How to Recognize True (and false) Contrition — by Dr. George Simon, Jr.
Dr. George Simon, Jr. graciously accepted our invitation to write some guest posts for ACFJ, and here is his first! Most of our readers will recognize him as the author of some of our favorite books:
- In Sheep’s Clothing [*Affiliate link]
- Character Disturbance [*Affiliate link]
- And now the latest: The Judas Syndrome: Why Good People Do Awful Things [*Affiliate link]
We extend our thanks to Dr. Simon for these books, which we regularly recommend to anyone who will read them. I (Jeff Crippen) have taken copies to our church and given them out, with great benefit. I wish we could get them into every pastoral seminary program. I remember when I first discovered In Sheep’s Clothing on Amazon when I was researching abuse. I had not read very far when, I recall, I told myself “I like this guy! I don’t know if he is a Christian or not, but if he isn’t, he should be!” It turns out that he is, in fact, a Christian. Thank you for taking the time, Dr. Simon, to help us here at A Cry for Justice.
Now, read and learn about what true contrition is, and what it is not.
I’ve counseled many individuals over the years whose problems were not so much the result of clinical conditions rooted in disease processes or biochemical imbalances but rather a direct result of deficiencies in their character. Now, I’m not saying that genuine mental illnesses don’t exist. But whether or not most professionals are willing to acknowledge the fact, and despite whatever diagnoses they might feel obliged to assign those whom they treat, a great number of problems they deal with are character-related and not purely trauma or biochemically caused. This is especially true when it comes to abusive behavior in relationships. Yes, there are individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress (i.e. have true Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD) or are in the throes of an impulse-control diminishing disturbance of mood or thought process. But such cases are the exception, not the norm. Most of the time, bad actors, especially abusers, have personality characteristics that predispose them to recurring problematic behaviors. And, as I illustrate in my book Character Disturbance, certain personality types are more predisposed than others to abusive behavior.
A person’s character deficiencies inevitably spawn a host of irresponsible behavior patterns – bad habits that can become easily ingrained and, once rooted, extremely hard to break. Often, these dysfunctional patterns involve forms of mental, emotional, and even physical abuse within relationships. And while many of the character-impaired individuals I’ve worked with experienced periods of profound unhappiness and even a degree of regret over their actions, only a handful made truly significant changes in their once destructive behaviors. But those who truly did address their behaviors and succeeded in changing their lives for the better displayed a rare quality that seemed to make all the difference: genuine contrition. By definition, personality patterns are deeply ingrained and hard to modify. But that doesn’t mean a person can’t change. People can and do change every day. That is, genuinely contrite people do. This begs the question about what contrition really is and how to know when someone is really experiencing it.
The word contrition comes from the Latin contritus (the same root for the word contrite), and literally means “crushed to pieces.” The contrite person has had their once haughty and prideful ego completely crushed under the tremendous weight of guilt and shame. Such a person has “hit bottom” (as 12-step program adherents are wont to say) not only because they can no longer bear the thought of how badly their actions hurt others but also because of their deep realization of how their usual way of doing things has resulted in abject personal failure. That’s why the contrite person is first and foremost a broken person. And, by definition, only by acknowledging personal defeat can a person become potentially open to reconstructing their life on very different terms. It’s been said many times, but it’s profoundly psychologically true. One cannot begin a new life without laying to rest one’s old self.
A regretful person is not necessarily a contrite one. Regret often precedes contrition but is definitely not synonymous with it. And when it comes to making meaningful changes in one’s character and turning around an irresponsible life, regret is simply not sufficient. 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). Anyone can regret something they have done and for a variety of reasons, some of which can be quite ignoble. Even some of the most hardened criminals I’ve counseled had certain 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 various unpleasant consequences. Many “bewailed” that the sentence they received was greater than they anticipated or longer than someone else’s who committed a similar crime. A few even regretted their actual actions, but most of the time even that kind of regret had to do with practical considerations (e.g., they didn’t plan their crime carefully enough to avoid detection, or they misjudged the character of their partner in crime who later “ratted [them] out” to authorities). And when expressing their regrets, some were even moved to tears. But tears do not a contrite person make. And mere regret has never been sufficient to prompt a person to change their ways.
