Contrition Revisited

Sorry to say, but Elton John and Bernie Taupin had it wrong.  “Sorry” is definitely not the hardest word.  In fact, saying the word is relatively easy.  Now really being sorry, and having the kind of character that permits you to humbly express your sincere regrets to someone you’ve hurt is another thing altogether.  That’s definitely not so easy.  Of course, there are those pathologically prideful characters who can’t even bring themselves to say they’re sorry, but that’s probably best left for discussion in another post.  But inasmuch as there’s been a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about relationship partners who had finally “agreed” to seek counseling but who were still not really acknowledging their character issues or the pain those issues had caused others, I thought it might be helpful to re-examine the topic of contrition and the role it can play in turning troubled relationships around.

Before getting too deep into the discussion, however, let me first state how big a red flag it is for me whenever someone’s relationship partner has finally “consented” to geting counseling of some sort,  Such a scenario necessarily means two things:  the person finally acceding to the demand for counseling didn’t really believe there was anything about themselves that needed confronting and/or changing in the first place, or if they did recognize they had issues work on, they lacked sufficient motivation of their own (for any number of reasons, some of which are in themselves very telltale) to do something about it without being prodded.  So, it’s important for folks in dysfunctional relationships to accept up front that finally cajoling their partner into getting some help is a high-risk enterprise right from the outset.

I’ve touched on contrition issues in several posts and written two prior articles specifically addressing the topic (see: What Real Contrition Looks Like and Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy).  And in the former article, I quote from my book Character Disturbance about the nature of contrition, which necessarily has it’s roots in empathy for the harm someone has caused another.  As many of you know, one of the hallmark features of character disturbance is an impaired capacity for empathy, and in the case of the most severely disturbed character – the psychopath – empathy and conscience are absent altogether.  The quote from the book is worth repeating again:

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.

And in the first contrition article, I go on to say:

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 that are openly displayed but 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.

Now a relationship partner whom you’ve confronted and who is truly contrite about their dysfunctional ways and really wants to make things better talks and acts in certain predictable ways.  The contrite partner does not say things like:  “I’ll go to therapy if it will make you happy,” or “I’m doing what you asked me so will you get off my back?” or “Can’t we just put things behind us and get on with life again… I said I was sorry a million times now…. What else do you want from me?!”  Rather, he or she says things like:  “I know I really messed up and I really hurt you,… I know I’ve got some issues to work on,…  I want to make things better and make up for what I’ve done and I want to be sure I never do such things again,… I’ll do whatever it takes to get your forgiveness and trust.”  And what real contrition looks like is action that’s in line with and backs up such words.  Such action does not include trying to drag you into the therapy process from the beginning, using all sorts of manipulation and impression-management techniques (like I outline in In Sheep’s Clothing) to make the therapist wonder if you’re crazy for insisting your partner come in.  Instead, real contrition in action means doing one’s own work ardently and faithfully and only when changes are really evident, inviting one’s partner into a conjoint process of relationship repair.

Finally, it’s important to remember that merely feeling badly about something is still not the same as experiencing true contrition.  As I mention in the article article Contrition, Behavior, and Therapy:

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.   Therapists can be unduly swayed by such displays as well.  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 in sound cognitive-behavioral therapy.

This issue is so important that I’m sure we’ll come back to it in the discussion many times (and you can find many illustrative examples of contrition in action in my book The Judas Syndrome).  But hopefully this brief revisiting of the issue will help raise awareness  of the conditions that need to be present if someone you’re in a relationship with is going to effectively use therapy as a vehicle for meaningful change.  And because the truly contrite person accepts the obligation to repair damage he or she has done, it goes hand in hand with repentance, about which we’ll talk in an upcoming post.

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21 thoughts on “Contrition Revisited

  1. Dr Simon, I requested this a bit longer a while back and I remind you now. Would you make an article about character defamation? I feel that subject hasn’t been handled nearly enough and I’m sure many would it an article about such greatly useful.

    More specifically: What various ways are there for an unscrupulous person to damage another person’s reputation? How does one protect one’s reputation against vicious gossip?

    1. J, I have said things about my ex, under emotional duress, and regretted SOME of the things I said. I did not say ANYTHING untrue but I said certain things to people I probably shouldn’t have. I didn’t do it to damage him in any way……I can’t really even explain WHY I’ve said what I’ve said or to whom I’ve said it other than i was pretty much in a total mental, emotional, physical meltdown. I look back on those months and they don’t even seem or feel real to me. I call them the dark months, it was shortly after we split up.
      BUT, he is propagating a blatant misrepresentation of the truth, two actually, against me and at first it really bothered me. Lately I’ve come to not even care. I realize that anyone who matters to me wouldn’t be affected by anything that POS says anyhow so lit him have his fun. He’s the one who is off the deep end and he’s the one who tried to drag me down with him. LOOSER!!!!

    2. That is a way of looking at it and I do believe it makes sense in regards to what you’ve experienced.

      However, I don’t completely agree. Sometimes nasty rumours can damage or even sever relationships that have been forged over a long time, isolate a target socially, persuade others to view a target as an enemy, tarnish a good name built up with merit over a long time, dissuade potential friends from associating with a person, limit future employment possibilities and otherwise act as an instrument of abuse.

      This needs to be handled in more detail. What various ways are there to respond to rumours and false allegations? Folks, please, express your views on this.

