Regret, Sorrow and True Contrition: The Reason Some People Feel Badly But Just Keep On Doing Hurtful Things

There is no automatic connection between regret and having the motivation to change oneself for the better. Regret alone is not enough to prompt a person to change their ways.

I recently wrote an article about the irresponsibility rampant in our age. (See “Is This the Age of Irresponsibility?”.) Over the years, I’ve counseled many individuals who have displayed irresponsible behavior patterns as a result of varying levels of disturbances in their character. Although 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 patterns of behavior. Those who did change their lives for the better displayed a rare quality that seemed to make all the difference: true contrition.

The word contrition comes from the Latin contritus (the same root for the word contrite), literally meaning crushed to pieces. Contrition, then is a crushing of one’s once prideful ego under the tremendous weight of guilt and shame. It is analogous to what participants in various 12-step programs refer to as “hitting bottom.” The contrite person is a broken person.

When it comes to turning one’s irresponsible life around, regret is undeniably insufficient. The word regret comes from the Old French and literally means to “bewail.” It is an intellectual and emotional response to an unpleasant or unfortunate circumstance (originally, the loss of someone through death). I know several seasoned criminals who have lots of regrets. They dislike their loss of freedom. They have an emotional distaste for the fact that a judge exercised power over them, etc. Mostly, they feel badly for themselves because of the unpleasant things they have to deal with as a result of being sanctioned for their actions. Though they might also regret some of their actions, there is no automatic connection between that regret and having the motivation to change themselves for the better. Some regret that they didn’t plan their crime carefully enough to avoid detection. Some “bewail” that the sentence they received was greater than they anticipated and longer perhaps than someone else’s who committed a similar crime. Regret alone is insufficient to prompt a person to change their ways.

I can’t count the number of times that victims of irresponsible characters make the assumption that things will be different because their abuser has shed a tear or two about something horrible they did. Sorrow is an emotional response usually connected to the loss of something. And while it is painful to lose, that pain in and of itself is not a reliable predictor of change. Individuals in abusive relationships who assign too much value to expressions of 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. Remorse is a prerequisite for contrition, but it’s not sufficient for it. Remorse is a genuine empathy-based expression of one’s regret. Psychopaths cannot have it, although they are capable of feigning it. But most people are capable of it, and it’s a necessary first step toward contrition. But true contrition has to go far beyond even genuine remorse. The contrite person’s prideful ego is literally crushed and torn asunder by the weight of their guilt and shame. The contrite person not only hates his/her “sin” but dislikes the person he/she has become that permitted the travesty in the first place. So, contrition necessarily demands a firm internal resolution to make of oneself a better person and to conduct oneself in a better fashion in the future. It requires a true “change of heart.” The most reliable outward sign 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 skeptical 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 for doubting their sincerity.

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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, 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. 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.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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