What Real Contrition Looks Like

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As the latest media circus in the U.S. demonstrates, having some regret simply isn’t enough to make a person mend their ways; and important lessons can be gleaned by distinguishing between selfish, personal regret and genuine repentance.

Here in the U.S., news watchers have been treated to yet another saga involving a public official not only caught in scandalous behavior but also exposed for all the numerous and colorful lies he told to keep from being outed. Much of the truth about the behavior itself has finally come to light, and as a result, the once brazenly feisty official (who even had the audacity to attack his questioners repeatedly as a tactic to keep them on the defensive) appeared to be eating some humble pie as he proclaimed his “acceptance of responsibility” and “regret” for all those he had harmed before the cameras. What we’ve witnessed is the latest chapter of a pathetic, old, story, that’s played out so many times in the past. But humankind can always expect new versions of the story, with new actors, and unfortunately, new levels of preposterousness each time the tale is told.

The thing that has struck me most about this recent sordid affair is how well the principal actor exemplified the difference between regret for personal loss and injury and true contrition. I have been both amused and saddened by all I have witnessed him say and do in his made-for-the-media “mea culpa” (at least in his initial appearances before the camera once the truth became known). Nonetheless, there are important lessons that can be gleaned from distinguishing between selfish, personal regret and genuine repentance.

A deficient capacity for true empathy and contrition is one of the hallmark features of the impaired character. And for some character types, this deficiency can be extreme. I’ve written about empathy and contrition deficits in my latest book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]:

There is a big difference between regretting the consequences to oneself of bad behavior (e.g., getting caught, paying fines, receiving other social sanctions) and experiencing genuine empathy-based remorse for the injury caused to others. For a person to experience any degree of genuine “contrition” which could prompt them to change their ways, two things must occur: (1) they not only have to feel genuinely badly about what they have done (i.e. guilty), but (2) they must also be internally unnerved about the kind of person they must have allowed themselves to become (i.e. shameful) to have behaved so irresponsibly. Their shame and guilt must then propel them to make of themselves a better person. True contrition always involves what the ancient Greek philosophers termed “metanoia” or “a change of heart.”

True contrition looks like this: the person can no longer live with themselves and becomes invested in making of themselves a better person. It can’t be an “acceptance of responsibility” spoken on the lips accompanied by a steadfast refusal to pay the price (and not merely the price of public embarrassment) of duly earned consequences. It can’t just be crocodile tears of remorse openly displayed but which aren’t accompanied by a change of one’s typical style. It can’t be the mere broadcasting of regret that’s not paired with clear action to make amends. True contrition involves a change of heart. It’s humbly reckoning with oneself, the deficiencies in one’s character that allowed the person to indulge in the misbehavior in the first place, coupled with a firm commitment to exorcise those character defects so that the errors are not repeated.

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I simply cannot count the number of times during my professional career when people who had done something horrible felt badly about it in some way afterwards. Often, they felt badly every time they repeated the same behavior. Having some regret simply isn’t enough to make a person mend their ways. I also can’t count the times that those affected by another’s misdeeds were so swayed by the wrongdoer’s display of tears or a claim of regret that they unfortunately helped “enable” that person to avoid real change.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this latest saga plays out and how the media will appraise the dynamics its principal player has displayed thus far. One can only hope that at some point in the future, the signs of true contrition will become evident. But perhaps some good can come of the whole affair no matter the nature of the outcome. If, as a result of the whole mess, any of the observers learn some lessons about what true contrition really looks like, they might be less likely to make misjudgments in their own relationships that could put them at risk of emotional wounding.

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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