How do I stop giving this high school bully space in my head?
January 15, 2013 5:32 AM   Subscribe

I want to forget about this kid, but he keeps popping up in my head. How do I get over him?

As I'm sure is true for most people, high school was a difficult time for me; I struggled with insecurity and normal teenage angst, and was very happy to graduate and leave. While I had various run-ins with plenty of students, there was one boy in my year who gave me a particularly hard time. His bullying was compounded by the fact that we were in intense academic competition with each other, and I also harboured a bit of a crush on him. He would often alternate between being really horrible to me and then being weirdly nice and friendly; if I let my guard down to his friendly advances, he would then turn around and mock me mercilessly for thinking that he actually liked me. Our senior year, he asked me to the prom, which I said "no" to (mostly because I was more interested in other boys, but also because I was worried it would end up like some crazy Carrie situation).

We're both now 10+ years out of HS, have moved away, and I'm married, but I still regularly have dreams about this kid, and end up spending days afterward thinking about what went down in the past. I really would love to just forget he ever existed and move on with my life, but for some reason, I keep finding space in my head to obsess over how shitty he was to me.

What are some effective ways of not allowing thoughts of him to linger in my brain, and ultimately get over him? I know I can't expect to never think about him again, but something to prevent me falling into a shame spiral that's difficult to escape from would be really helpful right now.
posted by handknittedsock to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Every time you remember him, add clown shoes.
posted by flabdablet at 6:03 AM on January 15, 2013 [12 favorites]

I know its silly but what works for me is to have a little saying to repeat to myself when I think of something upsetting, a phrase to put everything back into perspective .. maybe one of these will help? Inhale, say your little phrase, exhale.

"Let my past make me better, not bitter"
"Don't overthink, just let it go"
"Don't stumble over something behind you"
"Worrying will never change the outcome"
"I've decided to be happy because its good for my health"
"Don't believe everything you think"
posted by xicana63 at 6:04 AM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

People do things the only way they know how to get by. If he was trying to make you unhappy to bolster his own happiness or credability then he had his own deep self esteem issues. Forgive him, feel sorry for him, focus on your happiness.
posted by krisb1701d at 6:09 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had a dream about my high school bully recently, too. He used to mock me, but when he started physically pushing me my parents intervened. Thank God.

I don't think about this kid that often, or the intense high school crush I had (not him) that took a few years to go away. I was so used to obsessing about these people that it was really hard to stop thinking about them. But it is possible. My strategy was to eliminate all reminders of them from my life. Eventually, without any new information to think about, my mind stopped spinning its wheels.

It sounds like your recurring nightmares are preventing you from doing that. These nightmares honestly sound like some iteration of extreme anxiety or PTSD. (Not a real diagnosis. I'm a liberal arts student, not a doctor.)

What I would suggest is going to a therapist and possibly a psychiatrist. They can give you strategies to help with this situation, put it in perspective, and medication if you decide that's what you want. This may be a situation that would be helped by sleeping pills that give dreamless sleep, at least for a while (but please, again, I am not a doctor and your doctor can better advise you).

Or if for whatever reason you don't have the means/desire to go to a therapist, this is a good Cognitive Behavioral Therapy online program that may be helpful.

The other thing to think about is that these events happened over ten years ago, and memory is a funny thing. There have been studies suggesting that the more you think about something, the worse you remember it. Whatever you are dreaming about or remembering now is at least a little different from what actually went down, which I'm sure was still traumatizing and horrible. This helps me put my mistakes in perspective.

It also lends you some power, in that you can re-imagine these events differently to make them funny instead of traumatizing, and to make him ridiculous (he's CLEARLY a boggart, okay, don't even.)

And why are you ashamed? This is a legitimately shitty thing that happened to you. HE should be ashamed, not you.
posted by tooloudinhere at 6:11 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I obsessed similarly over some kids who had done something cruel to me in second grade. I also wondered why I was obsessing so much over them and why I couldn't get over it.

And then I finally hit on the realization that I actually never really had fully reacted to what they'd done. Even when I was seven myself, when I was about to have the very natural reaction to what they'd done, I'd stopped myself from actually feeling that anger and hurt in full; I figured I was just going to have to go ahead and feel it. To give myself permission to finally react in an honest way to what they'd done.

