I used to be a bully.
Adults around me said that I was ‘bossy’, but really, I was controlling. I liked having power over people. I saw friends as people who were supposed to do what you wanted them to do, which tended to mean I gathered friends who were shy and retiring and then bossed them around a lot, until inevitably they learned how to stand up for themselves and found friends who were more chilled out.
There was more to it than that, though. I had a kind of ‘tough love’ approach. I’d point out to friends that what they were doing would get them bullied, so they should change it now, like no longer wearing a pinafore to school instead of a skirt, but in effect, I’d bully them myself in my attempts to ‘protect’ them. Sometimes I even threatened people with violence, and I can’t say with any certainty that I never followed through on that.
My first instinct was always to lash out. My siblings will no doubt tell you how I would hit back, how I scratched them (I always had long fingernails). When I was in year seven, a year nine girl pushed in front of me in the lunch queue and I slapped her — then denied I’d done anything, and of course, nobody would disbelieve the small, quiet nerd that I was about something like that.
It wasn’t just in real life. At that age, I was really into Runescape (because, you know, it was 2007), but the game brought out the worst in me. Somehow, I figured out how to con people into giving me (in-game) money by exploiting their kindness: I would pretend to celebrate a very small amount of coins as if it were the most I’d ever had, while in the company of more experienced players, who would then take pity on this poor noob and transfer coins to me. How I figured this out, I don’t know (was I an eleven-year-old criminal mastermind, or just good at emotional manipulation?) but it worked more times than you’d expect.
Worse than that, I used to trick other underage players into admitting they were underage… and then report them. Despite being underage myself. To this day I have absolutely no idea why I did this or what I got from it. It’s a baffling act of petty vindictiveness that I look back on with confusion as well as shame.
I’d like to think I grew out of this kind of behaviour — after all, I’m talking about when I was eleven. I definitely recognised that some of my past behaviour had been unpleasant by the time I was about thirteen or fourteen, and apologised to several of the people involved, but I think I continued to be controlling and manipulative in ways that were subtle enough for me not to realise that’s what I was doing throughout most of my teenage years.
And the thing was, it’s not like I was a completely terrible person. At the same age that I was (illegally) playing Runescape and messing with other players, I was doing a ton of campaigning for charity, mainly the anti-trafficking campaign Stop the Traffik — giving assemblies at school, raising money, organising fundraiser concerts, campaigning for fairtrade produce in local supermarkets, the works. I did sponsored swims for British Heart Foundation every year, I got involved in other campaigns, I raged about injustice… People thought of me as good, even while all of this was lurking under the surface.
I’ve come to suspect that the same fire that fuelled my desire to change the world was the fuel for my rage and cruelty. I didn’t really know how to mediate my emotions. I felt passionately about everything. I screamed when I missed a bus, once, so loudly that people from the house nearby came out to see if I was getting murdered or something. Sometimes that passion went into charity work — but sometimes it went in less positive directions, and caused hurt to the people around me.
(That inability to regulate my feelings was probably part of the reason I developed an anxiety disorder, too, and it hasn’t completely gone away. I still get extremely overwhelmed, I’m still obsessive, I still try to put 100% into everything and then wonder why I’m burned out…)
You may wonder why I’m telling you all this. It’s because for years I have been haunted by the idea that I’m not, when you get down to it, a good person. If you stripped away all my anxiety and inhibitions, what would I become? I call myself a pacifist, say that I want peace on both a personal and a global level, and yet my first instinct in a confrontation is to lash out; I want to be a good friend, yet find myself struggling to let go of negativity in those relationships.
I have a cruel streak a mile wide, and if it took me so long to recognise how badly I treated my ‘friends’ when we were children, who’s to say what I might be doing now without realising it? I always thought of myself as a victim. I got bullied myself. And yet — and yet — I behaved that way towards people I liked and cared about.
But kindness is a choice.
Kind is something you do, not something you are.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I was thinking about in terms of peace, initially: how choosing to find peaceful ways of resolving a confrontation isn’t something that’s undermined by the fact that your first instinct was to hurt somebody, because you didn’t do it, and that choice is the most important thing. But kindness, too, is a series of little choices we make every day.
