Reframing Regret and Guilt
Most of us spend a good part of our lives criticizing the decisions we've made in the past—"What was I thinking?", "If only I had done this differently..." How often have we kicked ourselves, contemplating such thoughts on an endless loop?
This article explores the meaning and purpose of regret and guilt and ways you can change your relationships with both.
Regret is a complex feeling and often has more to it than what lies on the surface. It's a normal human tendency, defined as a rational, justifiable feeling of 'I wish I hadn't done that'. While it has its place and purpose, it can also weigh heavily in our minds when we look at our decisions in retrospect.
Guilt has its place, and like any emotion, it serves a purpose. If we view regret as a rational, logical perspective of the past, guilt is a more powerful, emotional feeling. When you think about that one situation from the past, it's an immediate visceral feeling of discomfort. Most of us tend to miss that guilt is also a signal that there's an opportunity to learn from the past and not repeat the same mistakes.
How You Can Start Reframing Regret & Guilt
Guilt, resentment, hurt, regret, and anger all fuel negative self-talk, and that internal dialogue regularly obsesses over the dream that we could've done or said something differently. While it's difficult to overlook these thoughts, we can start to change our relationship with them when we listen and pay attention.
Here are a few ways you can reframe regret and guilt:
Self-compassion. Self-compassion practices are frequently used in therapy, but it's also something you can do on your own. Reenu Sahore, a self-compassion researcher, developed a few self-compassion exercises that can help you overcome feelings of guilt and regret.
● Ask yourself how you’d treat a friend experiencing the same struggle. What would you say to that friend? Try using those exact words towards yourself. Put yourself in the shoes of a friend and see what they would say to you in this situation. We are our own self-critic. We forget to see things the way they are.
● Explore self-compassion through writing. Keeping a daily journal where you process stressful or difficult situations can enhance your mental and physical wellbeing. Or, you can write a letter to yourself from a place of acceptance and compassion. Describe the situation and what happened, how it made you feel, how it impacted your life.
● Create your own compassionate reframe. Write down a list of negative words you use to describe yourself. Now in a separate column, think about the opposite or more compassionate versions of those words.
Expand on these negative words to include a more well-rounded and balanced description of your situation. Here's an example:
● Self-critical: "I'm a perfectionist, and feel worried that I’ll look stupid when I make a mistake.
● Self-compassionate reframe: I value the quality of my work and am very thoughtful of how my work defines me. I am careful to make sure that my work reflects my respect for my personal goals and expectations.
In the early years of my career as a psychotherapist, I learned a few powerful techniques to help my clients cope with their thoughts and feelings of regret and guilt. Consider journaling or thinking about the following; they can help you move towards thinking and acting differently about the things you feel regret and guilt about.
1. How does your regret or guilt affect the things you do and say?
An example of a response could be: losing self-esteem and confidence, isolating yourself from people, being overly critical of yourself, etc.
2. Could you have done anything differently at that time, considering where you were in your life and the information you had at that time?
You'll probably realize that what you did would be similar to anyone in your position. Think about your experiences until that point in time, your background, circumstances, and what you knew or didn't know.
3. Are you the only one to blame? Or did anything or anyone else contribute to your mistake?
I've noticed that people who feel like they're drawing in regret often take all of the blame and responsibility for the past. We often forget to acknowledge all of the other factors that contributed to what happened.
4. What did you do right?
This one isn't always easy to answer, and it may take some time to think about. From a compassionate viewpoint, acknowledge the things that went well or that you did right.
Nobody's perfect. And the more we remember that, the more we can start to accept our past. Our relationship with kindness, love, anger, resentment and many other feelings are an essential part of this highly personal journey.