How To Deal With Guilt and Regret

July 5, 2023   •  Posted in: 

We all make mistakes. Most of us have been there more than once, and the feelings that come up as a result of our actions – guilt, regret – can be strong.

Feeling guilty or regretful are common emotions, both falling under the broad heading of sadness. We know we don’t feel good when we feel guilty or regretful, but is there a deeper insight we can get from these feelings? And how do we deal with guilt and regret when they arise?

In this article, we explore guilt and regret in turn before looking at how to deal with them both in six steps. Let’s dive in.

 

What is guilt?

If shame tells us we are bad, guilt tells us we’ve done something bad[1]. Both emotions are in the range of feelings we experience when we fall short of our own expectations or standards.

When we feel guilt, it’s a message we have done something wrong and we must do something to make it right again, whether that’s by making an apology or a change of behavior. When we realize we have hurt another person and feel bad about it, seeking to make it right, this type of guilt is remorse[2].

There are four main types of guilt:

  1. Natural guilt. This is what you feel after you did something wrong, like letting someone down. You might feel drawn to apologize for your behavior. This type of guilt is usually temporary and fades after you’ve made things right.
  2. Chronic guilt. This type of guilt typically occurs alongside chronic stress, in which you may have been exposed to stress over a long period of time. Chronic guilt has a big effect on your ability to regulate emotions and can impact relationships as well as your ability to work or function. In this sense, chronic guilt is related to burnout, and it can also occur with periods of major depression.
  3. Survivor guilt. Those who survive traumatic events, particularly when others did not, may experience survivor guilt. This often surfaces feelings of remorse and sadness, as well as guilt around feeling relieved to be alive. The emotional states experienced by those with survivor guilt are often contradictory, making it harder to identify.
  4. Collective guilt. While the other types of guilt affect individuals, collective guilt is felt by a group who share responsibility, usually for a scenario in which others are experiencing harm. As such, it often applies to racism or other systemic issues, which makes collective guilt inherently more difficult to resolve.

 

What does guilt feel like?

Guilt can be felt in the body as well as in the mind. For some, feelings of guilt are located in the stomach as a pang, feelings of nausea, or feelings of emptiness. Other physical symptoms include muscle tension, fatigue, insomnia, digestive issues, and crying.

For others, guilt affects mood, making you feel low, nervous, or anxious. Guilt can also cause strong feelings of responsibility for your actions and a desire to fix what happened. This often prompts self-criticism which can lead to feelings of low self esteem or unworthiness.

Sometimes, you may not realize you’re feeling guilt as it can manifest in unconscious ways, such as defensiveness, downplaying, lying, or negative beliefs about yourself on a deep level.

However you experience it, guilt is strong. But while the feelings you experience around guilt may be uncomfortable, they can be used productively.

 

What can you learn from guilt?

The discomfort of guilt is a huge clue that something we’ve done is out of alignment with our values. While it’s uncomfortable, it’s also helpful as it’s this feeling that prompts us to change and do better.

Learning from guilt might look different for different people, but the main learning is likely to be around reflection on what happened, why it happened, whether you are able to make different choices in the future (where applicable), and what you’ve discovered about yourself in the process.

 

What is regret? Is regret different than guilt?

Regret differs from guilt as it’s an emotion we often experience when an outcome was not what we wanted, counted on, or thought would happen. It’s closely aligned with disappointment, which is often felt when we believe the outcome was out of our control. With regret, however, we believe the outcome was caused by our own decisions or actions.

 

What are the most common causes of regret?

Research[3] suggests that around 90% of regrets fall into one of the following six regret types:

  1. Education
  2. Career
  3. Romance
  4. Parenting
  5. Self-improvement
  6. Leisure

Dr. Brené Brown’s research into regret found that what we regret most are our failures of courage, whether it’s the courage to be kinder, to show up, to say how we feel, to set boundaries, to be good to ourselves, or to say yes to something scary. She goes on to talk about her own experiences of regret:

“Regret has taught me that living outside my values is not tenable for me. Regrets about not taking chances have made me braver. Regrets about shaming or blaming people I care about have made me more thoughtful… Sometimes the most uncomfortable learning is the most powerful.”

Dr. Brené Brown, Atlas of the Heart

 

Why is regret such a difficult emotion?

Regret is often accompanied by self-blame and sometimes also by guilt, and it’s particularly painful when we are not great at accepting accountability[4]. In terms of how we experience regret, this ranges from mild discomfort to deep hurt, and it’s common to underestimate how regret can cause us to disconnect from ourselves and in our personal relationships.

Research[5] suggests that we view our regrets differently in the short term versus over the long term. In the short term, we typically regret bad outcomes where we took action. In the long term, we more often regret the actions we didn’t take and what we didn’t do, viewing these as missed opportunities.

 

What can you learn from regret?

Like other painful emotions, the lessons we can learn from regret can be a powerful reminder that reflection, change, and growth are all possible and necessary.

Regret does have a silver lining. Dr. Brown’s research[6] also found that regret emerged as a function of empathy: ‘When used constructively, it’s a call to courage and a path toward wisdom,’ she says.

 

How to deal with feelings of guilt and regret

It’s important to allow your feelings of guilt and regret. Trying to push them down or mask them may work in the short term but any relief you find from this approach doesn’t last long. Instead, by following the suggestions below, you are likely to feel some long-lasting relief from your emotions. This may take time, however, so don’t expect instant results. Some feelings of guilt and regret may stick around in some form throughout your life, and the challenge is to make your peace with them. The steps below should help:

1. Name the emotion

We know from research[7] that labeling emotions decreases their intensity, so if you want a quick and easy first step, tell yourself what you’re feeling. Say out loud, “I’m feeling guilty or “I have so much regret.” If you can’t speak it, write it down. This labeling is a form of what psychologists call ‘emotional regulation’ which describes both how humans manage emotions as well as the type of skills you can learn in order to get better at it.

