I was, I think, a compulsive liar in my late teens and early 20s. I had, in some ways, a pretty awful adolescence. I was fortunate to meet a young man who was kind, attentive and exactly who I needed at that time. He loved me dearly and I abused that. I lied to him with claims at which, looking back, I’m truly disgusted. I was racked with guilt at the time but I couldn’t seem to control it. I can only think that I was desperate for attention. The lies spread to my friend circle and drew a wedge between my boyfriend and me until we finally, very messily (again, mostly due to my immaturity), broke up.
In the nearly 10 years since, I’ve come clean to my friends, apologised and tried to move on. My friends have forgiven me, for which I’m so grateful. I tried to apologise to my ex at the time, and he tried to forgive me, but understandably his trust in me had been broken beyond repair. I look back at that time and feel some pity for my younger self but mostly so much guilt and shame.
I’ve thought about reaching out to my ex to try to gain some kind of “closure” but my friends and family tell me it isn’t necessary. As far as I know, he’s now happily married (and I am happy for him). But in my budding career there is a chance that I might cross paths with him. I’m afraid that my past might come back to haunt me; that it might somehow ruin my career. Am I being irrational? Should I reach out to him or leave it in the past? Would reaching out simply be a selfish act?
Eleanor says: Done well, apologies wipe the slate clean. But it’s worth asking whose slate – would you be trying to undo the hurt you caused, or the shame you feel as a result?
If you’re trying to undo the hurt you caused, it’s worth considering that an apology might backfire. Sometimes they just drag painful memories out of the silt, or burden the other person with having to work out whether to forgive. Sometimes they make other people feel they’ve been given emotional homework one arbitrary afternoon, just because it suited us that day to apologise. It’s a real shame we can’t ask people in advance if they’d like to hear from us, but we can’t. It’s worth being cautious around that risk; if the goal would be to ease his suffering, he might have beaten you there.
If instead you’d be apologising to try to make the shame go away – to mitigate the risk to your career, or the chance he’d tell other people – the first thing I want to say is: I don’t blame you.
It is extraordinarily difficult to know we did things we revile, and one of the hardest parts is knowing there are people out there who rightly don’t like us very much. That’s just what happens: the people we hurt sometimes freeze a version of us in time and resent it even as we change. It is perilously easy to vest those people with the power to redeem you. To think that if they agree you’re different now, it will be true.
But it’s worth trying hard to resist that. Try not to reach out to him if it’s just to soothe the fear and shame.
Part of growing into a more responsible person is learning to not wriggle out of the consequences of our actions. A long time ago you did some things that shook this man’s trust – that might just be a consequence you can’t escape.
You can work hard to falsify that vision of you by forging new values and becoming a braver person, and it sounds as though you have. But we don’t get to ask the people we’ve hurt to take away the consequences for us by liking us again, or promising not to tell. Sometimes we just have to have the dignity to be disliked. Sometimes, that’s exactly what proves we’ve changed.
I understand the fear that this past will catch up with you but you’d be surprised at how unfazed most people are. Everyone has secrets, and many people on hearing this would wonder about the person telling 10-year-old stories at least as much as the person they’re about. If any judgmental inquirer asked you about this, you’d be able to tell them exactly what you told me: you hurt someone badly, a long time ago, and reflecting on how it happened helped make you a person you’re proud to be.
Try not to apologise as a way of chasing reassurance that your past won’t have consequences. Trust instead in your ability to face those consequences with the grace and courage you learned from making mistakes in the first place.
This question has been edited for length.
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