I remember seeing "contrition" on the SAT in the Spring of 1989 and having no idea what it meant. I read it over and over, but there was no association in my mind. I have often recalled that moment with great bemusement, because just over three years later, on September 5, 1992, the Act of Contrition was elicited from me for the first time, and I knew exactly what it was all about.
But I have always had a question about acts of contrition: is the spiritual ideal to make an "act of perfect contrition," or a "perfect act of contrition?" My whole Catholic life, I have heard it both ways. People who would seem to be trustworthy usually come down on the side of the former. On the other hand, I kind of like the latter with its suggestion that we are called to make the act, the spiritual intention perfectly, which might mean we weren't entirely contrite all through ourselves.
For me, I know all to well that contrition is a relative experience. If there were no attachment to selfishness and sin, we would not need to frequent the sacrament of penance. Relative contrition is important, though, insofar as an awareness of the internal struggle is a great opportunity for humility and dependence on grace. When we come to contrition over our inability to be truly contrite, that's when we reach the sublime prayer-moment of meta-contrition. I believe this is what the saints meant when they talk about compunction.
Practically speaking, I don't use the language of perfection at all. I invite people to make the best act of contrition they can, especially in cases in which they have a wholesome spiritual desire for Holy Communion but no option for sacramental absolution beforehand.
So, better informed Catholics than your humble blogger, what's the answer?