“We all make mistakes,” said the disgraced, though by this time not-as-disgraced-as-he-had-once-been, boxing champion Mike Tyson, after meeting Rob Ford, the at-the-time-still-extremely-disgraced Mayor of Toronto. Tyson neglected to followed up his remark with the other side of that truism, which is that some of us make enormous ones, then get the chance to pick up our lives again, while for others, even a minor public scandal might spell a total knockout for their careers, relationships or social standing.
That bizarre meeting in 2014 between Tyson and Ford brought together two of the true heavyweight second-chancers of recent decades. Tyson’s career had seen a series of confounding bouncebacks — from a rape conviction in 1992, biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997 and bankruptcy in 2003 — while later that year, Ford would successfully be elected to Toronto City Council, having spent several months of his tenure as mayor in rehab following a number of drugs, alcohol and misconduct scandals in office.
It’s clear that whatever degree of public absolution both were able to muster in the wake of their respective scandals had little to do with the magnitude of their offenses. If there’s a lesson here in reputational CPR, it has to be that, whatever your transgression might have been — betrayal of a partner, failure at work, a run-in with the law — if the likes of Iron Mike and Rowdy Rehab Rob could hold their hands up, look to the floor and convince at least some onlookers that they were worthy of clemency, it’s possible that you can do it too.
Here then are some strategies that might just get you from permanently stained reputation to shiny clean slate.
Success Won’t All Depend on the Severity of Your Crime
“The truly forgiving would say that anything can be forgiven,” confirms Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, who has written about what makes people more or less likely to excuse harmful behavior in others. “You do hear people say they forgive somebody who murdered somebody, for example, or caused a fire — as unimaginable as that sounds.”
Krauss Whitbourne points to prison programs trialed in the U.K., where those serving sentences for violent crime regularly meet the victims of their crimes face-to-face (a process known as restorative justice), which have often resulted in forgiveness and even, on occasion, unlikely friendships. It has also — perhaps more importantly — been shown to greatly reduce re-offending rates following release.
Lay All the Blame at Your Own Feet
So it seems starting over is always possible, if not always in the cards. But what approach should you take to give yourself the best chance at a second chance? “Start by apologizing. That’s got to happen,” advises Krauss Whitbourne — but with the crucial proviso that it “can’t be a half-apology that denies itself in the middle of it: It’s got to be full-throttle.” To backtrack or mitigate mid-mea culpa, she says, is “almost worse” than no apology at all if you’re hoping for a reprieve.
And here, perhaps illustrating this point, is one recent example of a not-quite-full-throttle apology that’s heavy with caveats, from somebody who has so far found herself struggling to persuade many — at least in the court of social media — to give her a second chance:
Set Your Demeanor to Humble
If it’s only being made to ease a guilty conscience, an appeal for leniency is unlikely to be well received; more likely it will reopen the wound and do little else. Your best course to avoid giving this impression, says Krauss Whitbourne, is to present the idea of a relationship reset as a win-win for both parties. “Frame it in a way that puts the other person’s interests first,” she suggests. One way to do so would be to “articulate your goal of restoring balance to a relationship — even if it’s a precarious one for the moment.”
In any case, a successful restitution of relations is likely to depend heavily on the general emotional outlook of both forgiver and forgivee. “Certain personalities find it really hard to ask for forgiveness or to say they’re sorry,” she says, adding that, conversely, “The personality trait that it takes to pull this off is humility.”
In a comprehensive survey of the scholarship on the subject published in December 2017, the journal Research in Personal Development says that psychological studies have indeed established “a strong synthesis between forgiveness and humility,” and interestingly, that it goes in the other direction too — when they’re the injured party, humble people also tend to be the ones who are more open to giving others a second chance.
Be Ready for a Harsher Judgement Than You Think You Deserve
When asking others for absolution, many people find there’s an odd dynamic at play. “We’re all very good at seeing other people’s flaws as worse than the same flaws in ourselves,” says Krauss Whitbourne, meaning that while it’s easy to understand the extenuating circumstances or motives that led to your own sins, without this first-person insight, others will be likely to pass judgement without stopping to consider the details.
It’s a stonewalling tendency that’s all-too-familiar to the many thousands of people who have been found guilty of felonies, then later in life struggled to find employers, landlords and licensing bodies who are willing to look past their convictions. “If the first thing people see is a mug shot, or an employer sees the ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?’ box checked, it’s easy for them to immediately dehumanize you as a ‘criminal’ or ‘felon’ and toss your application into the trash,” says Mark Fujiwara, of the organization Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, whose Ban the Box campaign has been lobbying since 2003 for legislation to make it harder to reject applicants outright on the basis of their legal history. (So far, 31 states and more than 150 cities and counties across the U.S. have some form of fair-hiring policies in place.)
As Fujiwara points out, such so-called ‘clean-slate’ legislation isn’t exactly about offering people a second chance, since a past entanglement with the law won’t always have been a matter of choice — often people end up with convictions partly because they “don’t have a first chance,” due to “poverty, racism or lack of jobs, education, services, or opportunities in their neighbourhood.”
In many cases, he says, a real “‘second chance’ would be to expunge or seal all records upon completion of the sentence,” but in the absence of protective laws, overcoming the judgemental propensities of others can come down to simply getting a foot in the door. “Talk with people, establish a personal relationship,” says Fujiwara. “For example, do an in-person job interview — then they see you as a person whose conviction history is just one small aspect of you.”
If Need Be, Go to Vietnam
Another further, unexpected dimension affecting the odds of whether amnesty will be granted is the national or ethnic culture within which your plea is being heard. In 2016, a huge study of nearly 42,000 survey respondents from 30 different countries, conducted by social psychologists at the universities of Bremen and Lisbon, found that some societies placed a higher value on the act of forgiving than others. In general, the parts of the world where forgiving people was highly regarded as a useful, constructive thing tended to be countries in which citizens reported higher-than-average scores relating to “human development” (a category in the survey results that included life expectancy, income per capita and educational attainment).
The good news is that the U.S. came fourth on the list of societies that prioritize forgiveness as a social asset (behind Egypt, Ukraine and Vietnam), with India, Chile and Israel at the end where forgiving was least valued (here, researchers concluded, factors like poverty, social insecurity and proximity to conflict might be undermining the perception of forgiveness as a practical way to get ahead in life).
As Krauss Whitbourne notes, what this research suggests is that “forgiveness and happiness seem linked,” although it’s not yet understood whether happiness makes people more inclined to forgive, or whether it’s an ingrained emphasis on forgiving that contributes to a greater sense of social contentment. Either way, the correlation confirms the intuition that, at a personal level, the experience of starting over is likely to be a profitable one for all concerned. “And if the forgiver and the forgivee can get those negative emotions out,” says Krauss Whitbourne, “they will be healthier.”
At least, that is, until negotiations for a third chance are called for. And if that’s the case, you only really have one remaining option for getting your life back on track: A political career in a major Canadian city.