      1. Well J, if the allegations and rumors are false then that is slander and it’s illegal and a civil matter in court but I have been told that it is VERY hard to prove and prosecute. I heard one time that if someone comes up to you and tells you about something bad that your ex has said about you, you simply say, “yes, i’m afraid that “Spathx” is having a hard time accepting the breakup”. and then refuse to continue the conversation as long as it involves the ex.
        I guess more information is needed in your question…..an example perhaps?

      2. Let’s say a rumor comes up about someone stating that they’re of unsavory character, possibly even a sexual deviant and that kind of a gossip is passed around as a warning. Then again, how to defend against it beforehand is as important to know as dealing with it when it happens. Dr Simon, would you please make an article or several about character assassination, character defamation and defending one’s reputation?

        1. I’ve been reading the idea exchange on this issue and will definitely craft an article on the matter in a few weeks. But let me first speak to a few general principles: Once folks truly understand the character disturbed person they’ve been dealing with and have become more empowered and decide to move on with their life, they’re often faced with an onslaught of “so you think you’re rid of me and my influence but I’ll show you what power I still have” tactics, including trashing your reputation. But the worst part of all this is how well your attention is drawn as a result to matters you’d really rather not have to tend to at all as well as focusing externally on all the things you think you need to attend to to get your life and reputation back. The really dangerous part (for your own well-being and continued empowerment) is focusing on what your ex-manipulator has been doing or may be plotting to do next, because over that, you have not control. And as we know, focusing time and energy where you have no power to control is the “formula” for depression and, consequently, diminished empowerment. So the key think is to have an action plan for crafting you own narrative and for nurturing the relationships you care about – putting all your energy there and letting the rest go. And I’ll do my best in the upcoming article to give some specific examples (from several case histories) of how this works.

          1. When crafting our own narratives, there has to be ways to minimize possible damage to reputation if any attacks come up.

            Any unscrupulous person can attack our reputations for any reason, whether we’ve been involved with them or not. Isn’t it in our control to make it more likely to last against unjust character defamation?

          2. That is so true – they will defame in such a way that if you go around saying “what CA said was not true, I swear, because x, y, z” it reinforces the CA’s defamation narrative.

            They are crafty, some of them.

            This is such a good reminder, just chart your own course forward, and be extremely cautious in how you conduct yourself around people who know the CA. But chart your own course forward, for sure.

          3. Yes, I’ve faced this one recently. Other people were reassuring on this is a way that felt like they really didn’t realize how bad it was — BUT —
            I think they were right…
            Live out your own character as you are, and you provide the counter-evidence that disproves their claim.
            Ultimately this has more power than trying to argue third parties into believing you rather than the CD about your own character.
            It might take some time for them to see the truth over time.
            I’ve had to say to myself — “well – they might have to learn for themselves how deceitful so-and-so is — I can’t protect them from learning this sad fact of life for themselves.”

            It is hard – but I think the message Dr Simon repeats is the best answer, just not an “easy” answer: do the right thing and detach yourself from the consequences (also a maxim from many religious traditions) — and only invest in what you can control (in this context, your own character and behavior).

            As for people who are foolish enough to believe the slurs on your character: “No one beneath you can offend you. No one your equal would.” (Jan Wells) (That also helps me with the point about ‘invitations’ to feel bad, not ‘make me feel bad’; that you own your own feelings.)

          4. That’s all true.

            Also, I think telling trusted close people is important if there’s an unscrupulous person around, especially if that person may be spreading vile gossip.

          5. Then there’s the flipside that a believable rumour may be hard to distinguish from a real warning about some dangerous person. Would you include something on how to react to rumours, too, Dr Simon?

          6. So, I think it would be useful to talk with close people beforehand about if a nasty rumour ever comes up anywhere, they know what to look for. Some sort of damage control to minimize possible damage beforehand. All we can do, really.

          7. From another side of the fence, if we hear some nasty thing about someone, a good thing to say would be: “Who have you heard that from?”

  2. I’ve got a question on a different subject, Dr Simon. Neurotics have unconscious emotional conflicts, but is it possible for someone to be closer to more neurotic end of the spectrum and still be fully conscious of their own motivations? I don’t mean after a therapy session or a lightbuld moment. I mean: Is it possible for a neurotic to be “naturally” fully conscious of what’s driving them?

    1. Great question! And your hunch is absolutely correct. While the “symptoms” of neurosis are often founded in emotional conflicts that are unconscious (if someone were conscious of what the conflict was about, there would be no symptom) it’s quite possible for individuals more on the neurotic side of the N vs CD spectrum to be conscious of their motivations. And despite their awareness, and the possibility that they might be uncomfortable not only with their motivations but also with the behaviors prompted by those motivations, as a result of habit strength, they they might not be readily able to change course even when their better judgment tells them they need to.

      1. Dr. Simon, I’m guessing that the main thing that differentiates someone into the disturbed group is their intention. I have hurt people in my past and not meant to and been accountable for it to the best of my ability. However, when I did try to make amends and apologize, I didn’t do so knowing full well that I had no intention of changing my behavior, or at least trying to. I didn’t say I’m sorry knowing full well that I really wasn’t and actually knew that I WOULD repeat my behavior because I did it intentionally to begin with!

      2. what about something like this…
        As some people on the ‘neurotic’ end of the spectrum grow in self-awareness, and dare I say rigorous and unstinting self-honesty; anxiety and a sense of inadequacy can actually increase as we become more aware of how we fall short of our own ideals and moral aspirations… because we are hiding less from ourselves, making fewer excuses to ourselves, and so on.
        But – as we grow in self-acceptance and self-compassion (and become more consistent in living up to our values)the anxiety and self-frustration decrease…and we become less neurotic…
        does this make sense?

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