Sorry, Not Sorry: Understanding Forgiveness


People can be mean, envious, and snarky. Generally, it is because they are projecting their own insecurity, shame, or low self-worth onto others. While I can appreciate the concept of forgiveness (a popular topic in the yoga world), when someone hurts my kids or pokes at me and seems to revel in my subsequent “fail,” my instinct is to push back or lash out—not a very yogic response!

It is said that the act of forgiving allows us to heal—but how does that work? And what about those who do really mean things to us and don’t seem to care? Are we to forgive them too?

Yep, we forgive. But we don’t let the meanies totally off the hook. We let them know we’re not interested in being hurt again—that, in fact, this is it. Sometimes we forgive without the other person even asking to be forgiven. And sometimes the other person apologizes and has excuses and is not truly interested in being forgiven. Sometimes a hurtful situation offers us the chance to embrace our own bigness, and to open to grace and our own compassionate nature by not engaging.

One day, when my daughter Roz was about 14 years old, she asked if she could tell me about a painful incident she had experienced. If you’re the mother of a teenager, you know this is golden—your teenage daughter wanting to share anything with you! It seemed that one of her friends was angry with her, and was telling all the other girls (you remember high school, right?) that Roz was a “bossy bitch and sucked at lacrosse”! Roz was, understandably, crestfallen.

Okay, I confess that my first thought (which luckily I did not share with my daughter) was, “Who is this kid, ’coz she’s going down!” Fortunately, I took a breath and put on my best “Tell mama everything” face, and Roz proceeded to flesh out the story: Both girls ( i.e., Roz and the “meanie”) were freshmen on the lacrosse team. They were both excellent athletes in their positions, and Roz had just been tapped by the coach to play varsity! She was excited and nervous about the honor, especially since she was the only freshman asked, and she proceeded to share those feelings with her friend. Roz’s friend said, “You don’t do half the work the rest of us do on the team, and you are a total suck-up to Coach! You think you know everything, but you should know that you just got on varsity because Coach used to live on your street.” Roz was in tears as she related the story.

Roz told me that she wanted to call this girl (let’s call her Caroline) and say, “I do the same work as the rest of the freshmen! And I don’t want to play varsity if everyone is going to hate me. It was not my decision, and Coach moved off our street long before I was even born!” Roz had been slimed and shamed and had her honor belittled, and she wanted to explain her position and defend herself.

I waited. I have learned from years as a therapist that holding space is critical to empathy. I wanted to rush in and stop Roz from thinking she was responsible for Caroline’s envy and poor self-esteem, which were surely the cause of her snarky comments.  But that was not what my daughter wanted from me. She wanted to share the icky feelings she was holding. She was not asking for my advice, nor was she asking me to “fix it.” So I waited, took deep breaths, and stroked her hair while she cried.

I have learned from years as a therapist that holding space is critical to empathy.

After a few minutes, Roz said she was going to call Caroline. As she walked toward the phone (yes, there was a time when not every kid had a cell phone), I decided to risk a comment: “Rozzy, why don’t you give it an hour?” She paused, so I went on. “Give yourself time to consider what you are willing to do. Do you really want to step off the varsity team? Because that is what Caroline wants you to do. You earned the spot, right? Caroline did not. Do you need to explain that to Caroline?” She shook her head no. I finished up carefully: “You are the same two girls you were before lacrosse season. Caroline cannot see that at the moment, and she is trying to turn all your friends against you. Consider whether you want to give her that power.” Roz sat back down and started to cry again.

We then began to talk about the “why” and the “how” of the situation. My heart ached for Roz, as being the object of envy is hard to wrap one’s head around. My 14-year-old daughter, like so many teens, had her own self-esteem issues. Thinking that she was someone Caroline envied was beyond her grasp.

Then the phone rang—it was Caroline! I got up to leave the room, but Roz motioned for me to stay. The part of the conversation I heard went like this:

“I am glad you called. I was going to call you.” Silence...nodding...tears...then a very loud and angry, “What! You are sorry, but? My mom told me that saying you’re sorry followed up with the word ‘but’ is not an apology! If you want to work this out, let me know. If you are calling me just to have another chance to blame me for being good enough to play varsity and to try to make me feel bad about it, please don’t call.” Another pause, then a look of disbelief from Roz. It appeared that Caroline had hung up.

I was so proud of Roz. She did what it took me 20 years to do—she stood up for herself! And I was amazed that she quoted me, as I was sure that all of our “I am sorry, Mom, but” interactions over the years hadn’t made an impact. Yet there it was, a Mom quote, and a teen who was coming into her own.

I have told my kids that you have to be clear about what you want from others so that the other person can decide whether to be with you, negotiate, or leave. Caroline was not going to get a chance to slime Roz again, as Roz had been clear about the rules of engagement. Caroline did not call to apologize; she called to have another go at beating down Roz—probably because of her own low self-esteem.

A few months ago, I reflected on this moment with Roz. She was about to graduate from college and was celebrating with her friend Meg, who had received a great offer for her dream job. Roz and her other roommates were happy for Meg. I told Roz how proud I was of her cheering Meg on, despite her own fears and concerns about her own job search and lack of postgraduate plans. “We are all excited when one of us triumphs!” Roz said. “It lifts all of us up with hope.”

Later, we discussed how Caroline had been a tough friend. I suggested that it was the fire of Caroline’s words that helped Roz to find her own voice, to value herself, and to become a fierce lacrosse player. Roz was not as aggressive as some, but she was intelligent and surgical on the field, and she eventually became captain of her team. She was able to digest the hurtful words Caroline had hurled at her, understanding that they had little to do with her and everything to do with how Caroline felt about herself. The other girls in her friend group did take sides, but eventually another situation captured the group’s attention and the “split” was mended.

I suggested that it was the fire of Caroline’s words that helped Roz to find her own voice, to value herself.

Roz did not retaliate or call Caroline names. She understood that the less power she gave the event, the less energy it would have to stay alive. Probably most important, Roz forgave Caroline. Caroline never asked for forgiveness, but we all know that sometimes that is not necessary. We can still forgive for the sake of our own healing, allowing compassion and understanding to flow in the direction of the hurt—in this case, knowing that Caroline was reacting to Roz from her own pain and low self-worth.

Caroline was doing the best she could. Acknowledging that fact, her actions could be forgiven. Sometimes the act of forgiveness is the only means of unknotting the pain that ties two people together—even when forgiveness is not requested.

About the Teacher

teacher avatar image
Kathryn Templeton
Kathryn Templeton, MA, RDT/ MT/LPC, E-500 RYT, C-IAYT. Ayurvedic practitioner Kathryn Templeton has devoted... Read more