Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy

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).

33 thoughts on “Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy

  1. This reminds me of James Arthur “Death” Ray and the sweat lodge deaths back in October 2009. Ray abandoned sweat lodge attendees, who were in mortal danger(and some of them died), and avoided authorities, claiming to focus on “prayer and meditation”. Afterwards Ray was convicted to prison. He looked really shaken and remorseful, but does that mean anything? We usually jump to conclusion such display does mean something, except it only means a calculated ploy to remove objections or a momentary pang of emotion.

  2. My current puzzle is this: if you cannot walk away from a Ca, if you happen to be in a project that he is running, how do you work with such a person? Clearly, most of us cannot be in a therapeutic relationship with this individual. Nor should we be. So what do we do?

    1. Dr Simon, please delete the above I wrote yesterday. I want to write a new comment that is clearer that that. Thank you! Vera

      1. Sorry, Vera, but I had already scheduled the response and approved the post before seeing your request. But please feel free to re-fashion or elaborate. It’s an important area to discuss.

    2. Vera, this is exactly why I emphasized the “12 tools of empowerment” in the second section of In Sheep’s Clothing. It’s all in the approach and in the style of interaction. And especially, when in the workplace, it’s all about creatively fashioning the “win-win” scenarios and cultivating a sound support system. Now, some of the empowerment tools might seem trite at first glance. But once you really get rationale behind them, and cultivate the art of interacting with a different perspective, the power of the tools becomes more evident.

      1. Dear Dr Simon, speaking for myself, I would find examples very very helpful. Actual words. The more the merrier! Thank you so much.

  3. I tried to post this but it got lost. What I’m suggesting, more specifically, is a book of concrete, in the moment examples showing how to respond to these people. Maybe a chapter devoted to each tactic? Best seller! Even videos showing roll playing. It’s hard for me to translate concepts to real life action and specific words! I hope that is clearer!
    Thank you

    1. Not lost. It just takes from 8-24 hours to get comments approved for post. Sorry it has to be that way, but hackers have made that necessary. But your comment is much appreciated and is already being incorporated not only in the next revision of In Sheep’s Clothing but also in the upcoming series of webinars.

      1. I’m afraid I don’t know what a webinar is! Lol
        Are those the videos on Utube? If not, how do I access them?
        Thank you and ill be looking forward to finding out more.

        1. The clips available now on Youtube are excepted from a series of videotaped seminars that will be packaged and available over the internet at the end of Spring. I’ll be posting information on the blog when the seminars become available. Web-based seminar presentations (webinars) are a good way to have people access my workshops at their own convenience and at a fraction of the cost of attending a convention-center based workshop. Stay tuned.

        1. Revisions to In Sheep’s Clothing are currently underway. There is not yet a scheduled date for the release of a revised edition, but I’ll be alerting the blog readers as soon as one is set.

  4. Actually, I had tried to sign up, or I guess register, a while back and ran into trouble that I was unable to overcome! Long story but something with the RSS feed? Then I got an app but wasn’t sure what to do with it. I’m obviously not very computer savvy!

  5. As I was reading the post, two individuals came to mind. One is a perpetrator of domestic violence, and the other a controlling spiritual leader. Both are claiming to be working on their issues, and can’t seem to figure out where they’ve gone wrong, in spite of entering therapy for prolonged periods of time.

    In the case of the domestic abuser, he believes he has changed since he no longer resorts to physical violence. He believes that he has been a broken man, humiliated and stripped of his family, finances, career, status and reputation. His current methods of abuse are so sophisticated and covert that his therapist probably doesn’t detect it, since his mentors are now supporting his claim that he has changed. If he were to ask me how else he could change, how do I describe contrition in action, since he has apologized, completed men’s intervention programs and changed past behavior?

    In the other case, the person has never been avoiding therapy to work through inability to sustain relationships. But he not only can’t see what he does wrong, he says that his motives are misjudged and actions misinterpreted, where he believes that he means well (and I think he does) but maligned by disordered individuals. Since the people he tries to help are in trouble or have issues, it’s hard to argue that point, but as a therapist, how would you point out the bottom line of change, when the person can’t see that the behavior is wrong? I know your emphasis on “seeing, but disagreeing” but I think in this case, he really thinks his behavior is what is expected of all leaders (i.e. coming on heavy-handed).

