How can I forgive myself for something I did as a teenager?
December 17, 2013 11:28 AM   Subscribe

When I was 15, I was extremely cruel to a friend and sabotaged our very special relationship. I was crazy and didn't really understand what I had done until college. When I finally "got it" too late, I wrote him a letter to apologize, but he never responded. 10 years later, suddenly the guilt is flooding back again big-time...

I recently learned two things: 1) by a total coincidence, he and his wife live literally a mile away from me, and 2) they're expecting their first child. When I found this out, I felt like I lost 10 years of emotional progress. I'm dreaming about apologizing to him every night. I'm imagining that I'm seeing him everywhere.

On the one hand, there's the whole "kids can be so cruel" defense, and I was completely nutty as a teenager. But I'm still wracked with guilt. I miss him and wish we could reconcile, but I know that just can't happen. A mutual friend has stressed to me that he still holds a grudge and will never forgive me.

What the heck do I do?*

*knowing AskMe the answer will undoubtedly be "therapy," so can you please be specific?
posted by MetaFilter World Peace to Human Relations (49 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Write him another letter. Seal it, stamp it, and drop it in the mail with his name (J. Smith) on it but no address.

Leave your feelings at the mailbox.
posted by royalsong at 11:36 AM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you did apologize. You wrote him the letter. You cannot make him accept. Take comfort in the very fact that you feel guilty about it and know it is not something you would ever do again.

I think there is a chance your mutual friend will at least let him know, at the right time, that you still feel guilty and want to apologize. While not a direct apology, it goes towards intent.

If you feel you must say something, I would also wait until after his child is a few years old and try to write another email. People soften when they have kids.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

You can't force him to forgive you. And, you shouldn't force yourself into his life. But, that said, you can send a card in the mail, saying: "congrats on the babe. I wish there was someone way I could apologize."

As for yourself personally, you just need to forgive yourself. Take a deep breathe, and imagine yourself apologizing to yourself, and let it go. I know that sounds simplistic, but you CAN do it. Do not beat yourself up over your past. You are not your past - you are now, and you are the future. The past is past
posted by Flood at 11:38 AM on December 17, 2013

You need to forgive yourself.

Instead of writing to him, try writing to the kid that you were at the time. Write with compassion and understanding. What would you tell him now? What have you learned from that experience--an experience which made you the person you are today, which undoubtedly contributed to your growth?

We all make mistakes. No need to continue to castigate the poor kid you once were. He deserves kindness and compassion, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:40 AM on December 17, 2013 [34 favorites]

I was cruel to someone during my freshman year of college (in 2005). I was somehow guilt-ridden (not on a daily basis, but from time to time) until I finally apologized in early 2011 via Facebook messaging, then the guilt completely evaporated.

If I were in your shoes, I may write him another letter - it's been 10 years, and this may at least soften the blow and signal to him that you're willing to fix the friendship if he wants. Explain that you are still guilt-ridden, but that you will understand if he doesn't want to forgive you, but at least show him that you're still thinking of him.

That said, if he really is still holding a major grudge over something that was done during the teenager years... well, that may be a bit silly, IMHO. I was treated cruelly during my teenager years, and forgave literally everyone for that. But, YMMV, and each to his own.

Upon preview, leaving the letter in a random mailbox may be therapeutic, but I don't know if that'd do the trick for me. I tend to have a very guilty (and alert) conscience. It depends on the situation, though.

Hope that helps, from someone who has been on both the receiving and giving end of this!
posted by dubious_dude at 11:41 AM on December 17, 2013

I did something cruel to my best friend when I was a kid. We reconciled, but I still think about it at least once a month--25 years later. I feel remorse, even though he doesn't care--and I've carried it with me as something I need to be mindful of; I know that even now, as I near my fifth decade, I have a tendency to the same fault that gave rise to the harm I did. And so I'm mindful of it, and think on it frequently.

Don't contact this person; it's been made clear he doesn't want to hear from you. But take some solace in the fact that whatever you did, he's moved on with a wife and child now. Even if he holds a grudge, he's living his life.

Just move on. I'm not sure what "specifically" you need w/r/t therapy. Go, and tell your therapist you're wracked by guilt over something you did when you were 15, and things will move from that.

