True contrition goes far beyond regret, sorrow, and even remorse. It’s a sad, hard reality, but feeling badly about what you’ve done isn’t necessarily enough to really learn a lesson or to drive you to earnestly work at changing your ways.
A verdict was rendered and a sentence finally handed down in the case of Oscar Pistorius, the once revered athlete (known as “the bladerunner” because he runs on prosthetic legs) who, purportedly acting on “instinct,” fired multiple shots through a bathroom door at a person he claimed he believed was an intruder and in the process took the life of his then girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. I’ve written two prior articles on the many lessons that can be learned from this case:
But I think there are additional important lessons to be learned from its conclusion.
In my book Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), I suggest that there’s a group of individuals whose personalities are best defined by an excessively aggressive predisposition they posses, a tenuous control they have over their impulses, and reckless abandon with which they generally approach the challenges of life. The “aggressive personalities” I describe are of distinct varieties, and each aggressive subtype brings some unique problems into relationships. But one thing is common to all of the various aggressive personalities: they often act first and think later.
Some aggressive personalities are the archetypal “loose cannons” who lose their composure easily and have great difficulty putting on the brakes or calming themselves down once they become agitated. After acting on impulse and doing the unthinkable, they may or may not experience sincere regret for what they have done. But even when an aggressive personality sincerely regrets the consequences of his or her actions, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will reflect upon or question the style of relating that lies at the heart of problems.
It’s all too easy to confuse the genuine regret you might observe in an impulsive aggressor, or even the sorrow that can accompany a loss connected to an aggressive action, for the kind of contrition that would lead such a person to change their ways. As I mentioned in an earlier article (“Regret, Sorrow and True Contrition”): regret is an intellectual and emotional response to an unpleasant or unfortunate circumstance.
During my professional career I’ve known hundreds of “repeat offenders” who truly felt badly each and every time they lashed out. Unfortunately, their regret after the fact proved insufficient to keep them from similar future incidents. Many times, such offenders also experience real sorrow, which is an understandable emotional response to a loss. But unfortunately, sorrow itself is also not sufficient to motivate a person to turn things around. Nonetheless, many folks give displays of both regret and sorrow far more weight than they deserve. Victims in abusive relationships often do this very thing, which is just one of the ways in which they inadvertently “enable” the vicious cycles of abuse to continue. Contrition is an entirely different matter: true contrition goes far beyond regret, sorrow, and even remorse. As mentioned in that same earlier article, the contrite person’s prideful ego is crushed by the weight of their guilt and shame, and they dislike the person they have become; as a result, they make a commitment to change. (For more on contrition and how it differs from regret, remorse, and sorrow see “What Real Contrition Looks Like”).
It’s impossible to know with any certainty whether Pistorius merely regrets the consequences of his actions, has sorrow for his losses, or has experienced some genuine contrition and a necessary “metanoia” or change of heart about the kind of person he was and the things his trigger happy personality (Pistorius was known to be reckless and impulsive in discharging firearms) let him do. I do fear the judge might have been unduly swayed by the dramatic expressions of regret and sorrow coming from Pistorius during the trial, such as instances of fainting, vomiting, sobbing, etc. And in passing sentence (a 5-year prison sentence, making Pistorius eligible for “house arrest” status in a mere 10 months), the judge might also have fallen into the trap of giving too much consideration to how a tough sentence, while well earned, might negatively impact a person who, at least outwardly, appears to have suffered quite a bit already. It’s a sad, hard reality, but feeling badly about what you’ve done isn’t necessarily enough to really learn a lesson or to drive you to earnestly work at changing your ways. So when it comes to whether justice has truly been served in a manner that would make it less likely Oscar Pistorius will again one day do the unthinkable out of a “sportsman’s instinct,” the jury is definitely still out.
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