Guilt and Regret

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Have you ever met anyone who does not have some guilt or regret?

Guilt (as defined by Wikipedia) is a “cognitive or an emotional experience that occurs when a person believes or realizes — accurately or not — that he or she has compromised his or her own standards of conduct or has violated a moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.”

Regret (as defined by Wikipedia) is distinct from guilt. “In this regard, the concept of regret is subordinate to guilt in terms of its emotional intensity.” An example is not having had enough information at a time to make a better choice. We cannot be expected to act on information that we didn't have.

As a grief counselor, I have never worked with anyone who does not express some form of guilt or regret. It is a common response in loss. Most people believe they have lost the opportunity to “make something right” or be forgiven for an injustice or wrongdoing.

There are positive and negative aspects in every human relationship. In the early phases of grief, it is not uncommon to recall and dwell on your own negative responses in the relationship and only the positive responses of the deceased. In time this view of the past tends to become more realistic.

Humans often have unrealistic standards when judging themselves, according to Theresa Rando PhD author of How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies (1991). For example, parents have certain role expectations such as always protecting their child. The death of the child may leave a sense of failure, leading to guilt and regret. This is most often unrealistic, yet it is their feeling.

There are many dimensions in guilt that can affect many areas in our life, cognitively, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and behaviorally.

Types of guilt*

There are many types of guilt:

  • Death causation guilt
  • Relief guilt
  • Benefit guilt
  • Survivor guilt
  • Grief guilt
  • Moral guilt
  • Pain to others guilt
  • Illness related or moment of death guilt
  • Moving on guilt
  • Unmentionable guilt
  • If-only guilt

*from Parent Loss of a Child, Theresa Rando PhD, 1986

Coping with “If Only’s” and “Should Haves”

The addition of guilt and regret can intensify grief reactions. It can result in feelings of hopelessness, depression, self-harm, or substance abuse (Nader et al., 1990: Schwarz and Kowalski, 1992). Guilt can immobilize individuals and hinder normal progression through life and quality of life and relationships with others.

Staying focused on guilt rather than acting positively toward a resolution to guilt can be a way of avoiding other issues or emotions. With the help of a skilled counselor, guilt can mobilize us to reexamine ourselves and our actions in the past, present, and future.

Gaining Perspective through Self-evaluation

Here are some steps to help with your own self-evaluation. For a different perspective, ask someone close to you to help share their observations of your behavior.

Do I make frequent guilt statements, such as the following?

  • If only I … (acts of omission or commission)
  • Why didn’t I
  • I should have
  • I shouldn’t have
  • This was payment for
  • I am not worthy of
  • I feel guilty
  • I did not take the time to

These questions can help identify negative self-talk. Further questions may include:

  • What guilt related words do I say to myself?
  • Was there something I actually did wrong or is there something I wish I had done differently?
  • How can I change what I do now and how I treat people in the future?
  • What are my lessons learned from the past?

Awareness is the first step in the process of change.  Reexamining one’s self and one’s actions can move you forward to a more productive positive life.

Take accountability, own up to your own mistakes. Self-forgiveness for actions taken or not taken is an important step. This can be done by writing a letter whether delivered or not.

If you feel stuck because of guilt or regrets, then ask yourself, “So what’s next?” This can help you move forward by verbalizing or writing a plan. Identify how guilt and regret makes you feel now and how changing some behaviors in the future can prevent future similar feelings. Loving one’s self frees you to live more joyously with more love (from How Good Do We Have to Be, Harold S. Kushner, 1996).

Linda Coughlin Brooks is the SUDEP Institute Bereavement Support Facilitator; she contributes regular articles as part of our bereavement support services. You can contact Linda at Watch for future articles and learn more about our support for bereaved.

Authored by: Linda Coughlin Brooks RN | BSN | CT on 3/2016

Nader, K. PynoosY R.S., Fairbanks, L. & Frederick, C.J. (1990). Children’s PTSD reactions one year after a sniper attack at their school. American Journal of Psychiatry, 147, 1526­ 1530.

Schwarz, E. D. & Kowalski, J. M. (1992). Personality characteristics and post-traumatic stress symptoms after a school shooting. Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, 180 (11), 735-737.

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