If you write a letter, don't mail it. The USPS may find a way to deliver it, and you should not be contacting this person (especially with a letter without the address; that will look very very odd). Write it and then burn it. And move on.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:43 AM on December 17, 2013 [12 favorites]

Leave this guy alone. It's not his responsibility to absolve your guilty conscience.

Go to your church/temple/local garden and take 5 mins feeling bad and promising never to do that thing again.

Then donate to a charity he would like, in his name, anonymously.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:44 AM on December 17, 2013 [39 favorites]

I think you can find plenty of pop science and perhaps even actual science articles about the relationship of moral behavior and the development of the teenage brain that might make you more inclined to forgive yourself--certainly there's a better vocabulary for developmental deficits than 'nutty' and 'crazy,' which are pretty judgmental ways of looking at it.

Also, I think you're doing everything you can for your friend by leaving them completely alone and giving them all the space they want. Try to be proud of your restraint in not making their pain all about you.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:44 AM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

What the heck do I do?

Are you feeling guilty because you think you might pull the same kind of thing again?

Think about what really bothers you about how *you* behaved toward this guy (not about how he felt or feels about it). The more specific you can be about the concept of what you did wrong (ex: you scapegoated him, you exploited his good nature, whatever), the better. Once you figure that out, swear to yourself to stay vigilant against never letting yourself do that kind of thing again, and to call out/stop others who you see repeating that behavior as well.

Apologies aren't always enough, but change is.
posted by rue72 at 11:46 AM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it depends on what exactly you did. If it was some kind of physical attack then I think you just stay away. But if not, I think it's worthwhile to drop him a note, if at the least to let him know that you might run into him by chance, so he's prepared. People do change after they have kids (and it's been 10 years) so he might be in a different place where your apology is more meaningful to him. I think another apology has more chance of helping (you and him) than it does of harming.
posted by yarly at 11:48 AM on December 17, 2013

A mutual friend has stressed to me that he still holds a grudge and will never forgive me.

Then there's nothing more to say, really. Sending a letter will probably just dredge up bad memories for him, not make him want to forgive you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:51 AM on December 17, 2013 [10 favorites]

A mutual friend has stressed to me that he still holds a grudge and will never forgive me.

Part of me thinks that your mutual friend might be a bit of a drama llama.

If this high school guy is really and truly holding a grudge against you 10 years later, that says more about him than it does about you. But it just seems so unlikely to me that he is, at least not in the way that your writing about it here comes across.

I had a number of people be unkind and cruel to me as I was growing up. I don't hold grudges against any of them. I don't think there's anything worth forgiving/not forgiving, it was just an incredibly unpleasant thing but now it's done. However, if a mutual acquaintance were to suggest that I go and be friends with one of those people, I wouldn't want to. Not because I'm still angry at them or anything, but just because I have little interest in being friends with them, and have better things to do with my time.

I get this feeling that maybe your mutual friend has tried asking about you to the high school guy, and high school guy has said something like "yeah, not really interested," and mutual friend has parsed this as "still very angry" rather than "has moved on."

What I'm getting at is you should really at this point work on forgiving yourself, and don't let what you think the high school guy might be thinking about you get in the way of that. If I were you I'd ask the mutual friend not to bring it up anymore. It's 10 years ago. It's old news. Not the mutual friend's business.
posted by phunniemee at 11:53 AM on December 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Give it time. Sometimes things that seem emotionally urgent can fade within a few days or weeks. You just got new information that brought your friend to mind - hold steady and breathe. Don't make any big decisions or take action right now.

In the meantime do some journaling - writing things out can really help you sort out your feelings. It sounds like you are anxious about the possibility of seeing him - that might be something you want to write out or discuss with a therapist.
posted by bunderful at 11:53 AM on December 17, 2013

Teenagers are cruel to each other all the time. Odds are you are thinking about this a lot more than he is. A lot of people want nothing to do with old high school acquaintances who were perfectly nice to them. You apologized. He either didn't accept it, or did but doesn't really care. Either way, I don't see this as any kind of burden you need to carry. Let it go and move on. There is nothing here for you to do.
posted by COD at 11:54 AM on December 17, 2013

Your guilt is your responsibility alone. Don't harass this person any more just to make yourself feel better. Get therapy, write letters, do some charity work, but don't go seeking closure on something that you need to deal with on your own.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 11:56 AM on December 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

I can see why he might not have accepted your apology: you didn't offer one. You expressed remorse over your craziness and ignorance, but didn't formally acknowledge agency and fault.

