You have to be willing to be the bad guy in someone else's story
Here are a few questions for you: How would you feel if you discovered that one of your exes had gone on to found a relationship blog? How would you feel if you found that relationship blog and saw that the most recent post was about something you yourself had done in that relationship half a decade ago? How would you feel seeing true descriptions of your behavior punctuated with all-caps exclamations of “THIS 👏🏻IS 👏🏻 TOXIC”, and seeing dozens and dozens of commenters chiming in to agree? And then how would you feel if you agreed with them too?
I was asking myself these questions in very-early 2020, three-point-something years after I’d quit drinking and started the very long process of changing my harmful behavior. I was staring at that call-out post on my phone, sitting on a curb in a parking lot during a break while at a weekend personal growth event in St. Petersburg Florida. During that break, along with all the other breaks in that weekend, we were directed to call multiple people in our contact lists and create new possibilities for those relationships, taking responsibility for our own contributions to any breakdowns and explicitly declaring our stand for a connected and vivid future together. Many other people were pacing the parking lot I was in, either on their phones or gathering the strength to push the dial button and make something happen. I was looking at my ex’s relationship blog because I had googled her in preparation for calling her and having one of those create-new-possibilities conversations - she’d had a significant online presence while she and I were dating, so I wanted to see what she was up to so that I could have something to comment on supportively during the conversation that I was about to initiate with her.
I’d written her an amends letter during my 9th-step work in secular AA; I’d drafted it and re-drafted it and gotten feedback on it from some of the people I most trusted in the program, then I’d put it in the mail and waited by the mailbox for some sort of response for weeks before finally moving on. That one amend, to her, had occurred as overwhelming to me for my entire first year of sobriety, and I’d gotten really busy doing all kinds of productive-looking work besides actually facing up to it, telling myself that once I had one year of sobriety then I’d finally be ready to take it on. Then my first sober anniversary rolled around and I went from having 364 days of sobriety to 365, and I felt no new capabilities magically bestowed upon me; I finally accepted that I had to do it sooner or later and then did what I thought I had to do and found it no more easy than it would have been if I had just taken it on right away.
What made the amend so scary was not just the depth and extent of the harmful behavior that I had undertaken during our relationship; it was the feelings that had been present for me towards the very end, when I had finally realized what I had done, when I realized that it was too late to change course and that I didn’t even know how to change or even what exactly to do differently.
So I’d gotten help and sent an amends letter and hadn’t had any interaction with her in years, and it still felt incomplete for me. The last memories I had of her were tumultuous and painful, the feelings she experienced and expressed at the very end of our multi-year relationship, and so whenever I thought of her I thought of those feelings and how I was at cause of them and how I hadn’t been able to hold space for them, and I wondered with great doubt if I had grown enough to hold space for them and soothe them now.
Seeing that post of hers about something I’d done put me right back in that headspace right when I was about to make a supposedly-transformational call with her. The post described me breaking agreements and violating boundaries left and right, then trying to make up for it with huge high-pressure gestures like intercepting her at the airport with flowers and calling her family to arrange special surprises. It was definitely toxic and definitely manipulative. There wasn’t any malice behind it, but there was all kinds of ignorance, instability, and frantic desperation.
Even though I’d then been sober for years, sitting there in the parking lot reading over part of my own lowlight reel, I suddenly saw myself once again as an ignorant, unstable, and desperate person, but I’d committed to a bunch of people that I was not coming back inside until I made something happen, so from that headspace I picked up the phone and pushed the button to call her.
She didn’t pick up so I left a quivering message on her voicemail, and later she called me back when I was in session at the growth event and left a message expressing frank concern for my well-being. I excused myself from the event and stepped outside and called her again, and this time she picked up.
The sun had gone down and everyone else was back inside at the growth event, so I was alone as I paced a dark and empty parking lot for a very long time, talking with her again.
I owned up to everything I’d done, admitting that I’d taken her to be the “final boss” of the amends I had to do. She said she’d moved on a long time ago and that she forgave me, and said that she and her now-husband were planning on leaving the country and that I was welcome to come stay with them the next time I visited Europe. We hung up on relatively friendly terms.
The next morning I woke up to a text saying that our conversation had brought back and embodied the toxic dynamic that she and I experienced together, that several word choices I made (including the “final boss” story) were alienating and frustrating, and that things had been going well for her right up until I called and so she was hereby rescinding the forgiveness she offered and asserting that I should never speak to her again, ever.
I responded with an acknowledgement of everything that she had said, doing my earnest best to show that I got it, expressing acceptance that she didn’t want to speak to me again and willingness to honor her request. She called me and hung up the phone before I could answer, I called her back and she didn’t pick up, and then that was where it ended, again.
What went wrong? I didn’t clear my conscience before I called. I got caught up in my own gnarly memories and didn’t process it before I picked up the phone. I had intended the call to create freedom from the past but didn’t actually have the space to do that, and what wound up happening was just me showing up needing her to make me feel better for having hurt her.
Four months later the relationship I had been in for my entire sober life ended, and when it ended my now-ex-partner told me that everything I’d been doing to grow - secular AA, individual therapy, couples therapy, growth groups, emotional literacy book clubs, everything - was just a sick game to look like I’d grown when in reality I was still the same ignorant, unstable, desperately self-centered person I was when I was drinking. That fumbled phone call was part of her presented case.
In a cooler mood she later recanted that claim, and she and I have been able to contribute to the same organization and even laugh together here and there now that better boundaries are in place. But the fact remains that there are a few people out there who have explicitly told me that they will never forgive me, and in the absence of an intuitive sense of how to connect with them and contribute to them I’ve had to learn how to live with that lack of forgiveness out there in the world.
I had it that forgiveness of myself, my own general worthiness as a person, hinged upon being forgiven by everybody whom I had ever wronged. It’s taken trying and failing to get that forgiveness for me to see that I have to forgive myself first and foremost before any of that can happen. Showing up to a conversation without forgiving myself means that I’m helpless and needy in the interaction and probably unable to contribute to the other person.
What does self-forgiveness mean, anyway? Does it mean forgetting what I’ve done, declaring myself no longer responsible for making amends and making changes to my behavior? I don’t think so - I think that forgiveness is all about consciously letting go of resentment, that it’s an act that takes place entirely in the domain of attitude and feeling. Forgiveness as I see it has nothing to do with action - I assert that you can forgive yourself and at the same time seek to change your behavior and make amends. I also assert that you can forgive someone else and still assert boundaries and pursue justice. I think that guilt and anger are experiences that point us and motivate us towards change, and I do not want them purged from my existence. I hope to experience exactly enough guilt and anger to move me to make necessary change, when I have made those changes I want those feelings to know that they got their job done.
Also, if I make my well-being conditional on everyone else accepting me, then I’ll have no boundaries at all. People will take advantage of me without even knowing that they’re doing it, because I’ll end up doing everything and anything I can to make literally anyone else besides myself happy. Saying no to people can disappoint them, even make them angry, and I’m not always going to be able to help them with that. I have to be willing to be the bad guy in someone else’s story.
For some people, the way that they can best experience peace of mind regarding me is to remove me from their life and not regard me at all. For me, the way I can best experience peace of mind regarding myself is to accept myself no matter what, to assert that no matter what people think of me - indeed, *especially* when people are justifiably angry with me - that I deserve to be peaceful and happy and thrive. Not one person has ever been served by my self-flagellation.
Other people can cut me off, but I’m going to have a relationship with myself for as long as I’m alive. I figure while I’m at it I might as well make that relationship a good one.