Remorse is a prerequisite for contrition, but it’s also not sufficient for it. Remorse is a genuine empathy-based expression of one’s regret over hurting someone else. By definition, psychopaths (alt: sociopaths) cannot really experience any meaningful degree of it, although they are quite capable of feigning it. Fortunately, most people are capable of it to some degree, and having remorse for the injury caused another is a necessary first step toward real contrition. But true contrition goes even beyond remorse. Genuinely contrite people – their prideful egos crushed and torn asunder by the weight of their guilt and shame – not only hate their “sins” and the pain they inflicted on others as a result of their sins, but also are deeply unnerved about the person they allowed themselves to become that permitted their travesties in the first place. And they necessarily resolve not only to make amends but also to make of better persons of themselves and their lives in a better fashion in the future.
Contrition is that very rare but absolutely essential feature of changing one’s life for the better. It requires a true metanoia or “change of heart.” And even more importantly, it requires work – a lot of very hard, humble, committed work. Reforming one’s character is the most challenging of human enterprises. You have to put a lot of energy into doing it, and you have to feel a deep sense of obligation about doing it in order to maintain the energy to get the job done. And contrition wears a very distinctive face. Truly contrite people behave very differently, even from regretful and remorseful people. And when you know what to look for, you can readily tell the difference.
One of the more reliable outward signs that someone has really experienced a change of heart is their willingness and commitment to make amends. 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 [*Affiliate link]) for doubting their sincerity. Or they will cite some small efforts they have made over a relatively short period of time and then chide their victims for not immediately accepting those small gestures as concrete evidence of meaningful, sincere, permanent change. Contrite individuals understand that the burden of proof rests with them and that they owe those they have hurt a justifiable basis upon which to resume some degree of trust. A contrite person is willing to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to regain good standing within a relationship.
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 a person is truly contrite and working to really change. 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. Pastoral counselors make the same mistake at times. 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. And I’m not talking about demonstrative gestures that make good impressions on others like going back to church or getting religion once again. The contrite person conducts themselves in a fundamentally different manner than they historically have. They might not do so perfectly or every time. But they evidence a constant effort toward reforming their conduct, and when they fall short they readily admit it and do their best to get back on course.
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 certainly not enough to make a difference. Sorrow is an emotional response usually connected to the loss of something. And while it is always painful to lose – especially when losing something of great value – 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. And in proper cognitive-behavioral therapy for abusers, where the principal focus is on behavior and fostering fundamental attitudinal and behavioral change, the therapist has to be much less interested in what a person has to say and much more concerned about what he/she is doing to truly correct problematic thinking and behavior patterns and repairing damage they have done. Talk, as they say, is infinitely cheap. And therapy or pastoral counseling 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 [*Affiliate link]).
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. Sentiment never stripped anyone of their character defects. It takes a lot of concerted effort to overcome our shortcomings. The truly contrite individual works to make amends, to do better, and above all, to be better. That always involves demonstrable, consistent behavior – behavior that can be observed, monitored, encouraged, rewarded, and measured by both the therapist or pastoral counselor and other parties to a relationship with the troubled character.
To call oneself a Christian is easy. To be a Christian is not so easy. To say one adopts the Christian faith takes no effort at all. To live the Christian faith takes a lot of dedication and commitment. Yes, we are all – Christians and non-Christians alike – sinners. But one cannot rightfully lay claim to the Christian life without experiencing genuine contrition when one sins. Numerous scripture passages testify to this. And titular Christians always betray their lack of real faith in Christ when they demonstrate no real contrition for their unseemly acts (c.f.: The Judas Syndrome [*Affiliate link]). So, it’s incumbent upon those who have endured the scars of abuse in their relationships to pay less attention to the abuser’s protestations that they have once again found Jesus and instead look for the clear behavioral signs that the abuser has truly repented.