    1. Wow! Such great questions! But I hardly know where to begin, because I literally devote whole training workshops to these kinds of issues. But let me make two general points: 1: We can’t reliably infer what a person really believes (i.e. just what there thinking – as distorted as it might be – really is) by what they say. For example, just because someone says others are misjudging him, doesn’t mean he necessarily believes that. It could simply be that he wants others to believe that, as part of the game of manipulation and impression management. 2: Even when someone’s belief system is faulty, the heart of good therapy is defining the specific cognitive distortions, confronting them when ever evidence of them surfaces, and rewarding the SELF-INTERCEPTION and CORRECTION of those thinking errors. Basically, we train disturbed characters to spot and correct the “stinking thinking,” and we positively consequent their willingness to do so and negatively consequent their failure to do so.

      One last thought: You ask how you would describe contrition. For the contrite person, no explanation is necessary. The contrite person is not just regretful of what he has done and what it has cost HIM, but has examined his own character for what it is about himself that led him not only to do the overtly violent acts he did, but the other more subtle abusive behaviors he still does. And he not only accepts that he has paid the just price for not tending to those flaws before but also takes up the burden to intimately know and root out those flaws now and for the future.

      Let me apologize for the brevity here and the paucity of information. But in truth I spend days in workshops trying to get folks to see the intricacies of all this, and sometimes it’s necessary to do an in vivo interview with the disturbed character in front of others for the audience to get all the fine nuances.

      1. Dr Simon, thanks for the reply, and no need to apologize for the brevity. I understand that there are limitations to how much you can address on a blog. You did a fine job of responding, in my opinion!

  6. I’m loving reading all of these articles and the discussions, I’m learning so much not only about my husband but about myself. Thankyou.

  7. i’m learning so much about the difference between contrition and remorse.

    my husband shows remorse, he cries insessently sometimes.

    but i see no change in his CV methods of behaviour!

    he wants me to let us move on and rebuild our relationship. I’m the one preventing the healing according to him.

    I’ve had a pleading email from a friend of my husband ‘not to destroy him totally by my behaviour’. now i realise that contrition does involve brokenness. so i won’t feel guilty if my husband does go through a kind of brokenness. it seems it is necessary to real change.


    1. i just realised i got the initials wrong.

      i mean CA – covert agressive – not CV. sorry for any confusion!


    2. Hi Rose, Ive just read your posts and it sounds like you have a lot of reading and learning to do!! Keep at it, educating yourself is most important because it will help you to break through the ignorance and denial that most of us have about these losers BEFORE we get targeted by one. My biggest vulnerability was my ignorance about people who are predators and target another human being to intentionally hurt and destroy them, punish them, get back at them, use and abuse them,,,,,,,all the while creating the illusion that they “love” them. It’s not a pleasant awakening to say the least but I see that the silver lining to this cloud is to know the truth so I can protect myself in the future.

      I also recommend the blog sites: and

      1. thanks puddle.

        as you say, not a pleasant awakening.

        I spent a few weeks in total shock after reading “in sheep’s clothing.”

        I actually felt nauseous a lot of the time.

        I’ve now written out on bright, colourful post-it notes “I Choose Life!” and put them in places i look at often and inside drawers to remind me what I’m aiming at and why I’m doing all this. So I don’t believe my husband’s statements that I’m being selfish or unloving towards him.

        I choose LIFE in all it’s fullness – for me. My husband can join me and choose that too if he wants. My challenges to him are not selfish and unloving – they could lead him into LIFE in all it’s fullness – if he let them.

        I no longer feel guilty when he says “I love you”. (I used to feel guilty because I didn’t feel that love and I didn’t believe him, so felt there was something wrong with me.) I sometimes even challenge his statement by telling him what isn’t loving behaviour and suggest ways he can express his love so I believe him.

        I think he is in shock just now! I wonder if there will be a backlash or if he will start to listen and change?!

        At least now I know what to be wary of and that I need to look out for real change before trusting him again. It’s not my responsibility to bring about change in him, it’s his.