So yeah, the next couple weeks I was pretty fragile; I was thinking about them a whole hell of a lot. But the difference was that instead of thinking about them and thinking "why am I still upset over this, what's wrong with me," I was thinking about them and thinking "they had no right to do what they did, that wasn't fair".

And after that couple weeks...that anger started to fade, that hurt started to fade, and remarkably, I was able to look back on them with clearer eyes - and forgive them. I actually had cause to visit the grounds of my old grade school about this time, and as I was walking around and peeking in windows, I suddenly imagined the three girls who'd hurt me all come running up to the window where I was standing, all of them still little girls looking up at grown-up me, and saying they were sorry. And that's when it hit me - they'd been only seven and had no idea themselves just how cruel they'd been. And I forgave them, and I haven't been bothered by those thoughts since.

The only way I could have gotten to the point of forgiving them was by going through that anger first, though; and the only way I could have gotten to go through that anger was by giving myself permission to go ahead and do that. I wonder if maybe that's what is holding you back, that you're thinking you should be "over it" by now. When I think like that about something, that's usually a clue that I actually haven't fully felt what I feel about a situation, and I give myself permission to go ahead and feel honestly what I want to. Usually when I do that, the anger or sorrow fades pretty quickly.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:15 AM on January 15, 2013 [17 favorites]

It sounds like he was a really insecure person who had a crush on you, so he acted like a total asshole.

I was the only out gay kid in high school, and I can't tell you how many of my tormentors there suddenly started appearing in gay bars years after graduation.

What has helped me (almost 30 years out of high school) has been to think of what those folks who tormented me are doing now, and how they think about their past behavior. Most are probably mortified that they acted like such jerks, and a few have actually told me such.

Respect the pain you've felt, and realize that high school is a miserable experience for a lot of kids, and then try to forgive him for something he did as a stupid teenager. That may help you to let it go.
posted by xingcat at 6:16 AM on January 15, 2013 [11 favorites]

Like xingcat, I think he had a huge huge crush on you and was unable to deal with it because in spite of his "bullying," he was horribly insecure when it came to matters of you. When you let your guard down and were friendly to his advances, he freaked out so badly he had to be awful to you.

Pity him, knowing he harbored this crush and didn't have the ability to do one single thing about it.
posted by Dolley at 6:17 AM on January 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

What's worked best for me is to go do some Internet stalking and find out what they're up to now. Most of the nerdy but nice people have B.A.s or above, and nifty jobs in the area of their choice. Most of the bullies have failed. It's just nice to know that you're better off than they are.

In my case, one of them spent some time in jail. The tactics bullies use in high school don't work in the real world.
posted by DoubleLune at 6:18 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've had the same problems and would just second the suggestion that you need to allow yourself to feel this pain.

I've been in the same place. I was bullied remorselessly in school. I don't think any of them had a crush on me! It was horrible at the time and for years I felt a lot of unresolved anger against them, and mostly against the ringleader. Even around this time last year, I was angry.

I felt like I needed to be angry, even though it was so many years later - that no one had been there for me when I was 14, no one really got it, and so I owed it to my 14 year old self to be there for them and feel their pain. Bit of a strange way of putting it but that is how I felt.

For years I really thought I was going to be this crazy person who still had a grudge against her high school bully years later. But then I just forgot about him; when he next came up in conversation I realised that it had been months since I had thought about him, and I felt nothing for him but a sort of peaceful indifference. I think it was important to feel that anger, to process that experience; yes it took me a long time but I'm over it now.

All that was a really roundabout way of saying I think you just have to let yourself feel what you feel and sooner or later you'll process the feelings and they will end.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:32 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also harboured a bit of a crush on him

Do remnants of this crush have anything to do with it? If so, the answer might be to focus on your own marriage in case there are any looming or unsettled issues with your husband, that are causing the old crush to have cropped up or increased in intensity.

