What are the hardest words in the English language? They’re not “I love you” or “I’m sorry”, according to author and presenter Paris Lees. But they might be: “I forgive you”.
“I’ve always been really fascinated with forgiveness, just because it’s a really, really, really, really powerful human experience,” she says. “I’ve always been moved when you see people in the context of war or terrible crime say that they forgive, when really, they didn’t have to.”
Is forgiveness always possible? It’s one of the questions Lees attempts to answer in her new eight-part BBC podcast, The Flipside, in which she hears two contrasting life stories on a different human theme each episode.
She’s joined in this one by Bassam, a man working for peace between Israel and Palestine, despite losing his 10-year-old daughter in the conflict. Bassam says he’s ready to forgive and move forwards, if only the culprit will take responsibility. Today we’re here to talk about Lees’ own journey towards forgiveness – but it has something in common with Bassam’s story.
Her tale begins on a council estate in the former mining town of Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, where growing up trans left her feeling ostracised by her community. By 14, she was selling sex to men, in what she now recognises as abuse. At 16, she was arrested and imprisoned for her part in a robbery.
After the eight-month sentence, she decided to pursue her A Levels and later, a university degree. Now, she’s an author, Vogue columnist, Pantene hair care model and regular on BBC’s Question Time. She shares her experience to educate others, but tells me she isn’t a fan of the label “activist”.
Therapy helped her to unpick past trauma, says Lees, which eventually enabled her to forgive the people who drove her towards destructive behaviours.
“During that process, I forgave somebody. I’d actually been carrying a lot of hate and anger towards them,” she says. “People say that hating somebody is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get ill, and it’s true.”
Lees tells me she had “every right to be upset with this person,” but doesn’t want to go into the “ins and outs of it” again. “It will be pretty obvious for anybody who’s read about my life,” she says. “There was somebody who made me very unhappy when I was growing up. For years, I fantasised about taking revenge upon this person.”
She’s referring, surely, to her father, a complex relationship she recounts in her excellent memoir, What it Feels Like For a Girl. But rehashing old details isn’t on the agenda today. “If you’re forgiving somebody, you’re really forgiving them,” says Lees, “that doesn’t mean dragging them through the coals with every opportunity that you get to speak in public.”
Reaching that decision was intertwined with learning to forgive herself. “I realised I had a lot of guilt, because frankly, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life,” she says. “I haven’t always liked who I am.”
Lees had a period of shoplifting, of taking too many drugs, of drinking too much, and of putting herself in dangerous situations with men. “Before it became a full-blown addiction in one direction, I would swap out the toxic behaviour,” she explains. “It was just years of using anything, really, to sort of not sit down with my feelings.”
Eventually, she realised the self-loathing and guilt were perpetuating her problem; that she needed to make peace with her past to move forward.
“It’s like, if you’ve got hydrangeas, they grow a different colour depending on the acidity of the soil, right? Human beings are like that. It’s not rocket science when you look at it.”
While processing her experiences enabled Lees to cut herself some slack and break the cycle, the bonus was feeling able to forgive others for the first time.
“You have to learn to love yourself, you have to forgive yourself and make peace with yourself,” she says. “And actually, I realised that I can only extend that generosity to myself if I’m going to extend it to other people.”
If forgiveness is grounded in introspection, do we need to hear the word “sorry” to start the process? “You know, I used to think that, and actually, it was a barrier in me being able to forgive,” Lees says.
“I thought: ‘Well, if this person has wronged me and acknowledges it, then I can forgive.’ But then I realised that that’s giving you power over me, because my ability to forgive depends on something you may or may not do. The process of forgiveness... it’s not really about the other person, it’s about us.”
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all actually looked at where we’re going wrong, rather than just pointing the finger at everybody around us?”
Despite the seriousness of the topic at hand, Lees occasionally chuckles as we talk, almost unable to believe her own Yoda-like responses. She says if we’d had this conversation a few years ago, it would have been like talking to a different person. The catalyst for this reincarnation was the end of her last romantic relationship.
“I was the toxic person in that relationship,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I really wish that more people could say that about themselves. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all actually looked at where we’re going wrong, rather than just pointing the finger at everybody around us? I think that’s where real healing could occur.”
We chat about the power of therapy, and about how access when you need it most has somehow become a middle class privilege. Lees did eventually have NHS treatment, but says she got into debt paying for private treatment first.
“That therapy led to a mental health diagnosis which made it easier for me to access intensive therapy on the NHS,” she says. “I know that it was a privilege to do that.”
For those contending with long waiting lists, Lees recommends reading about other people who’ve had a similar experience to you in order to feel less alone.
“Just take that horrible voice out of your head that says: ‘I’m broken, I’m never gonna be happy. I’m fundamentally flawed,’” she says.
“The biggest thing for me is to say: ‘It’s okay, it is what it is, I’m looking at myself objectively. I’m a human being in the world, I’ve had these experiences, and they’ve led to me feeling like this and that led to me acting like this, and now I’m taking responsibility for it and I’m trying to understand myself a bit better.’”
Lees is sceptical about the overuse of the word “empowering” – “you know, this is empowering, that’s empowering” – but insists letting go of resentment is truly transformative.
“I genuinely feel so happy and whole and complete in myself now, in a way that I never thought was possible. The void that I felt inside me has gone,” she says. “It’s just like letting a balloon go up. It’s gone. I can’t get it back.”
The Flipside with Paris Lees is out now on BBC Sounds