Although he endured intense bullying as a child, the pro dancer tells PEOPLE he learned to be forgiving of those who tormented him

By Anya Leon and Reagan Alexander
Updated October 18, 2014 01:15 PM
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

On Dancing with the Stars, Derek Hough is popular and in command.

But as a kid growing up in Utah, Hough was viciously bullied. And it took him years to gain the confidence he exudes on the dance floor.

“I was punched in the face, pretty aggressively in the stomach. I was tied up in trees and left in fields,” the dance pro told PEOPLE at Friday’s 10th annual GLSEN Respect Awards, which also honored Julia Roberts with the humanitarian award.

To this day, Hough, 29, who said he was targeted by his schoolmates and neighbors, doesn’t understand why he was singled out, but believes the answer lies within the bully’s lack of self-esteem.

“That’s the question: Why me? Why is this happening to me? What have I done?” he said. “It’s not because [of] anything other than the people doing it aren’t happy with themselves. They don’t love who they are. They don’t know who they are.”

Although Hough – who received an inspirational award – has not forgotten his painful past, he said his biggest step was learning to let go.

“I’ve learned that I can’t have control over the outside. ‘I want this person to respect me. I want this person to like me.’ It’s really just loving who you are and being true to who you are,” he said.

“When I was bullied, it was very physical, it was very aggressive, and it was something that, as I got older, I definitely forgave. I think that when you’re forgiving, you’re for giving.”

And now Hough wants to do a little giving of his own – as a father.

Although Hough’s "hectic" year has left little time for dating, the author of Taking the Lead: Lessons from a Life in Motion said he’s ready to finally shift his focus to starting a family.

“We’ll start with a woman first – a wife!” he said with a laugh, playfully quipping that he’s “pretty eligible.”

“I want kids,” he added. “I’m turning 30 next year, I got to get on this! I want babies.”

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