Should I feel guilty?
Sort of, says our elder. It’s right to stand up to a bully – but you did let your emotions get the better of you.
Hi. 17/f here. So, earlier this year, I finally stood up to this girl who’d been bullying me ever since freshman year. We were at school, on the second floor near the stairs. She was mocking me as usual when I finally did what I’d been dreaming of doing for a while. I hauled off and punched her in the face. She went reeling towards the stairs, fell down them, and broke her arm in the fall to the landing below. I was expelled because of this and had to finish out the school year at a private school that was willing to take me in the middle of a semester. I was also arrested and charged with felony assault. I’m due in court in ten days to accept a plea deal that’s been worked out. I’m being tried in juvenile court, which means I can have my record sealed. But the downside is I’m going to be spending thirty days in juvie. I ought to be scared about that, but my guilt actually outweighs my fear of being incarcerated. I never meant to hurt her so badly. I just wanted her to leave me alone. I’ve tried talking to my friends about this, but they don’t seem to get why I feel so bad. If anything, they think I’m getting a raw deal. I don’t know about that. I feel like I deserve it. I feel bad beyond belief about what I did. I wish I could apologize to her, but I don’t know how to contact her. Besides, I’m not sure if I’m allowed. So what should I do?
I’m glad you contacted us. I’ll try to help.
Your message brought back memories of my high school years when I experienced my share of bullying. I remember spending hours fantasizing about how good it would feel to haul back and smash my fist into the tormentors’ faces. I suppose it was some combination of good sense and lack of courage that prevented me from doing so. I can empathize with you.
Bullies should be stood up to lest they continue the practice on other vulnerable people. Your actions will certainly make her think it over before bullying someone else. The problem is the issue of proportionality. Her bullying cost her broken arm and some pain, but it cost you an expulsion and a month in the lockup. I’m not sure who came out ahead on that transaction. In my mind, the mistake you made was allowing her actions to override your own good sense and resort to violence. In a very real way, you let her exert a measure of control over you. What most bullies want, I think, is to get a reaction of fear, sadness, or worthlessness from their victims. They want that feeling of control, and when they fail to get it by being ignored, they’ll often just look for another weaker victim. Sometimes, obviously, they miscalculate. Of course, if the bullying takes a physical turn in which your safety is endangered, you have every right to defend yourself. In my opinion, verbal, nonphysical bullying should be responded to by nonphysical means. If you’re the one who does the escalation, it’s not unjust that it will be you who’ll likely pay the greater price.
An important part of becoming a well-functioning adult is the ability to control emotions. Someone who is unable to do so is in danger of being manipulated by those who can push their victim’s emotional buttons. Those who can take control when they recognize their emotions are pushing them in an inappropriate direction are those who will come out on top when dealing with salespeople, partners, the driver who just cut you off in traffic, and, of course, bullies. I’m not a judge and am unaware of all the facts surrounding your situation. I don’t know if your punishments were excessive or not, but if they have the effect of fixing in your brain the ability to recognize when emotions – particularly the angry ones – are seizing control, you might not be getting such a raw deal.
So, should you feel guilty? Well, I’d say “sort of.” If it were me, I wouldn’t regret standing up to a bully but would regret that I allowed myself to react in such a disproportionate and physical way. If you’re intent on contacting her, you could find out from your attorney when that would be permitted and write her a note in which you express regret that your anger made you strike out at her and that you never intended her to be injured as she was. That should be sufficient.
I think you’re a fine person. The fact that you’re feeling so much guilt over physically harming another person says a lot of good things about you.
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