What you do now is stop making him accountable for your feelings of guilt and remorse by acting like he owes it to you to excuse your bad behavior as a teen.
posted by spunweb at 12:00 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You have to ask yourself what you want from forgiveness. One reason I'm skeptical about later-in-life apologies - and I was bullied pretty badly, plus experienced a couple of significant friend betrayals in my teens - is that so often they're really about you, not about me. You've decided that you can't live with yourself, or you've decided that you want to be able to forget what you did, and you expect me to be a service provider who processes your apology so that you can put the whole thing on the shelf. It was socially convenient to bully or betray in the past; now it's socially convenient to get absolution so that you can move on.

I'm not saying that this is anyone's conscious motivation, but I have very seldom encountered people who really sought out forgiveness for whom it was genuinely about the person they wronged. I am often skeptical of my own desire for forgiveness for long-past wrongs because when I look into myself, I feel that it is also about me.

Whether he forgives you and whether you forgive you are two different things. Have you changed? Are you mindful now? If you have a child or mentorship of a child, do you try to prevent bullying? You can forgive yourself regardless of what the guy says or does.

Forgiving and forgetting are also different. If you're just looking to get forgiveness so that you can forget, I think that's a fake kind of forgiveness. When I consider the people who hurt me - and I stress that what I experienced was by no means normal kids-will-be-kids stuff - I don't expect them to spend their lives beating themselves up and feeling unforgiven, but I would like, if I had my druthers, for them to remember what they did.

What can you do yourself to make yourself feel like you're making amends? I've found that in my own case, when I've wronged someone in a way for which apologizing/seeking forgiveness is inappropriate or impossible, I find it helpful to create a method of amends, something concrete I can do to make up for the type of thing I did. So for instance, when I did [something bad that affected a lot of people I didn't know real well in a microaggression kind of way - a small, dispersed offense that I felt really bad about] and so I set up a small monthly donation to an organization which works to support that community. Obviously, this need not involve money - but it might help you if you could say "in order to feel that I am making amends, I am going to do [this thing] to reduce the kind of harm that I committed". So if you did something horribly cruel to your friend the science fiction nerd, for example, you could donate some interesting science fiction books to the library to increase the happiness of young SF nerds, or whatever.
posted by Frowner at 12:02 PM on December 17, 2013 [39 favorites]

Whether through therapy or other means, this is definitely an opportunity to look within and work through your own guilt.

There is nothing else to do externally -- you have already written to apologize. What happens thereafter is up to your friend. That he lives within a mile changes nothing. That he is expecting a first child changes nothing. That 10 years has past changes nothing (as your mutual friend attest). You might write another letter and explain yourself some more, but then you do not know his reasons for not responding to the first letter. In the end, you cannot make him forgive you until he is good and ready to, and that is that. Only time will tell.

If he forgives you, would that erase what you did and all its negative impact? If he never forgives you, how will you deal with all this emotional turmoil? Other people's forgiveness can only be a gift and a bonus; it is never something we are entitled to. Rather, have you accepted and forgiven your "nutty" teenager self?

Sometimes we do bad things and there is no way to undo them. We have to just accept that it happened, forgive ourselves for not having known any better, take care to never do it again, then re-channel our guilt into putting something positive in the world. Perhaps you can volunteer and donate money or time or effort into a good cause that maybe your friend would also endorse, and say it is done in his name. Good luck.
posted by enlivener at 12:03 PM on December 17, 2013

You need to leave the guy alone. Seriously. You say you did something terrible to him when you were younger. Rather than just letting him move on from it you are trying to get permission to keep BRINGING THE BAD THING UP TO HIM AND MAKE HIM RELIVE IT! AGAIN! Honest to god, stop. Just stop. You do not make a person forgive you for something by repeatedly reminding them of a horrible time in their life. Honestly, I think contacting him again about this would be doing an additional horrible thing to him. He is not obligated to make you feel better. He is not obligated to hear you out or listen to your explanations. He is not obligated to clear your mind of guilt. I also don't think the fact that you "miss him" matters in the slightest.

