Guilt vs. Regret


For several years Kim Andreaus and I have taught Powerful Tools for Caregivers, an evidence-based program that teaches skills for self-care and stress management. One of the lessons from the class that always resonates with me is the concept of guilt versus regret.

Guilt is shame-based and implies there was a kind of malicious intent at the time in question:
I’m bad because I did (or didn’t) do x.

Regret is much more compassionate and reflective:
Had I known what I know now, I would (or wouldn’t) have done x. I regret that I did (or didn't) do it.

We are imperfect humans who are constantly learning lessons throughout life. It's unrealistic to expect that we will always get everything right. Often there are several factors and stressors that inform or complicate both the decisions we make and the situations with which we find ourselves. Yet, when we look back, it is very easy to over-simplify the options we had at the time.

We may easily label a feeling as guilt when regret might be the better term. One of the most prevalent times to do this is after a death. Guilt is a very common experience described by those in bereavement.

In her book Anxiety: The missing stage of grief, licensed therapist Claire Bidwell Smith writes about the connection between grief, anxiety, and feelings of guilt experienced after a loss. She shares the following questions to reflect on feelings of guilt, so that one can either work towards owning failures and taking responsibility (what she terms healthy guilt), or, acknowledging that one is being too hard on themselves, with unrealistic expectations. (I'd say in the case of the latter, regret might then be a better term to use.)

Here are her questions to ask about guilt. Many of these are also applicable to guilt unrelated to a death.

  • What did you expect of yourself that you were not able to do?
  • Were those expectations realistic?
  • What could you have done differently?
  • Were you hindered by emotional stress?
  • Would your loved one forgive you now, given the opportunity?
  • What would you tell a friend who makes the same mistake you made?
  • What have you learned from this mistake that you can apply to your current life?

If you are experiencing anxiety or intrusive thoughts of guilt after a death, a grief counselor or a grief group may be a helpful resource for processing. The Work/Life Center provides one-on-one consultations to employees and family members to connect to these resources. Otherwise, PsychologyToday or your insurance provider's website can be a good place to search for a counselor. For support or educational groups, search for a local non-profit hospice which will likely have bereavement resources available to the public. Within Wake County, that is Transitions GriefCare.


About Author

Katie Seavey Pegoraro

Sr Associate Work Life Program Manager

Katie Seavey Pegoraro supports employees with issues of stress and balance, providing tools and resources to cope when life feels overwhelming. Katie is a contact for those who may be coping with issues of mental health, substance use, or grief and loss. A young professional herself, Katie is a unique support to employees who are navigating the many life transitions that occur in your 20's and 30's.

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