I wouldn't accept it because without contrition it would be hollow.

    Bullying took something from me. I can never recover those years. The Bully was never reprimanded and continued to behave in the same way as the school heaped honours on him.