If the answer is more about hatred toward someone who shamed you and wishing you had dealt with it differently / could undo it now, a few tricks might help:

- Think about other bullies and other people who abuse their power in the world (the recent rapists in India, people who exploit workers, other extreme abuses of power...). Sometimes making it an unfortunate "shit happens in the world" issue rather than an acutely personal issue can help.

- Picture gruesome acts of violence committed on this person. How violent? Think of the movie "Saw." You can even picture yourself carrying them out. I dunno why, this sort of imagery helped me in the past in a similar situation. You (obviously!!!) don't have to do them. However, imagining that sort of horror movie stuff can be a mental shock that distances you from obsessing over a person, and has some beneficial effects. I have found that picturing this stuff over a period of a few weeks can be helpful.

- If there is anything concrete to do so that the person can't affect you, it might help. E.g., block him on Facebook whether he'd ever add you or not. I have done this with old bullies and it had some positive effect. The benefit is also that if they post on anyone's timeline/photos/etc, you don't ever have to see it.

- You can try watching the "It Gets Better" videos to hear about other peoples' experience with bullying. Once again this can get you out of your own shoes and understand it as more of a sad, systemic problem and something you have gotten away from.
posted by kellybird at 6:43 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

People have different ways of processing emotions. For some people, emotional healing comes from being able to forgive people. For others, healing comes from getting retribution on the people that hurt you. For still other people, it comes from simply being able to speak your mind and tell them how you feel about what they did. There's no "one size fits all" template for this, and it can vary not only from person to person, but from instance to instance.

Yet despite this self-evident truth, society conditions us to believe that the only "acceptable" way of healing is forgiveness. This is because the forgiveness methodology causes less overall conflict, and is thus in the best interests of society - even if it isn't necessarily in the best interests of the individual. It sounds like you've been trying this approach for a while, and it hasn't worked for you at all. Maybe you need to be more open to the idea of trying alternative methodologies. Search your heart and ask yourself what you genuinely want, rather than what you think you should want.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:44 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Ziggy500. As a friend of mine said to me recently, what you resist persists. Go with the negative here, whereever it takes you (mentally) and it will eventually spin itself out.

How sad that he obviously had feelings for you and shot himself so completely in the foot that you (easily) turned him down for prom. You sound like you've done much better for yourself than he was doing at that time (and perhaps even now).

Some food for thought: one of my sometime tormentors through junior high and high school wound up getting blackmailed because he was gay and made a suicide attempt. I ran into him afterward; God, what a different kid (in a good way). I honestly hope he went on to be OK with himself. I can't ever think of his being mean to me without also thinking of the coda. This is after many years, though.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:45 AM on January 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Add one more to the "It sounds like he had feelings for you and didn't know what to do about it" pile. Seriously, this is classic stuff as far as I'm concerned. In elementary school a boy would tease and tug on a girl's braids if he liked her because it forced her to pay attention to him. It was the only way they understood to get the attention of their crush. You ex-bully apparently never matured to a point where he figured out a new, more grown up way of dealing with romantic feelings. I think he probably DID like you but holy christ, he was totally scared by them, and totally insecure, and oh my god what if you rejected him! So he rejected you (by bulling you) first so that you would never get the chance.

So when you think about him and how he treated you, feel SAD for him. Pity him. He had feelings for someone who actually had them for him as well, but because he was so immature and insecure he lost his chance. Sucks to be him. Meanwhile, yeah, you had some hard times and it wasn't fun when he was treating you like that, but you survived. Plus, now you're awesome and happy and in a relationship with someone who (presumably) doesn't suck. High fives all around!

Personal story: A few years ago I fell in love with a married co-worker and friend of mine. Not just crush or "he's kinda cute" but properly IN LOVE with this man, and I felt so guilty about it because I am not someone who takes marriage lightly, and I would never do anything to break a marriage up. I knew his marriage was on the rocks, but I never wanted to give him any indication I was harbouring feelings for him in case that changed how his marriage played out. I maintained my friendship with him but kept it VERY platonic and at arms length. If I was ever going to have a chance with him I knew I couldn't be any sort of a element leading to the dissolution of his marriage. Eventually, though, it got harder to hide my feelings, so I ended up being a total asshole to him because, to me, it was easier to be grouchy at him than try to be nice while keeping my feelings on the down low.