You feel terrible, I get it, you want to make ammends. The kindest thing you can do for him right now is to just let him get on with his life and stop having a bad thing keep being thrown back in his face. So just stop. Accept that this, right now, is as much resolution as you are ever going to get. Just let it go. That is probably what he would want you to do too.

You also aren't doing yourself any favours by obsessing over this. You need to find a way to accept that you can't unring that bell, nor can you undo the hurt and damage. It happened, it can't be fixed. It doesn't make you a horrible person. You made a mistake. Learn from it and be a better person for having learned this hard lesson.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:04 PM on December 17, 2013 [24 favorites]

I want to add that only you know if this is drama-llama stuff or not. If you really, truly hurt the guy intimately, frankly it's not "drama llama" to be unable to forgive that. There were a couple of things that were done to me in my teens that I feel completely cool about never forgiving - they were things that changed my life for the worse for a long time and that I have never been able to forget, despite therapy. I am not being a "drama llama" to remember and be hurt by things that knocked my life off course for many years.

That's not to say that even if you did something terrible, you must be a terrible person. Results and intent are so rarely matched up.

But also, you need to accept that this guy doesn't have to forgive you. He can hold a "grudge" as long as he wants (although I caution you against thinking of it as a "grudge" if it was genuinely a cruel and derailing betrayal - I don't hold a "grudge" against the people who hurt me, for example; I don't wish them harm; I just don't forgive them or want to deal with them).
posted by Frowner at 12:06 PM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

A mutual friend has stressed to me that he still holds a grudge and will never forgive me.

showbiz_liz has already highlighted this but I wanted to drive the point home. It sounds like this person has zero interest in any sort of conversation or reconciliation. Not only do you suspect this, but a friend has confirmed it. Do not contact this person ever again. Respect them enough to leave them alone.

Be kind to yourself. We all have relationships that don't quite end the way we wanted them to. Use your remorse and regret to fuel your kindness towards others in the future.
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:07 PM on December 17, 2013 [7 favorites]

You can ask for forgiveness (and you have), you can apologize (you have), but he doesn't have to forgive you. Leave him be. If you really are sorry, you'll realize that having put it out there, anything else you do to get his attention is for you, not for him.

Forgive yourself. We make mistakes. We learn from them. Clearly you have become a better person all these years later. It's not fair to hold your 15 year old self to the same standard that you hold yourself to now.
posted by inturnaround at 12:08 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

"A mutual friend has stressed to me that he still holds a grudge and will never forgive me."

Well, then, you can tell the mutual friend that you still feel terrible about it, and would still like to reconcile, putting the ball in that guy's court as much as possible.

Then you can live your life in a way that works to make up for that mistake. The best revenge is a life well lived, but it's also the best contrition.
posted by klangklangston at 12:11 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for everyone's answers so far.


I was more looking for advice about how to move on. Lots of people are saying "forgive yourself," but I'm not sure what that involves. If you have had a similar experience and forgiven yourself for it, can you please elaborate on what that process was like?
posted by MetaFilter World Peace at 12:14 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you want atonement, you could donate a lot of money (enough so that it hurts you a little, and you have to forego a vacation or XBox or something) to an anti-bullying group, or some organization that provides mental health services to teenagers. Or you can do a really awesome, secret favor for someone. Or you can ask for suggestions from someone who specializes in atonement tasks (like a priest).
posted by amtho at 12:15 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your question is more about what you can do for yourself than what you can do for him.

You have apologized and made amends as best you can. Sometimes we need to leave people that we've wronged alone and this is the best gift we can give them.

You have learned from your mistake and you're feeling the effects of it keenly. Forgive yourself for the jerk that you were and move on.

When you find yourself reliving the scenes over in your mind, just say to yourself, "I was a stupid kid with issues. It sucks that I hurt my friend, but I now know never to do anything like that again."