  8. Dr Simon I’m wondering at the lack of consistency among counsellors.

    I’ve looked at several websites (I’m in the UK) and spoken to a couple of agencies on the phone about domestic abuse situations.

    They all say that couple counselling is NOT the way to go in cases of domestic abuse – which includes emotional/mental abuse.

    They are all quite clear that couple counselling is NOT appropriate and could be very harmful. They all say the type of therapy needed is different for the victim and the perpetrator; that they need to be seen separately and with different therapuetic approaches.

    so why do couple counsellors accept clients who say their issues are to do with domestic abuse?

    Before I’d learned as much as I have now, I rang to arrange an appointment with a couple counsellor. I told her what the issues were. She didn’t demure in the least. And, not surprisingly, she wasn’t helpful as she used the classic psychology approach, assuming we were both neurotic.

    I refused to go any more after 5 weeks.

    She’s been practicing for 25 years and still hasn’t cottoned on to how to help clients in domestic abuse situations – and how not to cause more harm!

    That’s scary!


    1. “They are all quite clear that couple counselling is NOT appropriate and could be very harmful. ”

      This has so long been my hunch, did they say specifically how it could be harmful, I would very much like to know. Thank you.

  9. This is so helpful, thank you for sharing. The internet “12 Reasons Why Couples Counseling NOT Recommended when DV is Present” lists how that can make the situation worse, not just be unhelpful.

    1. so how come couples counsellors don’t know those facts?!

      muddled, frightened and confused clients can’t be expected to know these things. In fact they tend to rely on those who are supposed to be trained, qualified ‘experts’ to guide them as to what is appropriate and helpful.

      you’re in no position to judge when you first try to get help.

      it’s a mine field out there!

  10. I have nothing of real note to add…..other than to say this is an absolutely brilliant piece of writing! If only this could receive wider circulation and recognition…..I have no doubt it would make for a better world for a great many people.

    Thank you Dr. Simon.

  11. SUCH a brilliant piece.
    Really ‘nails’ the trap that caring, compassionate, conscientious people fall into with the crocodile tears.
    But also how to avoid it.
    1 – stop disowning your gut instincts because you think they’re bad
    2 – only believe behavior

    Can’t thank you enough!

  12. I realize this is an older post, but I hope someone will respond. What about the covert abuser who has the uncanny ability to change behavior, FOR A TIME, and claims it to be real change. Then the abused becomes the one who is unable to forgive. How can we know the basic belief has changed instead of just doing the dishes, making tea, and being “nice” to get you back where they want you?

    1. Ginger
      They have to be lasting changes , not just behaving. That’s the difference, behaving does not amount to a change of character. I think the changes would ha e to be very long standing to believe a real change – not “being good” has taken place

    2. I want to reply to you because I was led to this post today
      I’ve been cheated on by my husband. He told me 2 years ago. It still feels like 2 months ago. I think it’s because of what you said! I am the bad guy for not accepting he’s sorry and seeing that he’s “here” for me. Problem is: where WERE you? I’ve been here. Doing the marriage, wife, mom, love thing. Now I’ll get a tea every now and then. The dinner. Occasional back rub. Why now? And why did he tell me if the cheating took place 6 years ago? (He was afraid she’d tell)

    3. I agree with what Lucy said, and I would add that if the abused one is being accused of not being forgiving, then the abuser is not truly contrite. Demanding forgiveness is still manipulation and control, and indicates that no true repentance has taken place. Real change does not demand anything from the hurt one, but will do anything it takes and be willing to suffer to make things right.

  13. Grace and Ginger

    Grace I agree.
    My counselor told me at a session that she believed the now-X would “behave” but not truly range. She was so on point.
    Being “caught” and called out on bad behavior, then the person saying he/she will change and behaving for a while does not make changed character. And why wouldn’t they change because THEY wanted to be a better person? If the perceived change isn’t coming from the person for their own personal reasons, I honestly don’t think there will be a permanent change. And who wants to wait around for a character disturbed person to change? When you see what they are, make the decision to stay and except the same ole same ole, or moving on with your life, without that disturbed person. Life is too short.

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