Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: Today is my birthday and I'm getting some nice messages on Facebook.
A woman I went to school with from grades 1-12, who for about seven of those years made my life a living hell with teasing, exclusion and all-around poor treatment, sent me a long private message this morning. Her message, summarized: "I've been reflecting and I see that I was a bully when we were kids. Sorry! I hope you're doing well."
I'm not sure what to say. All morning I've been indulging a fantasy of writing back to tell her that I actually don't forgive her and have spent 25 years replaying all her insults about how ugly and stupid I am. That at least 50% of my time in therapy has focused on undoing the inferiority complex and impostor syndrome I developed as a kid hanging out with that particular "frenemy." That her name is a household word, referring to someone who kicks you when you're down.
I know the answer is probably no. But is there any value at all in saying any of these things to her? I feel that silence, or just pithily accepting her apology, lets her off the hook.
Carolyn says: I am so sorry she tortured you, and that it shaped you so, and you still carry it with you. It's just not right and no apology will give you back those years.
Was her message at full length as flippant as you suggest with your summary? Because that would be an insult to your injury.
I suggest you let it sit for a while, leave the whole message and your feelings about it to soak, before you decide anything. Then read it again to see whether the words are more potentially healing than they seemed at first. A few days from now at least. See if anything softens.
Whether your opinion of the message changes or not, any response you have to it after a waiting period will have a higher ratio of logic to emotion, and therefore will be more likely to represent who you are now instead of the angry, wounded kid you were then. Not to say that kid hasn't earned a chance to yell — but I think you'll be more satisfied by the exchange if it's the adult you talking.
If it helps, the silence she'll hear in the meantime won't be "let[ting] her off the hook." If anything, I expect not hearing back will be uncomfortable for her.
Not that I recommend ignoring her message just to let her twist — a healthy response is one you choose toward your own peace of mind, not toward corroding hers. Tempting though it may be, you don't want to use an updated, adult version of her own tactics against her.
In fact, whether your response does or doesn't let her off any hooks is best treated as coincidental. You do what you need to do, period.
I hope you'll find enough sincere remorse in the note to justify talking to her directly — at which point, yes, there is value in sharing the consequences you live with. Let her own her handiwork.
But if nothing in her message calls to you, then nothing is a valid response.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.