When his marriage finally ended (she was the one who ultimately ended it) he was relieved. And a bit after that he and I realised that we had feelings for each other. He NEVER knew that I had been in love with him while he was married (though everyone in the office totally knew that he and I were in love with each other and they basically had a pool going to see how long it would take after his divorce for us to start dating). He even mentioned how there were times when I was an asshole for what seemed like no reason. I explained why and he understood and I think appreciated it, because it allowed his marriage to play out and end on its own. (Sidenote, we're engaged now and getting married in 8 months! Hurray!)

So grown-ups do the "treat your crush like an asshole" thing too sometimes, though hopefully more of a last resort thing...
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 7:06 AM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Write an overly dramatic, purple-prosed FEELINGS letter to him. Hand-write it out because that is more personal than typing it. Put every ounce of emotion possible into it, make it as ridiculous as you can.

DO NOT SEND IT. DO NOT SEND IT TO ANYONE. (this is also why handwriting it is important, you can't accidentally send it with one oops'd click)

Instead, do a wildly dramatic reading of this letter as though you are reading it to him as he is imprisoned before you in an uncomfortable chair. Now read it again in a ridiculous accent. Now shout it, or sing it. Dance it. Say it 3 times fast in pig latin.

(you can also assemble a group of objects meant to represent your closest and most trusted friends from the time that you knew this dude, and perform the letter for them. or alternately, assemble some actual close and most trusted friends, up to you.)

Now burn the letter amidst much made-up ritual, being careful not to set off your fire alarm or destroy your home accidentally.

Congratulations, you have now successfully performed a Douchebag Exorcism.
posted by elizardbits at 7:40 AM on January 15, 2013 [14 favorites]

Best answer: My brain likes to play a game where it takes real events and real people but then mixes them all up in my dreams so that a weekend at a ski lodge that really happened a few years ago now includes all the people that were there plus all my ex boyfriends plus my cousins plus some kind of bathtub in the middle of the living room with no curtain that is the only place where you can wash up. My brain is an asshole.

I am loathe to ascribe a lot of agency to my "subconscious". I don't think that my sleeping brain is capable of elaborate metaphors and sublimations and whatever freudian nonsense where a lizard means you are thinking about your enemies or whatever, but I have had to make peace with the fact that my brain does like to use people from my past who I have assigned a lot of emotional weight to comment on whatever it is that I am needling over in the dream. When I stopped worrying about this and decided to look at it as my brain being lazy and picking from a grab bag of available memories and characters, it stopped happening as often. When I have these types of dreams now I don't spend time trying to remember it or work out what it means, and this makes it fade sooner. Same for waking brain time - I don't try to figure out why my mind is drawn back to certain people or events, I just notice that it is happening again because that is how my brain is wired up (it just really gets a kick out of some circuits I guess) and then I move on. It helps.
posted by skrozidile at 7:43 AM on January 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately, because I'm coming to the conclusion that we do kids a disservice by talking endlessly about the problem of bullying, instead of about the problem of assholes. Semantics? Sure. But I do think the two words represent two different perspectives. A bully is in a position of power, and when you call him a bully you reinforce, if only for yourself, the idea of that power. An asshole is just a shitty person that everyone wishes were not around. A bully must be endured, while an asshole must be tolerated. "Bully" is something you say when you're afraid, while "asshole" is dismissive.

So how does this help you? Well, maybe when you catch yourself ruminating over this guy's behavior, you can just force yourself to think "Christ, what an asshole." And then move on. You might find that it changes your perspective over time.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:54 AM on January 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I've worked through high school bullying in therapy. They were surprisingly intense sessions and helped me realize the unconscious ways that period still affects/affected my daily life (in addition to the terrible memories I was conscious of). Like you, I had mixed feelings about one bully in particular, and those incidents were the hardest to get over. I haven't forgotten the incidents or the person, but I was able to sort through all the unprocessed emotion, put it all away in its proper place, and now I can think about her without feeling like I'm going to puke. I can also remember with genuine fondness the parts of our relationship (before high school) that were great.

