How can you forgive yourself when the person you wronged won’t?
When I was 16, my best friend was a boy I’ll call Matthew. We met in summer school and bonded over comic books that he drew, bad poetry that I wrote, and a mutual love of music with depressing lyrics. Our friendship was intense but never romantic. We relied on each other completely, living from phone call to phone call and shoring each other up against the emotional dramas of late adolescence. Unfortunately, at some point along the way, my feelings for him began to be colored by jealousy and competition.
His love and friendship were not enough; I wanted him to reject other relationships. When he didn’t, I set out to punish him. He was bewildered and heartbroken, but I wouldn’t let up on my demands. The year we graduated, our worlds began to widen. I alternately clung to him fiercely and pushed him away. One night I saw him at a bar with another girl. I was wearing a denim jacket with a painting he had drawn for me on the back of it. I left the bar, bought a can of spray paint, and obliterated the artwork. Then I went back so he could see it. I laughed and danced with friends, flaunting the ruined painting and sneaking glances to see if he noticed. If we spoke again after that night, I don’t recall it —but I do remember the stricken look on his face.
Nearly two decades later, I was cleaning out a box of old papers and found a journal of Matthew’s that he had given to me during the first summer of our friendship. Reading it, I realized how deeply my petty insults and neglect must have hurt him. I could see that his home life had been harder than I’d realized and that this must have made friendships even more important. As I flipped through the pages, covered with his scrawled handwriting, I felt an urgent need to apologize.
With the help of an Internet search engine, I tracked him down and sent an email. I told him I was sorry and that I hoped we could talk. I got no response but figured the email address was out of date. After more digging, I found a phone number and left a message on his machine. “Wow, what a trip to hear your voice!” I said. “I missed you!” He didn’t call back. Finally, a month later, in desperation, I sent him a short letter. “You deserved better,” I wrote. “I betrayed your love and friendship and I’m sorry. I made life worse for you and I regret it. I hope you can forgive me.” I included a poem I’d written for him some years earlier.
About a month later, an envelope arrived addressed in that familiar handwriting. I opened it with trembling hands and found a short note wrapped around my letter and poem. “What part of no don’t you understand?” He wanted nothing to do with me, he wrote. I clearly hadn’t changed if I was expecting him to give me something (forgiveness) along with everything I’d taken from him. “I never want to hear from you again.”
I sat down and started to cry. I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut.
What could I do now? How would I ever be able to move on?
Beyond I’m Sorry
My impulse to apologize was a sound one; in most religious traditions apology, forgiveness, and making amends are highly valued, as evidenced by the formal rituals that for millennia have marked those acts. In Judaism, for example, one of the holiest days of the year is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Observant Jews fast that day to repent their transgressions during the past year. Catholics confess their sins to a priest to receive spiritual guidance and forgiveness.
Yoga teaching, too, speaks to the importance of dealing ethically with others. The concept of karma tells us, in part, that our actions will come back to us. Karma yoga is the practice of selflessly putting ourselves in service to others, and part of this is trying to right the wrongs we have done.
But as I sought guidance after I received Matthew’s reply, I could find little about working through situations like mine. How do we make amends if our apologies are rejected? How can we serve someone who won’t let us near them?
“You can’t make it all perfect,” counsels Frederic Luskin, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and the author of Forgive for Good. “You have to be able to forgive the other person when their response is not what you pictured.”
While working as a research associate for the Stanford University School of Medicine, Luskin focused his studies on the health benefits of forgiveness. When people can’t forgive, their stress levels increase, which can contribute to cardiovascular problems. People who are able to practice forgiveness have stronger hearts, lower blood pressure, and better immune responses than those who carry a grudge.
“There are measurable health benefits to having an open heart and a clear mind,” says Luskin. “A sincere apology is a central mechanism to self-forgiveness, and there are health benefits in forgiving ourselves as much as in forgiving other people.”
But I didn’t know how to begin to forgive myself when Matthew wouldn’t.
Focus On Actions, Not Results
I’ll admit that I had fantasies about what might happen after Matthew got my letter. I pictured him calling me back, and I imagined us renewing the best parts of our friendship. That was one reason his response hurt so much; it wasn’t something I had even imagined. My first thought was to refuse it. “If he won’t forgive me,” I thought, mortified and angry, “then I rescind my apology!”
That response, though, really didn’t get me anywhere. In the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna tells the yogi Arjuna that it is a mistake to focus on the results of our efforts instead of on the efforts themselves: “The man who is devoted and not attached to the fruit of his actions obtains tranquillity.” Or, as Luskin says, “The crucial point in apology is not that you’re successful but that you make the effort.”
My knee-jerk reaction —wanting to take back my apology— showed me that my motivation in making it wasn’t as selfless as I’d thought. I then understood that I needed to be honest with myself and admit any selfish motives I’d had, so I could be free of them. I began to understand that it was OK to want a positive response from Matthew —but not OK to make my apology contingent on it.