Try to be curious about your emotions. Consider what they might be telling you. Sometimes, feelings can morph from one thing to another so it’s good practice to get familiar with what you’re feeling, where in your body you’re feeling it, and what you personally find helpful or unhelpful when dealing with emotions.

These skills will serve you well no matter what emotions you’re feeling. Consider this a practice that you grow and hone over days, weeks, months, and even years. It’s part of the normal developmental process all humans go through as we age.

2. Get clear on the source of your feelings

If you are feeling guilty or regretful, it’s likely you know the source of the feeling. Perhaps you have let someone down, said something you later regret, been unkind, betrayed someone, looked away from a difficult situation, caused conflict, or some other scenario you feel bad about.

By really getting to the root of what happened, the choices you made and their consequences, you begin to understand the cause and effect of the way you’re now feeling. It is only when we bring something into clear awareness that we have the opportunity to try to make it right, and this wisdom is critical if we want to commit to preventing something similar from happening in the future.

3. Apologize and try to make things right

Apologies are not easy. Particularly when the consequences of our actions have caused harm to others. However, they are the first step to making things right.

A good apology goes beyond saying ‘I’m sorry.’ By including more detail about what you’re apologizing for, you are communicating to the other person that you are aware of the impact of your behavior. It’s also a good idea to mention this in your apology. Let the other person see you’ve thought about their feelings in this. Mention how you aim to try harder in the future, too, as this will let them know you would like things to be different next time.

Just because you’ve apologized, however, doesn’t mean the other person has to accept your apology or to forgive you. You might find they want or need some time to figure out how they feel and to think about what they might need, which is their prerogative. If this happens, you are likely to notice more uncomfortable feelings arising in yourself but you will need to find ways to tolerate this discomfort.

In some situations, you might never get the forgiveness or closure you’re seeking, which means you will have to find a way to live with your actions. If you’re struggling with this, consider speaking to a counselor or therapist who can help you come to terms with the reality of your situation.

4. Commit to doing things differently in the future

An apology is only complete when you accept that your behavior may have caused others harm, and you commit to doing things differently from here on in.

Think about what changes you could make should a similar situation arise, and explore ways to tackle things in other ways.

Consider your values – whether spiritual, religious, or secular – and how your actions and behaviors may or may not be in alignment with your beliefs. Look for ways to bring the two closer together. This may take commitment and practice, but by holding these values and beliefs front of mind you will naturally begin to move towards them.

Identifying a goal can also be a helpful way to kickstart behavior change. For example, if your feelings of guilt or regret are rooted in something you did while inebriated, try setting a sobriety goal and working towards it. This can be an important and effective way to show yourself and others that you feel bad about what happened and are committed to do things differently.

5. Work towards self-forgiveness

Forgiving yourself can feel impossible when all you can focus on are feelings of guilt or regret. However, becoming overly self-critical is not the answer. This just adds to your negative emotional state, making things feel even heavier and more difficult.

Self-forgiveness is closely linked to self compassion. Self compassion operates on three levels: being kind to yourself, recognizing that all humans mess up, and mindfulness.

One of the most effective ways of working towards self-compassion is to imagine what you would say to a friend who is going through a similar experience. Chances are you would speak kindly to them, finding ways to help them see things in a less catastrophic light while accepting the situation, and to remind them of all the good aspects of their character. Try to apply this to yourself.

6. Talk to someone

Feelings of guilt and regret can have a huge impact on your life so if you have tried to manage this alone without success, it might be time to seek outside help. This could be by talking to a trusted family member, friend, colleague or community leader, or a mental health professional.

Talking therapy offers support for a range of emotional issues as well as mental health concerns, and there is no shame in asking for help when you need it.

 

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we offer Whole Person Care. This is a multidisciplinary treatment approach that cares for the whole person, instead of just the symptoms. We treat all aspects of your life – physical, emotional, nutritional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual.

Our trained professionals dedicate themselves to helping you find resolution. While each person is ultimately responsible for their own personal recovery – from addictions and other life challenges – we give you our promise to do our very best and to stay with you each step of the way toward healing, recovery, and a return to happiness.

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[1] Michael Lewis, “Self-Conscious Emotions: Embarrassment, Pride, Shame, Guilt, and Hu-bris,” in Handbook of Emotions, edited by Lisa Feldman Barrett, Michael Lewis, and J. M. Haviland-Jones (New York: Guilford Press, 2016), 792-814.
[2] June P. Tangney, Jeff Stuewig, and Logaina Hafez, “Shame, Guilt, and Remorse: Implications for Offender Populations? journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology 22, no. 5 (2011)706-23, doi 10.1080/14789949.2011.617541.
[3] Neal J. Rose and Amy Summerville, “What We Regret Most, and Why.
[4] Hannah Faye Chua, Richard Gonzalez, Stephan F. Taylor, Robert C. Welsh, and Israel Liberzon, “Decision-Related Loss: Regret and Disappointment,” Neurolmage 47, no. 4 (2009):2031-40 doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2009.06.006.
[5] Marcel Zeelenberg, Wilco W. van Diik, Antony S. R. Manstead, and loop van der Pligt, “On Bad Decisions and Disconfirmed Expectancies: The Psychology of Regret and Disappointment Cognition and Emotion 14, no. 4 (2000):521-41. do: 10.1080/026999300402781.
[6] Brown, B. (2021) Atlas of the heart. London: Vermilion.
[7] Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116–124. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917742706

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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