I used to be a jerk but now I've changed

Some folks would still like to stick a fork in my arm -- do I seek them out and apologize?

By Cary Tennis

Published June 23, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I was a jerk. Self-centered, rude, not taking the time to listen to others, arrogant. I'm not yet 40 and I realize this. I have become a much nicer person, slowly over time (about 10 years) but people don't change dramatically (I don't think).

Why the new-ish me? I have become more comfortable with myself and I've learned some social skills I just didn't learn before. I've gotten away from a rotten family life and I have tried to surround myself with really understanding, nurturing people who had their spiritual lives in order and I have healed some wounds, learned to reach out (though it's still not easy to love, be loving and be unguarded). These days I have more than a handful of awesome friends and I am generally well liked by colleagues. People at work like me in a way they didn't before and I get comments like, "So-and-so says you're one of the nicest people here." That feels good.

But I remember my past misdeeds, the mistakes of my 20s up to age 31 and I am just embarrassed. Seriously. And I think, no wonder they all hated me. And I fear bumping into the people I was a jerk to. And I wish I could take it back. Some of it wasn't that bad but you cannot tread harshly on people's feelings. I know how it hurts and can hurt for a long time. I'd like to move forward, not necessarily call people up and say, "I'm sorry." I'd like to move freely without fear that I'll bump into an old associate who wants to put a fork in my arm. I'd like my current reputation as a nice person to be far and wide. I guess I just have to give it time?

Former Jerk

Dear Former Jerk,

Yes, giving it time is part of the answer. You can also take certain steps. You don't have to call up everyone you've ever been rude to and apologize. But if there's somebody out there who still wants to put a fork in your arm, it might be worth a call and just see what the temperature is like. If there are mutual friends, perhaps you could inquire of this person's whereabouts and just go up to him or her, offer your hand, and see what happens. If the person pulls out a fork, well, then you know.

Part of getting over one's jerky past involves self-forgiveness. If you haven't committed any genuine crimes, but just have been sort of unpleasant, this is not too hard. Look at it this way: You are at heart an innocent mortal being, just trying to get through life. You've been given certain instincts and drives, and you've been given other things -- experiences that shaped you, tendencies, things that you never had any say about. You're not completely responsible for the way you are. That's the point. If you have done things in the past, maybe they were for understandable reasons -- you were frightened, or you were trying to get people's respect, or trying to live out the image of what you thought was a decent, realistic person. Maybe you thought a decent, realistic person was sort of a hard-ass. That may have been a realistic assessment at the time. If you observed that nice people got trampled, maybe you thought being a hard-ass was reasonable. It sometimes is. So your milieu may have shifted, too; old behavior may no longer be useful. Your old behavior may have made more sense in context. At any rate, part of changing and letting go of the past involves forgiving yourself for being sort of a jerk. It's not like you murdered anybody.

And there may be amends to make. Jerklike actions fall into two categories. One category includes acts that had demonstrable consequences to others, like stealing, beating people up, telling lies about other people -- you know, injurious stuff, assault, battery, burglary, stuff you could go to jail for. Those things you may need to actually make amends for. If you owe someone money, repay it; if you told a lie about someone that injured them, you might want to admit that to the person, and, if possible, untell it.

But there's another category of jerklike behavior that is just more like being a generally unpleasant person, being curt, unresponsive, intemperate. We might say, you know, in that instance, when I made that joke, I was not really my highest Buddha-like self there, was I?  C'est la vie. You can be a better person today. You can let people see that you've changed. And you can try to identify which needs you were meeting by being a curt, rude-ass sob, and ask yourself if you are meeting those needs today. Perhaps you have needs for safety, for respect, for attention; perhaps those needs are being met today. So you can quietly acknowledge that you were a bit out of control back then.

But you can't really go door-to-door announcing that you're a much nicer person today. That is kind of jerky too, in a Ted Baxter kind of way. The only way you can overcome that kind of stuff is by just being a better, more pleasant, more generous person today. And part of that means not really calling attention to yourself in a big way. Just be yourself and try to let bygones be bygones. People will notice and appreciate it, though they might not say anything. They might feel they don't have to; sometimes it's more dignified to just quietly appreciate someone's turn for the better.

So that's what I'd suggest: If you have any serious, tangible amends to make, make them. If you are tortured by thoughts of what a jerk you've been, forgive yourself. And for the rest, you've made a gradual change, and that is as it should be. You don't need to trumpet your gradual mellowing; it happens with age, it's natural and graceful, and hopefully your friends have noticed it, and they have mellowed out a little as well.

I'm glad to get a letter from you. It sounds like you are on a good path. Take it easy, relax and let good things come to you.

We've all been jerks at one time or another!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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