Eventually, it will stop hurting.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:16 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The best way to move on, IMO, is to live a life that spiritually undoes what you did. You're never going to actually undo what you did to him, but your actions and choices from here on out can keep it from happening to other people. Find ways to help people who were harmed like this guy was harmed by you. Find ways to foster kindness towards others so that maybe things like this won't happen to people in the future. Pour yourself in to a desire to keep what happened to him from happening to other people, and find a way to help people like him. Be a mentor. Volunteer with troubled youths. Fundraise for services like KidsHelpPhone, etc.

Pay it forward, sort of. Apologize to the hundreds of unknown people out there that are in similar situations. For every teaspoon of cruelty and unkindness you put in to the world you now get to add a cup of kindness and support and generosity. THAT is how I think you can undo a lot of the guilt you feel.

ps - Extremely glad you will not be contacting this guy or passing along messages via your mutual friend. That is by far the kindest thing you can do for him.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:21 PM on December 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

The only true apology you can offer the situation is if you learned from the situation and if it made you a better person. If it has, then meditate on that. if it has not then, likewise, meditate on that. We become better people by making mistakes and incorporating those mistakes into what we become.

If you are still wracked by guilt, after all this time, then perhaps Metafilters most common answer applies, seek therapy to work it out.
posted by edgeways at 12:22 PM on December 17, 2013

Seriously, pick A Thing to do and label in in your head - "when I have done this thing (and reflected on what I did when I was fifteen) I will have made all the amends I can, and it will be okay to forgive myself". Depending on what you did, maybe it needs to be a big thing - donating a significant sum of money, for instance - or maybe it just needs to be something small. Maybe you did something foolish that had a disproportionately bad effect, like you made what you thought was a slightly mean but basically innocuous joke and by sheer cosmic bad luck you phrased it in a way that really really hurt the guy. If it was something where your culpability was small, maybe a small amends is okay - donate some teen-appropriate books about not being a jerk to your local library system.

Another thing you can do on an ongoing basis - commit to telling your story as appropriate (not in some kind of Ancient Mariner-like way, of course). I was once a part of a political project that did a foolish thing. The foolish thing wasn't really my fault, and I didn't have the cognitive tools to recognize why it was wrong at the time, but I did feel bad afterward. There have been several public events where it has been relevant for me to tell the story of what happened as a cautionary tale, even though it doesn't reflect especially well on me. I don't really feel any significant guilt over the thing anymore, but I do tell people what went down whenever it seems appropriate. Similarly, maybe you could just commit to sharing this story and what led you to do as you did if you're in conversations or at events where it's relevant. If it was really epic bullying (which it doesn't sound like it was), you could always volunteer to speak at anti-bullying things.

My point being - you can't apologize, it seems unlikely that this is on the Life of Atonement scale (and to be clear, there are awful things where I think that years of atonement is appropriate), so just decide on a Thing of Amends. If it's more complicated than donating money or books, run it by a wise friend first to make sure that you aren't doing something silly that you'll again feel bad about.

Assuming that you're basically describing a one-off, very hurtful, maybe slightly maliceful but not deeply rooted in the desire to do harm kind of thing...I, an internet stranger who has thought about this stuff a lot, give you permission to declare a means of amends and then forgive yourself.
posted by Frowner at 12:37 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

(Also, if you are in the habit of tormenting yourself with guilt, talk to a therapist.)
posted by Frowner at 12:38 PM on December 17, 2013

Invest your energy in the future rather than the past.
posted by headnsouth at 12:41 PM on December 17, 2013

Because "extremely cruel" is subjective, it's hard to say whether his continued grudge is warranted or not. All we know is that you were young(er), friends and you did something extremely cruel---a recipe for vehement grudges. Given that information, my personal view is that he should be left alone---stay out of his life since it's clear he doesn't want you there.

And FWIW, if someone I had considered a good friend did something extremely cruel to me (regardless of how long ago), I would be incredibly resentful if they showed up out of the woodwork a decade later trying to absolve themselves of guilt by barging into my life and seeking an apology.

Your guilt is not his problem, nor should it be. It's something you need to deal with on your own (with a bit of therapy) so you can accept what happened, what isn't going to happen (his accepting your apology), learn from it and move on.
posted by stubbehtail at 12:43 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wrote him a letter to apologize, but he never responded.

