How can we understand people who do great harm, yet feel no remorse and won't say, "I'm sorry"?

Many decades ago in San Francisco, I administered psychological testing to a minister who had had sexual intercourse with each of his four daughters. He expressed no guilt or remorse. A religious man with “strong family values,” he insisted that he did not want his daughters to be introduced to sexuality by strangers who might exploit them.  

I will never forget the burst of self-righteous anger that the father directed toward me when I asked him if he had initiated any sexual activity with his only son.  “Dr. Lerner,” he said, rising from his chair and almost spitting my name, “That would be a sin!”

The worse the offense and the greater the shame, the more difficult it is for the wrongdoer to empathize with the harmed party and feel remorse. Instead one tells oneself, “It wasn’t my fault,” or “I couldn’t help myself,” or “It’s not that big a deal.” Self-protective explanations often shift the blame onto the harmed party as ever deeper levels of self-deception come into play. One tells oneself, “She really asked for it,”  “I did it for her own good,” or, “It was necessary,” and even, “It never happened.”

None of us will identify with the minister I described. Although he was in many ways ordinary, he engaged in a type of violence that few parents can begin to imagine.  But that said, the human capacity for self-deception is extraordinary. Whether the context is personal or political, all of us can create layers of defensiveness when we cannot face the shame of having violated our values and having harmed others. 

It's useful to understand that the person who has betrayed, abused, or neglected you is the least likely to ever get it and apologize. For people who do serious harm, defensiveness is not merely a roadblock they can get past after you do the best possible job confronting them with your anger and pain. When people have lost sight of their value and worth defensiveness is where they live. They will stay wrapped in a blanket of defensiveness and denial in order to survive.  

As I explain in Why Won't You Apologize?, it's always easier to offer a sincere apology for small things than for serious transgressions. If you're waiting for an apology from the person who harmed you, don't hold your breath. You can move forward in your life with optimism and hope without it.

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