I’ve counseled many individuals over the years whose problems were a direct result of deficiencies in their character and the irresponsible behavior patterns those deficiencies engendered. And while many of these individuals experienced profound periods of unhappiness and regret over their actions, only a handful ever made any significant changes in their once destructive behavior patterns. But those who did change their lives for the better displayed a rare quality that seemed to make all the difference: true contrition.
From the Latin contritus (the same root for the word contrite), and literally meaning “crushed to pieces,” contrition is a crushing of a person’s once prideful ego under the tremendous weight of guilt and shame over the injury caused others as a result of one’s actions. It is analogous to the “hitting bottom” phenomenon 12-step program adherents experience. The contrite person is first and foremost a broken person.
Regret is not the same as contrition. And when it comes to making meaningful changes in one’s character and turning around an irresponsible life, regret is simply not enough. The word regret comes from the Old French, meaning “to bewail.” It’s a person’s intellectual and emotional response to an unpleasant or unfortunate circumstance (originally used to characterize a person’s loss of a loved one through death). Even the seasoned criminals I’ve counseled had regrets. They regretted the loss of their freedom. They lamented the fact that a judge was able to exercise power over them and subject them to unpleasant ordeals as a result of their actions. And while some even regretted a few of their actions, sometimes the regret had more to do with the fact they didn’t plan their crime carefully enough to avoid detection. Some even “bewailed” that the sentence they received was greater than they anticipated or longer than someone else’s who committed a similar crime. Some were actually moved to tears when expressing these regrets. But tears do not a contrite person make. And regret has never been sufficient to prompt a person to change their ways. Neither regret nor even remorse is as meaningful as genuine contrition.
Traditional therapies have always placed a lot of value on people’s feelings, and because they are also primarily “talk therapies,” on what people say. And I’ve seen all too many times how therapists as well as the victims of irresponsible characters make the assumption that things are moving in the right direction because the bad actor shed a tear or two about something horrible they did or said they were sorry. But even when sorrow is genuine, it’s not enough. Sorrow is an emotional response usually connected to the loss of something. And while it is always painful to lose, that kind of pain is not in and of itself a reliable predictor of change. Individuals who have been in abusive relationships and who give a lot of weight or credence to expressions of regret and sorrow are most often doomed to an escalating level of personal pain and hardship.
True contrition is a rare but essential feature of changing one’s life for the better. And while remorse is a prerequisite for contrition, it’s still not sufficient for it. Remorse is a genuine empathy-based expression of one’s regret over hurting someone else. Psychopaths cannot have it, although they are capable of feigning it. But most people are capable of it to some degree, and it’s a necessary first step toward contrition. True contrition goes even beyond genuine remorse. The contrite person – their prideful ego crushed and torn asunder by the weight of their guilt and shame – not only hates his/her “sin” but dislikes the person he/she allowed him/herself to become that permitted the travesty to occur in the first place. So, contrition necessarily demands a firm internal resolution not only to make amends but also to make of oneself a better person and to conduct oneself in a better fashion in the future. It requires a true metanoia or “change of heart.” And even more, it requires work – a lot of very hard, humble, committed work of character reformation.
One of the more reliable outward signs that a change of heart has actually taken place is the willingness and commitment to make amends. That is, the contrite person is not only “sorry” for what he/she has done but is willing to repair the damage inflicted on the lives of others. I’ve known so many irresponsible characters who will challenge their understandably hesitant to trust again victims with retorts like: “I’ve said I’m sorry a million times now, what else do you want from me?!” — attempting all the while to throw the other party on the defensive (one of the manipulation tactics I discuss in In Sheep’s Clothing) for doubting their sincerity. And in proper cognitive-behavioral therapy, where the principal focus is on behavior and encouraging attitudinal and behavioral change, the therapist is much less interested in what a person has to say and much more concerned about what he/she is doing to truly make amends and to correct problematic behavior patterns. Talk, as they say, is infinitely cheap.
It’s one thing to say you’re sorry. But it’s quite another to prove it by how hard you work to change. Behavior is the best indicator that real change is taking place. Living and dealing with persons of deficient character is always difficult, but many people increase the level of pain they experience in their relationships with problem characters by buying into the notion that if a person says they’re sorry, sheds a tear, or looks unhappy, and appears to mean well, things will necessarily be different. They give too much regard to a person’s regret and sorrow and don’t look hard enough for evidence of true contrition. Traditionally-oriented therapists make this same mistake when counseling impaired characters and their relationship partners. A person’s genuine willingness and commitment to make amends is always accompanied by plan of action to accomplish precisely those ends. In short, a person’s actions always speak louder than their words or even their emotional expressions. The contrite person starts doing things differently. They might not do so perfectly or every time. But they make a constant effort at reforming their conduct, and when they fall short they admit it and do their best to get back on course. So, therapy that just focuses on getting someone to express their feelings or communicate their regrets is likely doomed to be ineffective in fostering meaningful change (I discuss this in some depth in Character Disturbance: The Phenomenon of Our Age).