This does not necessarily mean he didn't forgive you. Sometimes people have let things go, and just don't want to drag it out.

So, as others have already said, you apologized, now forgive yourself.
posted by The Deej at 12:44 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you step back enough from this to imagine a friend is asking you for advice about how to move on from their guilt and sadness: what do you say to this friend?

I have been working hard on developing self-compassion in the last couple of years, and the more I do it, the deeper I see it can take me in treating myself as a friend, as someone who is fallible and makes mistakes but is still someone I love and value. Can you do this for yourself?

Questions I would ask your guilty self are: Why are these feelings coming up now? What do your feelings of guilt want from you?

You might check out an exercise called "Feeding Your Demons" where you kind of embody different parts of your self and have a conversation between them. I've found it profoundly powerful, and I can send you the exercise if that sounds like something you'd find valuable -- memail me if you do.

But basically, it all wraps up to: be kind and gentle with yourself. What's passed is past, and you're not alone in regretting past actions. You're human, and you're walking a path where hopefully you can learn that lesson and move on to new mistakes next time.
posted by spindrifter at 12:51 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I hesitate to suggest church to someone who may be an atheist or otherwise church-phobic, but forgiveness of sins and inspiration to channel fear and self-doubt into positive action is precisely what I cherish from my faith and (sporadic) attendance at a church that welcomes everyone and emphasizes God's love.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:56 PM on December 17, 2013

"When I was 15, I was extremely cruel to a friend and sabotaged our very special relationship."

OP, is there a good reason you chose not to spell out in your question exactly what it is that you did to him? Right after you made fun of therapy in your last line, you asked us all to "please be specific" but you haven't. Ironic.

Maybe you are giving this thing too much power by tiptoeing around it.
posted by hush at 1:21 PM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

The very fact that you would take the time to acknowledge this to a group of strangers says that you: have a conscience, wish you could make amends and realize you did something wrong.
I think you've learned your lesson and will be more careful in the future.

Good for let it go and perhaps some day this person will be able to also let it go.

If just one of the people who've done me dirt even took the time to think about the pain they caused I'd be happy. We all are capable of being miserable bastards at times.
posted by AuntieRuth at 1:23 PM on December 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have someone who used to be in my life and did something awful. It happened 6 years ago and I've cut them out and moved on, but every now and again I get an email or message from them "apologizing" that I ignore, so I think it's a similar dynamic to what you have.

I'm glad that you don't have any inclination to contact them.

If it helps to hear from the other side, I just have no interest in that person. I'm not angry, I don't dwell on it, but I also have zero interest in speaking to them or maintaining any sort of relationship. Their apologies sound a lot like what you mention here, deflecting blame by saying you were "crazy" and "nutty", they don't shoulder any real responsibility for their actions.

So, I wish them well, I hope they figure out whatever it is they need to figure out, but I don't want them in my life. If I heard they were doing well I would be glad. I'm not being silent to punish them, but to protect myself. It's not grudge holding, it's simply that having had someone enter your life isn't a reason to keep them in your life.
posted by Dynex at 1:24 PM on December 17, 2013 [11 favorites]

You might try loving kindness meditation. Basically what you do is wish health, ease, freedom from fear, etc, to yourself, then to someone you count as beloved, then to someone neutral, then to someone you find difficult. It might help if you had him stuck in there somewhere. Or if he doesn't show up in this exercise, it might still help to spend some time concentrating your brain on generating positive feelings rather than hyper focusing on guilt. There are mp3 recordings of guided loving kindness meditations on the web, some of them free and others paid. In the west Sharon Salzberg is famous for producing a lot of material on this topic. It is not prayer, and the emotional exercise might help the situation you describe.
posted by feets at 1:29 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you have had a similar experience and forgiven yourself for it, can you please elaborate on what that process was like?

Well, my circumstances were different; I didn't even have the excuse of being a confused teenager when I was behaving like a colossal a-hole. I was a grown-ass adult at the time. I've since overhauled my entire code of conduct, and am in many ways a very different person, but I still am very aware of my capacity to do harm.

