I was bullied growing up. It wasn’t fun. 

I find that many of us who had difficult social pasts have complicated relationships with the concept of “forgiveness” and “responsibility.” 

It’s very similar to how many abuse victims have complicated relationships with how culpable they “should” hold their parents or caretakers, those who “should” have been protecting them when they were young and vulneralbe. 

On the one hand, the kids who were mean to me were, you know, kids. 

When we’re kids, we make poor decisions. Our brains aren’t developed. 

Cognitive science reveals that the development of moral reasoning is a complex, uncertain process. It’s very unclear when children, broadly speaking, develop enough agency to truly be responsible for their behavior like bullying. 

Today, I’m connected on social media with more than a few of the people who bullied me as a child. Many of them seem to have grown up to be responsible, reasonable, apparently kind adults. Some of them seem to be good parents, at least as best I can tell. 

That doesn’t change the fact that they were mean to me in grade school, junior high, and high school— and that my negative experiences with my peer group had a profoundly negative impact on me as I tried to have friendships, professional relationships, and romantic relationships later in life. 

Does the “me” of today have any right to hold those people accountable for how they behaved toward me thirty years ago, when all of our brains were underformed? 

I don’t know. 

How about those people who were enduring complicated lives of their own? Does that mitigate any of their responsibility? 

I don’t know. 

What kind of role did I play in what happened to me growing up? I was a tough kid to know, and probably a tough kid to like. As I endured years of bullying, I developed quite a protective shell that made it really tough to get close to me socially. 

Do I hold the difficult, moody, reclusive past “me” partly responsible for what happened, or is that just victim blaming? 

I don’t know. 

Here’s what I do know: the “me” of the past wouldn’t want the “me” of today to be held hostage to his pain. 

He wouldn’t want me to live in bitterness. 

He wouldn’t want me to hang on to resentment for the sake of honoring his pain. 

“Forgiveness” is a complicated subject for most people who grew up painfully. It means and implies different things for different people. No one can impose their beliefs about what forgiveness is and isn’t on to anyone else. 

It annoys me greatly when I see somebody opine that “forgiveness” is necessary to personal growth. I don’t know that that’s true. 

I think everybody has to decide for themselves if and when it’s time to forgive. 

That said: I absolutely see people refusing to even consider “forgiveness” as an option, because they think it’s somehow a betrayal of their past selves. 

“Forgiveness” gets even more complicated as a concept when we’re talking about active abusers, as opposed to peer group bullies. 

We all need to take our time and figure out for ourselves what forgiveness means to us. 

We need to give ourselves permission to forgive, or not, as we feel able and ready. 

We need to acknowledge our right to feel what we feel and need what we need, no matter how much time has passed. 

No one gets to tell you you “have” to forgive or forget. 

But don’t get tricked into thinking you “have” to hold on your pain in order to “honor” your past self. 

Your past self does not want or benefit from your current self’s suffering. 


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