“Your actions are always about your character,” Luskin says. “How others receive it is their thing.”
I still didn’t know what to do next. I felt I owed Matthew something but wasn’t sure what. And I began to see my suffering as evidence of my regret. The more I punished myself, the better I could prove how sorry I was.
So I worried away at my mistakes just the way a dog worries a bone. I replayed the drama constantly, from the heady intensity of our early relationship to the adrenaline rush and disappointment when my shaking hands unfolded his letter. When I caught myself staring at the phone, contemplating leaving yet another message on his machine, I knew I needed help to be free of this fixation.
“In Buddhist philosophy, guilt and shame are considered very destructive,” says Kelly McGonigal, who teaches yoga and is a research psychologist at Stanford University. “These emotions may consume us, but they don’t do any good for the suffering of the other person.”
Then why do we get so attached to these negative, destructive feelings?
“Much of our identity is tied up in narratives about our past,” McGonigal says, adding, “We cling to emotional experiences that are familiar to us.”
Breaking away from those habitual responses is an important part of making amends, says Bo Forbes, a yoga therapist and clinical psychologist with Elemental Yoga in Boston.
“We all have samskaras, or patterns, that lead us to behave in certain ways,” she says. “To learn from our experiences, we want to look at those patterns in detail. Have you done this before? What were the triggers? The last step is looking at how you can move out of that pattern. This brings us to real change.”
As I contemplated this, I realized that feeling guilty was indeed familiar to me. I remembered how petty and small I felt during that time in my life and how self-centered my thinking could be. I began to understand that accepting Matthew’s image of me as someone undeserving of forgiveness— and obsessing over that image— was playing into the same self-absorbed drama that drove that time in my life. It also let me pretend to continue to have a relationship with Matthew by making this story central to my self-image.
“He is the one that can’t let go,” Forbes says. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t.”
In fact, I realized, letting go was something I had to do. I was the one who held the keys to the prison of my guilt.
McGonigal offers a four-step practice rooted in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that can take us through the process of making amends.
“First,” she says, “recognize that you’ve done something that caused suffering or harm. Second, sit with the feeling of remorse and regret. Feel it in your body, and experience the emotions. Don’t push them away or wallow in them.”
When we are remorseful, we recognize the harm caused by our behavior but we don’t relive it. Instead, we are moved to action. It was my recognition of having done wrong, and my feelings of remorse about it, that drove me to stop ruminating and look Matthew up on the Internet.
“Remorse,” says McGonigal, “leads to approach—as opposed to guilt, which leads to withdrawal.”
The third step, McGonigal says, is moving into a place of compassion for yourself as well as the person you harmed.
“This was something I learned in a talk given by Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön,” McGonigal says. “Take a deep breath and let it out and think to yourself, ‘May we both be free of this suffering.’ The whole purpose of the compassion practices in yoga is that when we practice compassion, we experience compassion. There is tremendous value in that.”
Fueled by those compassionate feelings, we can move to the final step of setting an intention toward positive action.
Forbes puts it this way: “Apology and atonement are offered to the person we hurt, but they also help us grow. Atonement brings real change.”
This was a challenging shift in my thinking; it went against everything I had learned about apology at my mother’s knee. As a child, I was taught to say I was sorry whether or not I meant it, because apology was not about me but about the other person.
But now I began to understand that true apology and atonement were a gift for the transgressor—in this case, me—as well. Then I had to ask myself, was this a gift that I was ready to receive? Could I be strong enough to look inside myself and confront my need to change?
Developing the willingness to make a real change is much harder than simply saying “I’m sorry.” But without this willingness, an apology is meaningless.
“Atonement is really a spiritual practice which is centered around the process inside ourselves and in our relationship with others,” says Forbes. “And it is not conditional on the desired outcome.”
I didn’t need Matthew’s approval or permission to make amends; what I needed was honesty in my relationship with myself. I had to admit that in holding on to the conflict I was still being the girl who wouldn’t let Matthew hang out with his other friends.
For the second time in our relationship, Matthew was giving me the opportunity to embrace aparigraha, or nongrasping, a central teaching of yoga philosophy. I could not control him then, and I could not control him now. I had apologized, I had wished him peace, and now I needed to let him go.
I once had a boss who would greet our complaints about difficult clients with, “What an opportunity for growth!” That was annoying, to be sure, but as I sifted through my feelings about Matthew, I came to realize that I would have missed an opportunity if he had simply forgiven me as I’d asked. Struggling to accept his rejection forced me to examine the person I was, how she was part of the person I am now, and how I can let her go.
Matthew’s friendship—all of it, from its blossoming beginning to its painful end—is a gift for which I am grateful.