One thing that helps me is to see my behavior in the wider spectrum of evil-asshole human behavior. I had the unusual experience, mid-life, of socializing with evil-assholes of world-class caliber. And these folks were unrepentant. They went to their graves without remorse, and unpunished (never believe that karma-crap about the Universe doling out justice to bad doesn't always happen, esp. to smart criminals). Compared to them, you and I ain't nuthin' in terms of our bad behavior. And, unlike you and I, they didn't even *try* to right their wrongs. Assholes.

Anyway: it might help you to keep in mind that one of the most beautiful things about being human is our capacity to evolve, reinvent ourselves, and redeem ourselves. You are not that teenager, though you carry the memory of those times, and those times helped form who you are now.

Even assholes get a do-over on being a good person; and if they do it right, they can recast those dark experiences into lightness. You are probably acutely attuned to bullying behavior in others, and may find ways to advocate for those who are being bullied.

Just be a good person. You are allowed.
posted by nacho fries at 1:37 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you should dedicate some time to being a mentor to a young teen. Go be somebody's big brother. Be a role model for him. Sacrifice your weekends to spend time with him. Coach him through some difficult emotional situations. Put up with him if he acts like a jerk to you. Make an ongoing commitment to someone else that may prevent the same kind of emotional cruelty from appearing in some other teens' life. When you think about the bad thing you did , remind yourself that you are doing something to make up for it, and that you are planning to meet your little brother next week at the ball game, or whatever, and let the guilt go. In five or six years maybe you will feel better about your guilt and maybe you will have helped someone grow into a fine, kind, young man, which apparently was a difficult experience for you and your former friend.
posted by bq at 1:42 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't miss him. This happened over ten years ago- the person that you miss no longer exists, especially since the imaginary person you miss was a teenager.

You miss the type of relationship and bond that two teenagers had, but you can't recreate those any more than you can recreate your teenage self. You have done all that can be done. Your guilt serves no purpose. Talk to a therapist about letting it go- continuing to torture yourself doesn't accomplish anything or change the past.

Also, teenagers are literally psychopaths. They are physically less capable of empathy than adults. Cut yourself a break.
posted by windykites at 1:50 PM on December 17, 2013

the guilt will stop crippling you when you develop enough empathy to realize this isn't about you and your own needs. let the poor guy deal with it the way he wants to (he's under no obligation to behave in any such way with you). like the other comments have said you have to continue with your life - no justifications for the past (i don't care how nutty you were as a teenager, "the kids can be cruel" defense is abusive mentality that absolves the wrongdoer of any conscience they had in the first place as it was a CHOICE for you to act this way). i might sound really unsympathetic but when you learn that this about ACCOUNTABILITY and not about forgiveness then you can truly move on.

feel happy that this person despite whatever you did to them is living their live with a wife and kids (not to minimize what you did bc this is about accountability) but really just to illustrate how life evolves and grows.

and for anyone saying that this person must be childish for not wanting to forgive you - bullying is not a severity you can reduce - it has been shown to have life long impacts on a lot of people and for a lot of the victims the healing process is NOT forgiving the perpetrators.

i think you also have to mourn your friendship because you're still thinking of "10 years of emotional progress that was lost" when really that died once you acted the way you did.

guilt is going to be there as long as you're not embodying the virtues you ascribe to. you wrote your letter -- i know it doesn't seem effective bc it wasn't accepted and you weren't written back to -- but the intent was there and you have to recognize that you DID apologize.
posted by thischarmingirl at 2:04 PM on December 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

A specific kind of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, has helped me in situations like these (especially reading the book Feeling Good, as dorky as it looks).

