On Seeking Forgiveness

Last week, I wrote about how we all make mistakes, and told a story of a shameful chapter from my own career. Concurrently to publishing that post, I sent it to the former swimmer in question, and I apologized and sought forgiveness.

Here is the response I got from Signe (reprinted with her permission):

Hi Chris

Thank you for sending me this, it means a lot to me. I am not one to hold a grudge but I still appreciate your apology. 

I think it’s beautifully written and I think you get both of our sides very precisely. I am happy that you find strength within your self to inspire others and to tell that it’s okay to make mistakes - which it is. 

I think we had a very special relationship that went further than swimming. We both put a lot of hard work in to making the dream reality and to learn something along the way. For that I am truly thankful. 

I am happy to hear that you continue to follow me - I hope you find it interesting and I hope you can see some of the things that you’ve taught me. 

I wish you and your family the best. Send my greetings to Kate! 

Best regards Signe

What a response! It was extremely cathartic for me to read. I thought I would use the opportunity to write about a topic that is a big part of the work I do with teams and coaches: forgiveness.

In this moment, I sought forgiveness and I got it. There are two things I want to highlight. The first is to dispel some of the false definitions of “forgiveness” I see floating around, and the second is to consider the flip side of the above situation- when you reach a point of no return in your relationship with another coach or athlete.

Forgiveness is Strength

Many people resist “forgiveness” because they falsely believe that forgiveness is about condoning the behavior of another person. Say somebody hits you in the face. You are hurt- but you forgive them. What would you say?

If your first instinct was to tell them “it’s ok”, that is not forgiveness. That is actually being a pushover, and you deny yourself and the person that hit you a critical healing step.

Forgiveness is about deciding to emotionally move on from a transgression. Critically, you do not condone the behavior, in fact forgiveness can often begin by stating very clearly that you felt wronged.

However, you decide that you are not going to continue holding a grudge and maintaining the emotional energy of a grudge. The person that has hurt you may or may not seek to atone for what they have done. Often they do not- one of the hardest things for all of us to do is admit when we are wrong.

Forgiving people are actually extremely strong- they can manage the emotional reaction of transgressions and regulate well enough to make the decision to move on. Like all emotional regulation skills, it’s easier to get there when you have other strong relationships to lean on in tough emotional situations.

The Point of No Return

One of the terrifying things for me when I wrote Signe was that I knew there was some possibility that I was raising something that was still very raw for her. Perhaps she would remember the situation, find my description accurate, and say, “yeah, you were pretty bad” and that would be that.

You will run into situations in your life where you mess up, and all your attempts to atone are simply blocked. Forgiveness is for the forgiver to decide, and sometimes people are simply not ready or never will be ready.

In these types of situations, you may feel a strong instinct to revert back to a defensive posture. If they won’t forgive you, then they are now “wrong” and you can retroactively decide that the behavior you were apologizing for is now justified.

Don’t do this. When you go for atonement, commit. A continued posture of atonement keeps the door open for future forgiveness. Defensiveness slams it shut.

Forgiveness is hard. It takes toughness on the part of the forgiver. But it is worth seeking and worth giving.