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Guilt vs. Regret: Differences and Which Is Worse?


We all make mistakes; sometimes, our actions have unintended consequences, and we feel guilty as a result. Other times, we make a choice that we regret later on. So, which one is worse; guilt or regret?

Guilt arises from taking a particular action you know is wrong at that specific time, either due to moral, legal, or ethical reasons. In contrast, regret is the emotional response to an event or decision that turned out poorly, and you know it could have been done differently.

Read on for an in-depth explanation of the differences between guilt and regret. Depending on your feelings and emotions, this explanation will help you determine the worst between the two. Let’s get started!

Distinguishing guilt from regret.

What Is the Difference Between Guilt and Regret?

The difference between guilt and regret is that guilt is felt after doing something intentionally that you know is wrong. On the other hand, regret is the feeling of sadness, disappointment, or frustration that you experience after realizing that you could have done something better.

Here is an example to help you understand the difference between guilt and regret:

You are at a party with your friends and see someone you do not like. This person has said some hurtful things about you in the past. Your friends are pressuring you into confronting this person. Although you know it would be the wrong thing to do, you give in to peer pressure and go over to talk to them anyway.

A few minutes into the conversation, you realize this was a mistake and walk away. You feel guilt because you knew talking to this person was wrong and did it anyway. You feel regret because you wish you had listened to your gut and not spoken to them in the first place.

Psychology Today delves more into guilt by stating that it involves self-reflection (source). As a self-conscious emotion, guilt allows us to see how our actions affect others and ourselves. This, in turn, helps shape our future behavior and relationships with others.

On the other hand, regret is linked to a negative cognitive state, as it involves blaming oneself for a poor outcome (source). In most cases, you wish you could undo a previous choice made. 

The table below summarizes the key differences between guilt and regret:

Is felt after doing something intentionally that you know is wrong.Is the feeling of sadness, disappointment, or frustration you experience after realizing that you could have done something better or different.
It allows us to see how our actions affect others and ourselves.It only links to a negative cognitive state.
It motivates you to change your behavior for the better.It encourages you to change your actions for a better ideal self.

Table 1: Differences between guilt and regret

Which Is Worse-Guilt or Regret?

Guilt is worse because it leaves deep impressions and uncomfortable feelings. Experiencing guilt is a confusing state, as it leaves questions like “Why did I do it?” or “What was I thinking?” Guilt is like a thorn that pricks your conscience and can cause you to doubt your actions.

Regret, on the other hand, is not as intense as guilt. It is more of a fleeting emotion that comes and goes. You may regret not going to the gym today or eating that second slice of cake, but it doesn’t have the same effect as guilt.

In most cases, regret involves the loss of an outcome. Compared to guilt, you can fix your regrets later by approaching the past scenario differently. For instance, if you lose your desired outcome for addressing the situation in a certain way, you always tend to do things differently the next time to achieve the desired outcome.

A study by Cornell University found three types of outcome-related regrets emanating from failure for not taking specific actions. These regrets result from the following “self” statuses:

  • Our actual self. These are linked to the abilities we think we possess or the person we think we are.
  • Our ought self. This refers to the abilities and traits we think we should have. It involves commitments, rules, and responsibilities.
  • Our ideal self. These are the accomplishments, traits, and abilities we would like to have. They come in the form of dreams, hope, goals, and ambitions.

The ideal self is the main cause of regrets among many people. 76% of respondents mentioned actions not taken that would have improved their ideal self. The solution to such regrets is to take those actions next time for a better ideal self. However, this is not the case with guilt. Finding a straightforward solution is challenging. Therefore, guilt remains worse than regret.

Can You Feel Guilt But Not Regret?

You can feel guilt but not regret, because, in most cases, guilt arises when you’re caught. You can feel guilty that you broke a promise, even if you don’t regret it. The feeling of guilt is mostly associated with actions that have already been taken.

On the other hand, you cannot regret something without feeling guilty about it. Regret usually comes when you think about what could have been done differently to change the outcome of a situation. For example, you may regret not studying for an exam, which would have resulted in a better grade.

There are more chances of repeating an action you feel guilty about but don’t regret. According to the National Library of Medicine, people act to reduce the regret they experienced in the past (source). The main aim is to avoid such feelings in future actions. Thus, it’s possible to repeat an action you felt guilty about it but don’t regret it.

How To Deal With Guilt

Guilt can be a powerful and destructive emotion if not dealt with correctly. It comes with excessive emotional and physical turmoil that can disrupt your life (source). The following are some ways to deal with guilt:

Acknowledge Your Guilt

Acknowledging that you’re guilty and being ready to face the situation relieves you from a significant burden (source). The process of acknowledging your guilt starts with being aware of the choices that led to the feeling of guilt.

Most people make the mistake of ignoring their guilt or trying to push it away. Although this may seem like the best solution, unaddressed guilt may lead to long-term emotional distress like suicidal thoughts (source).