I've had really good success writing out a question and then writing follow-up comments and questions to unpack/peel the layers away, figure out the real consequences vs. what I'm catastrophizing in my head, etc.. I could imagine it turning out like one of these examples:

I'm so stressed that this friend won't forgive me!
-- What's the problem if he doesn't forgive you?
He lives nearby now and I might actually run into him on the street!
==> ... more stuff that reveals discomfort about being on the spot in uncomfortable situations

I'm so stressed that this friend won't forgive me!
-- What's the problem if he doesn't forgive you?
That means he doesn't like me, and I hate it when people don't like me!
==> ... more stuff that reveals issues about not being able to control people's feelings about you or how you're perceived

I'm so stressed that this friend won't forgive me!
-- What's the problem if he doesn't forgive you?
I feel like I got away with it and that I should've been punished/pointed out by someone else for what I did.
==> ... more stuff about guilt and shame, living with bad secrets, etc.
posted by cadge at 3:13 PM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Lots of people are saying "forgive yourself," but I'm not sure what that involves. If you have had a similar experience and forgiven yourself for it, can you please elaborate on what that process was like?

Try to imagine what process you might go through to forgive someone who hurt you deeply, and apply that to this situation. First there would be some anger, maybe grief - sounds like you've experienced those things. You would have to just experience those feelings until you were done. Then acceptance. Maybe you need to accept that you have the capacity to harm and are not completely good (this is really hard for a lot of us). But you're human, and most humans are a mix of good and evil.

Journaling can help with this. Write down the facts of what happened and your feelings about them. Write a letter (that you won't send) to your friend. Ask yourself questions. Be honest but don't mistake cruelty for honesty.

As far as therapy - what sort of specifics do you need? Advice on finding a therapist? (ask around and use the Psychology Today website) Advice on how to talk to a therapist? ("Hi, I'm anonymous and I'm here because I'm struggling with something I did in the past" - then give them a printout of this post).
posted by bunderful at 3:16 PM on December 17, 2013

Ensure the lesson of your bad behaviour is fuel for acts of love and generosity in your life with others, who you have an opportunity to help and have a positive relationship with.
posted by smoke at 3:49 PM on December 17, 2013

It would help to know details. I can't honestly say "leave him alone" when there's a chance you're giving it more weight than it deserves, but neither can I say "send a short, open-ended card or letter" or "request the mutual friend let ex-friend know how much you truly regret your actions and you would like the opportunity to apologize directly via mail, phone, or in person, if ex-friend ever so desires, now or in the future.

Then again, there remains the possibility that mutual friend will or doesn't think you're sincere... but that's a whole different can of worms.
posted by stormyteal at 5:55 PM on December 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think that you need to do two things. The first is already really well covered: forgive yourself as much as you can, and accept that this person is unable or unwilling to forgive you, and they do not owe you their forgiveness.

The second might be harder. You only live a mile from him. You need to prepare yourself for the possibility that at some point, you're probably going to see him at the supermarket or coffeeshop or whatever. Which will definitely be super, super uncomfortable for you. How will you react? I once had someone who bullied me horribly run up and hug me in a supermarket, and despite the fact that I've not been anywhere near high school for fifteen years and am, in fact, a functional adult etc, it took all my self control not to smack her and then cry for the next eleven years. Please ready yourself to not be that person.

I would suggest coming up with a polite-but-bland script to be used should you run across this person in public. It should emphatically not be about you, but about setting him at ease. (Because silently sharing a produce aisle and carefully avoiding each other's eyes is horrible.) I would use something like "Hi, [person]." Pause, and give him time to walk away. If he stays, you could offer something about him looking well, or you hope that he's well. Don't bring up reconciliation--he knows it's a thing you're interested in, and you know it's a thing that he's not interested in. If he continues the conversation, gold star, carry on--if he doesn't ask you questions in return, you wish him well and move on to a different part of the store.

As someone who was bullied pretty horribly in middle school and high school, I've abandoned full shopping carts rather than share a checkout queue with someone who was previously horrible to me and is now pretending that I don't exist and/or that we were BFFs. I'm definitely not friends with anyone from that time period, but there are at least a few who I can now vaguely nod at and walk away from, and I'm grateful for that.
posted by MeghanC at 12:17 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

You did something horrible enough that the person you hurt still isn't over it, and maybe never will be. Nothing you say it do is ever going to make that better. Why do you think you should get to feel better/stop blaming yourself? The only person that has the power to forgive you was so hurt by you they never will. Maybe you need to understand that you have done an awful thing, and have the capacity for causing long lasting pain.

Do with that knowledge what you will. Try to be better than you were. Make a conscious effort not to cause the level of hurt that lasts a decade.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:44 AM on December 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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