You may be able to get yourself through it on your own, but if it's been ten years and you're still dreaming about him, you might want to consider getting some professional help. In my experience, this kind of specific trauma is an excellent thing to work through in therapy because you have a specific goal in mind. "I want you to help me work through bad feelings about a high school bully" is a nice limited scope project that can be tackled and doesn't mean years and years in therapy. It might only take a few sessions with a competent therapist. Personally, I did EMDR and it worked a charm.
posted by looli at 8:04 AM on January 15, 2013

Response by poster: I've marked a few different comments as best answers, because they each have strategies that I think are helpful for this situation. Thanks for your thoughts, MeFites!
posted by handknittedsock at 8:30 AM on January 15, 2013

As I'm sure is true for most people, high school was a difficult time for me; I struggled with insecurity and normal teenage angst, and was very happy to graduate and leave.

So, I want to disagree with this statement, not because I want to say that you're wrong, but because I want to point out something I've noticed with other friends who have been in your situation.

High school was a stressful, unhappy, or difficult time for many people, yes. Bullying, being ostracized, or being otherwise mistreated is common enough that its kind of a free-floating thing, and it impacts a lot of kids who obviously didn't bring it on themselves. It just happened because they just happened to be there.

But I would not say that HS is difficult for most people. I may have had a bad home life, but my experience in high school was totally normal and chill and fun. My partner had both a great home and a great high school experience. I know lots of people who had good, comfortable, or just normal, boring times in high school. We experienced no drama! We had lots of friends! After the awkward middle school years, when lots of kids are kind of rude and poky and emotional, we were never treated badly by our peers! School was just kind of a place where we hung out and learned stuff and did things and generally acted like the teens we were. It surely wasn't the greatest time of my life, but it certainly wasn't the worst. It just was. I was a kid. HS was where I was a kid with other kids.

I've noticed some friends who have had hard times in high school phrase it like you, "it was a place where, like most people, they were unhappy." They seem to minimize the bullying as something that "just happens" and it "wasn't a big deal" and "everyone goes through it, right?" And my response is to think: dude! Why are you downplaying this? It sounds like you totally got the short end of the stick, and had to deal with some real assholes, violent or not. Why aren't you more pissed? That wasn't normal; that totally sucked!

I think some people minimize their bad experiences with bullying, but I wonder if that hurts them in the long run. Bullying and abuse aren't normal, no matter where it occurs. If you experienced the same treatment by a coworker or spouse, today, you would be totally pissed, right? You would recognize that it's a toxic situation, yes? After living through it for years, people might suggest therapy, no? Because it's unusual and hurtful, people generally need to be nice, and support, themselves after living through hurtful times, and recognize the real impact that those times have had on their present selves. You wouldn't suggest that an adult minimize or downplay the abuse they experienced when they were 26, right? Why, then, would you expect that your 16-year-old self should do so? How does age or location change anything?

Maybe this keeps cropping up because you haven't fully allowed yourself to accept that this experience totally sucked and was totally unusual and was completely not fair, and thus haven't been fully able to address the real hurt it caused?
posted by vivid postcard at 1:11 PM on January 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been wrangling with this problem myself -- a guy in high school who I was friends with (and had a crush on, too) who, literally overnight, decided that he absolutely hated me. This wasn't just him acting weird because he liked me, this was full-on, angry hatred, to the point where I was actually afraid he might physically hurt me.

I graduated high school in 1991, and still, to this day, I don't know why he turned on me like that, and it still bothers me from time to time. I think the unknown aspect is why it nags at me -- we had talked on the phone on a Friday night (I was, in fact, trying to work up the courage to ask him out!), made plans to talk the next day, and all was well and happy when we finished the conversation. The next day, I called him, and was met with utter vitriol, and from them on, he acted like I was his worst enemy. None of our mutual friends knew why, because he refused to tell them. He still lives in my hometown, and so I very occasionally see him, and from the daggers he glares at me, he STILL hates me. I've just kind of accepted that I'll never know, so there's no point in dwelling on it. But it is irritating that he still takes up any space in my thoughts, you know? I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one!
posted by sarcasticah at 4:07 PM on January 15, 2013

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