The first point of addressing guilt is acknowledging it, however unpleasant it may seem.

Identify the Source

After acknowledging that you’re guilty, it’s time to identify the root cause of the feeling. In most cases, guilt arises from doing something wrong. However, it may also result from events you didn’t have much or anything to do with.

Although it’s essential to acknowledge and admit guilt, you shouldn’t blame yourself for things that are out of your control. For instance, if you feel guilty because a loved one passed away, it’s essential to understand that you couldn’t have prevented it from happening.

Dealing with guilt requires understanding the source of the feeling. Once you identify whether the guilt is warranted, it becomes much easier to deal with it.

Some other causes of unwarranted guilt are:

  • Peer pressure
  • Toxic relationships
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Physical and mental health concerns

Talk About Your Feelings

Talking about your feelings is one of the best ways to deal with guilt. It allows you to release pent-up emotions and get different perspectives about the situation.

You can talk to a trusted friend, family member, therapist, or any trusted person willing to listen. The goal is to express what you’re feeling without judgment. Talking openly about your guilt also allows you to get feedback and different insights that can help you deal with the feeling.

However, you must be careful when choosing someone to share your guilt with. Some people may use your vulnerability to take advantage of you.

Some of the qualities to consider when deciding who to share your guilt with are:

  • They should be a good listener
  • Non-judgmental
  • Empathetic
  • Understanding
  • Compassionate
  • Should make you feel better after talking to them

Take Responsibility and Make Amends

Once you’ve acknowledged your guilt and determined the cause, it’s now time to take responsibility for your actions. This includes making amends if necessary and apologizing to anyone affected by your actions.

Making amends may not always be possible or necessary. For instance, if you feel guilty about something that happened in the past, like a fight with a friend, and the friendship has since been mended, then there’s no need to bring it up again.

The goal is to make things right and learn from your mistakes.

Forgive Yourself

One of the most challenging but crucial steps in dealing with guilt is forgiving yourself. It may be difficult to do, especially if you consider yourself a perfectionist. However, it’s necessary for your mental and emotional well-being as it helps you combat rumination (source).

Forgiving yourself in such situations is the true definition of “Let God Prevail.” Self-forgiveness also allows you to move on from the situation and prevent the feeling of guilt from disrupting your life.

There are several ways you can forgive yourself, which include:

  • Accepting that you’re not perfect and making peace with your mistakes.
  • Giving yourself time to heal emotionally.
  • Creating a plan to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
  • Learning from your mistakes.
  • Extending compassion to yourself.

Apart from indulging in the above recommendation, you should read books with tips on overthinking. “Stop Overthinking” (link to Amazon) is an excellent guilt-management book with 23 techniques to help you declutter your mind. Such techniques will put you on the right path to a guilt-free life.

How To Deal With Regret

Regret is a counterfactual emotion that arises when you compare the current situation with a past event and wish the outcome had been different.

It’s normal to have regrets in life. However, too much of it can lead to depression and anxiety. If left unchecked, it may also lead you to make poor decisions as you try to avoid future regretful situations.

The following are some ways to deal with regret:

Acknowledge the Situation

Accepting your current situation and feelings can help you recognize that your value doesn’t depend on your failures and mistakes. Acknowledge that you made a mistake that led to regret, and then take the necessary steps to change the situation.

It’s worth mentioning that some people confuse accepting their feelings with the inability to change for the better. Acknowledging your feelings and mistakes means recognizing that you’re always learning to be better and achieve your ideal self.

Believe That You Have the Capacity To Grow

Regrets are always a result of not meeting our own expectations. Whether from not reaching a goal or failing to do something, it all points back to not being good enough.

The first step in overcoming this belief is acknowledging that you’re capable of change and growth. Just because you failed today doesn’t mean you’ll fail tomorrow. You can always learn new skills, try different strategies, and improve.

Focus on the Present

You can’t change the past, but you can influence your future. The best way to do this is by living in the present and focusing on what you can do now to improve your future.

This doesn’t mean you should ignore your regrets altogether. Acknowledge them, learn from them, and then let them go.

Take Action

Once you’ve acknowledged your regrets and forgiven yourself, it’s time to take action. This may involve making amends or taking steps to prevent future regretful situations.

The goal is to learn from your mistakes and use that knowledge to make better decisions in the future.

Should You Feel Guilty or Regretful?

You should neither feel guilty nor regretful because both emotions are negative and unproductive (source). They will only make you dwell on the past and prevent you from enjoying the present moment. Instead of wallowing in guilt or regret, focus on forgiving yourself and taking action to improve your future.

Final Thoughts

Guilt and regret are negative emotions that can hurt your life. The best way to overcome these emotions is by acknowledging them, forgiving yourself, and taking action to improve your future. The focus should be to ensure you don’t dwell on either and look and move forward while applying the new knowledge you have gained.

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