BIG QUESTIONS

08.04.14

Should You Confront Your Old Bully?

Facebook and other social media sites have allowed all kinds of old ‘friends’ to get back in touch—including people who have really hurt us. Is it smart to confront them—or is the best approach just to avoid them?

There are countless stories of former loves finding each other on Facebook, reconnecting and living happily ever after—or at least happily for a few years. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is not a single person with a Facebook account who has not been contacted by a “friend” from the past you’d rather not be in contact with.

But what about when the person reaching out is not just someone you don't consider a friend, but someone you consider a bully? Should you confront someone that has hurt you in a substantial way, even if the emotional injury was inflicted long ago?

An analysis of decades of data published in July in the American Psychiatric Association found that childhood bullying could lead to emotional problems in victims well into adulthood. By age 50, people who were bullied as children experienced higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts than those who were not bullied.

While it has long been accepted that child abuse by parents has a long-term impact on victims, we only now understand that everyday schoolyard bullying can lead to similar outcomes. Yet while some families in which abuse was prevalent may seek counseling to heal old wounds, very rarely do we think of striving for similar closure with bullies.

Social media is changing that, and so are some therapists.

Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital, told The Daily Beast she has had plenty of adult patients seek her counsel to help heal wounds inflicted by childhood bullies. Whether to confront them as adults, she said, depends on the situation.

“The thing is, many people don’t realize they were bullies as kids,” she said, “and would never acknowledge what they did, because they really don’t see it the same way. Others, however, do and may feel guilty, but don’t know how to approach it so they just talk as if nothing happened with the hopes that rekindling the relationship will act as a de facto apology.”

This explains why some bullies reach out to their former victims on Facebook. A Google search of “my bully contacted me on Facebook” gets more than 700,000 results.

But Facebook is not the only place where some bullies hope time, as opposed to an actual apology, will be enough. A number of personal stories recounted on various online message boards and blogs include tales of victims running into former bullies who act pleasant, cordial, and as though nothing ever happened.

This type of behavior is not limited to childhood bullies. According to a 2007 study, 37 percent of American workers—more than 50 million people—have been bullied in the workplace.

Working in media, I have seen numerous instances of colleagues treating someone terribly, and then treat their former victim nicely once it becomes professionally useful. But I have never met someone who actually confronts people for their abhorrent behavior after the workplace bullying is over.

“The thing is, many people don’t realize they were bullies as kids.”

The fact it, few of us have the courage to be that direct with our further bullies, and may wonder if there is any point in doing so. As I recounted to Dr. Saltz, as an intern I was treated very poorly by a woman I now cross paths with fairly regularly on a professional basis. I have met a number of other women working successfully in media and politics who also felt bullied by this person, but none of us have ever said anything to her. We try our best to avoid her at social and professional events no matter how nice she now pretends to be—the real world equivalent of not responding to a Facebook friend request.

But according to the experts, there is a middle ground between pretending someone doesn’t exist and telling him you wish he would drop dead. Dr. Jeff Gardere, a psychologist and family therapist, felt strongly that professional bullies should be confronted, so they are less likely to repeat the behavior.

“The benefit for the victim is letting it out and letting it go,” he told The Daily Beast. “To now have the courage to say something is emotionally freeing and empowering. For the boss, it is a chance to apologize and not repeat the bullying, especially if he or she is not aware of the power or aftermath of bullying!”

Dr. Saltz also believes confronting the uncomfortable realities of your past can be worthwhile. “If someone tortured you, and then pops up wanting to be your friend on Facebook, it may be a great time to say, ‘I am surprised to be hearing from you because honestly you were pretty hurtful to me as a kid,’” Dr. Saltz said.

“Rather than pretending, transparency and authenticity have a way of making you feel better,” she added.

According to Dr. Saltz, confrontation can lead to a formal apology, something many victims of bullying desire. She also noted that some bullies admit they were grappling with their own pain, which triggered their cruel treatment of others. A confrontation, then, “also means the possibility that in understanding the ‘why’ of it. The experience can rewrite your history in a way that makes you feel better about yourself, or less angry and more forgiving, which is very freeing.”

Dr. Gardere added that confronting the elephant in the room can be healthy and cathartic, so long as it’s done for the right reasons and in the right way. “The confrontation should not be about revenge, but about reconciliation on both parts,” he stressed.

But, as Dr. Saltz noted, “It’s also possible, of course, the bully has remained a bully and it won’t go well. In which case, time to end contact.”