Sometimes, I find myself thinking uncharitable things about close friends. The thoughts push themselves to the forefront of my mind, but I bite them back, because I know if I say them it won’t help anybody, and it’s likely instead to hurt them. I find myself impatient with other people’s problems, or resentful of their success. I think things about other people that I would be devastated to learn anybody thought about me.
But I don’t say them. Once upon a time, I would have done. Now, I stop, and observe those thoughts. I’m ashamed of them; ashamed that I’ve let my thoughts run those tracks in my brain so much that those are the paths that come naturally. It’s easy to get trapped in the shame stage, when what’s really important is what comes next: trying to redirect them, to turn them into something positive, and if that’s not possible, letting them go. Ignoring them completely.
It can feel so tempting to make a passive-aggressive remark, but what good would it do? None. Nobody benefits from it. After a moment’s vindictive pleasure, I don’t benefit, because I feel embarrassed and ashamed; the recipient is hurt, and feels I’m unsupportive. Yes, it feels inadequate to say nothing, but sometimes it’s the best option.
I try to be supportive, even when I don’t feel like it. I try to encourage people who are having a hard time, even when I’m lacking hope myself and find it hard to believe my own words. I try hard enough that in some internet circles, I’m considered a ‘nice’ person. A ‘kind’ person.
I always feel like a fraud, when someone says this, because they don’t know! They don’t know all the awful things I thought first! They don’t know all the ways in which I’m petty and mean, because I bottle those up and try not to give voice to them and very occasionally I’ll admit them to myself in my journal because I try to be honest there, when I can’t be honest anywhere else.
My kindness is a sham, I want to say to them. It’s a front. Underneath it all… I’m a total dick. And I always have been.
I’m learning, though, that that’s not really the point.
Maybe there are people for whom it comes naturally. Maybe there are people whose first thought in response to a friend’s success is unbridled happiness, not resentment that you aren’t doing as well. Maybe there are people who wouldn’t default to lashing out when they feel threatened in any way, people for whom power over others isn’t something they’ve ever sought either consciously or unconsciously.
Maybe ‘kind’ people exist.
But I’d suspect there are fewer of them than we’d think. People who practise
kindness, on the other hand — people who push away the darkness of their thoughts by sheer force of will and determination to turn the light on — are everywhere.
And I would like to be one of them.
I thought for a long time the fact that it wasn’t the whole story somehow undermined it, like it was only performative kindness, but I’ve come to the conclusion that to the recipient, that makes no difference. Just as a thoughtless remark can hurt somebody even though you didn’t mean to be cruel, so can a conscious effort to be encouraging (even when it feels like a sham) help somebody.
It’s like courage: it’s not about the absence of fear. Being kind isn’t about the absence of cruelty. It’s about having two roads ahead of you, and choosing the kind one. A thousand little choices, not some fundamental character trait that you can’t change.
It’s less important that I thought about raising my fist, and more important that I didn’t.
It’s less important that a catty, passive-aggressive remark came to mind, and more important that I didn’t say it.
It’s less important whether or not I’m naturally ‘good’, naturally ‘nice’, naturally ‘kind’ — and more important that I do good, that I practise kindness. That I’m not naturally inclined to peace only strengthens the conscious, active nature of my commitment to pacifism, because it becomes a matter of conscience.
And maybe, over time, I will wear new tracks in my brain, so that those are the choices that come more easily, just as I already feel revulsion at the thought of behaving the way my younger self did at times. I may have to stick a magnet to my moral compass now and again to keep it pointing in the right direction, but I can still choose to follow it, until the path becomes clearer.
As they say: everything gets easier with practice, so be careful what you practise.
Maybe kindness will never be easy. But that’s okay, as long as I still do it. I can choose to act with love, and the love is not made false by the choice.
So yeah, I kind of hate my younger self. It’s hard not to, when I consider the way I behaved, for no reason that I can determine, just as it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that I must on some level be a deeply flawed human being. While I read my journals from 2014 with a profound sense of pity, a desire to protect my eighteen-year-old self who was hurting so much, my intermittent diary from 2007-08 just fills me with shame.
But I refuse to believe that who I was as a child will define who I become, for all the fear I have that my own behaviour in my formative years will have wired my brain to follow cruel instincts.
I will try and choose kindness, little choice by little choice. I will unclench my fist, bite back that snappish remark, give the benefit of the doubt, and act with love.
Because the world needs kindness, now more than ever.