Guilt & Regret ~ the Emotions Series

“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.”  Henry David Thoreau

We’re a long way from Walden Pond; even Thoreau’s contemporaries rarely lived such a contemplative life, but let’s take some time now to ponder two inter-connected emotions – guilt and regret.
Complex and deep, distinct in their qualities, both emotions are about loss. Both are akin to sadness as the wise Mr. Thoreau wrote. Both, as all emotions do, rely very much on the cognitive narratives we construct as we live. Guilt and regret belong in the category I call, emotions of comparison and the moral emotions.  Much of their life force is derived from our mental comparisons with the lives of others – what should and should not be.


Since the 1960’s gave us the term “guilt trip,” guilt’s never been the same. According to the Urban dictionary it means when someone tries to make you feel guilty for thinking, feeling and doing things a certain way.”  The “social liberators” of the ‘Sixties’ weren’t having any of that post-Depression, post-WWII thinking about personal and social constraints. The straightjacket of guilt was off and guilt in its post-Victorian form hasn’t been seen since.

A hundred years ago Freud created an internal iconography about guilt that had previously only been transmitted through religious doctrine.  Freud believed that guilt is an affective state experienced as internal conflict about something one believes is “wrong.” This feeling persists because, as Freud explained, we are in violation of our conscience (our inner moral code) engaged in the epic battle between our ego and our superego. While Freud rejected the role of God in this struggle, the harsh super-egoic stand-in was parental authority, broadly representing the rules and norms of society. Freud strongly believed that one of guilt’s purposes was self-punishment.

Although Freud, a brilliant explorer of the uncharted psyche of the late 1800’s,  did not significantly advance his theories on the origins of guilt, neuroscience has shown connections between guilt and certain regions of the brain associated with anxiety and depression. Carl Jung, who Freud once called his “adopted eldest son, crown prince and successor,” (before the rupture in their bond) had a dramatically different concept of the role guilt served in the individuation of the personal psyche. In a 1945 essay on guilt, Jung wrote,” Guilt has been a subject of special interest to me for many years. I learned that guilt is far more complicated than the conventional explanations for its psychic existence. The conventional view of guilt’s role is that it helps us remain “good.” Guilt keeps us within boundaries deemed acceptable. It helps us resist doing things that would disturb or harm our individual and collective interests.”

Jung’s subversive (at the time) contribution to our understanding of guilt’s purpose was clear; he did not believe we could grow without experiencing guilt. Jung believed that we needed to be “bad” at times which he called “good guilt.” The “good” in doing “bad” comes from the freedom people experience when they break from oppressive rules that are not intrinsically natural to them.  Jung gave the examples of divorces, separations from partners and friends and giving up family (read societal) approved careers or even marriages.  Breaking with these conventions would have been far more guilt-producing in Jung’s times, but they still are emotionally costly for many people today.
Intuiting some guidelines from Jung’s thinking, it’s instructive to understand that guilt nearly always has a strong social context.  The collective mores of the historic times are always changing and influencing the experience of guilt passed down in a culture.  For example, many people today can release a collective sigh of relief that prohibitions on same-sex marriage have been slowly unraveling in most Western cultures. While the U.S. has a long way to go to achieve legal equality for LGBTQ citizens, state-sponsored guilt about gay life may be at last coming to an end.

Guilt is a complex social emotion.  There’s been a great deal written (post-Freud) about the motivational value of guilt. After all, guilt gets us to do things that could be construed as socially (morally) good.  “Motivated” by guilt, we act in ways that keep us from taking some actions that we believe are wrong (lying) and compel us to take actions we believe are right (visiting grandma). While we can generally agree this serves the greater good the quality of the satisfaction that results from these actions may not be that self-nourishing or advance our emotional growth much. Obligation has its limits.

Guilt Taps me on the Shoulder

I don’t subscribe to the idea of negative or positive emotions. Surely, I’d rather feel enthusiastic and confident instead of  guilty and regretful but I strongly advocate that every emotion has the potential to deepen our understanding of our true internal life.   I like to think of guilt as a messenger that taps me on the shoulder when I  violate my own deepest principles and values.  When I think of guilt this way, I befriend it – even though the friend sometimes out stays the welcome.

Guilt’s often a persistent reminder that we are out of alignment with out values.  As with many matters of the mind, we don’t understand much about what values really are, or where they come from (surely they are in part also social constructs).  But values, created and transmitted through thought, can also be deeply felt.  When someone conveys that a passion for helping others is the primary value that drives their work, there is no mistaking that there is a strong feeling component.

Like so many other emotions that drive us, unless we become intimate with the true message of our guilt, we’ll be lost to its reactivity.  Disavowed guilt gets stuck and stuck emotions tend to become chronic and reactive.  Mindfully experienced and expressed, listening to our guilt can reconnect us (over and over) to our own inner compass. If we commit to ferreting out unhelpful, even oppressive, societal voices from our intuition, guilt can help guide us along paths whether we are in familiar or uncharted territory. The more discerning we are in understanding the source of our emotions (the apex of emotional intelligence) the better able we are to use guilt as a resource for creating a fuller and richer life.  Maybe we’ll even come to agree with Franz Kafka who said, “My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”


Regret is a hard place to live. Regret, more than guilt, can drift into becoming an internal state, which sadly dominates life. Carl Jung believed that “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”  Many great minds have dramatized the energy-draining pit of living with regrets. The truth is most of us have regrets.
I’m slightly suspect when someone says blithely, I have no regrets. Well more power to them, but they are definitely in the minority – unless they are fifteen. Research shows that the more we age, the more regrets we have. Not surprising, but the studies also point out that the negative effects of regret increase as we age. Perhaps, it’s that we believe we have less choice or the loss of hope also takes its toll.

I think regret’s bound up with so many other emotions that it is often hard to unravel its ecology. There’s often grief for the road not taken, the childhood we didn’t have and even the last words we spoke (or did not) in an important relationship.  Writing in their ground-breaking book, Emotional Hostage, authors Leslie Cameron-Bandler and Michael Lebeau give an example of how regret can be an effective teacher if we use the “generative chain” of emotions to guide us.

The authors give the example of a work trainee, John, who takes out his anger and frustration from work on his fiancé. “Each time he used her as an emotional punching bag, he immediately regretted his behavior. John began to recall his feelings of regret about the last time he fumed at his fiancée as a valuable emotional signal he had received and recognized that his feelings of regret were letting him know he needed to do something different to ensure that he would not repeat such detrimental behavior in the future.”

This example nicely illustrates how we can use any emotion, however challenging, as an indicator that we are violating our own needs – as well as those of others.  At this point, an honest self-assessment (not rationalization) is needed to be able to accurately – recognize, acknowledge and accept – the consequences (on self and others) of our behavior. This clearly leads us to a choice-point.  Bandler and Lebeau describe John’s next steps; “With a feeling of  curiosity, John then considers what he could have done differently. Accepting his misplaced anger, he decided he would start telling her what was upsetting him at work.”

John’s example demonstrates the power of using the so-called negative emotion of regret as a starting point to launch the generative emotional chain that led to curiosity, anger and finally confidence.  Following this chain, from correction to resolution, it’s completely possible that John will generate other satisfying emotions as he experiences the results of new behavioral choices.
It’s only when guilt and regret and all emotions result in paralysis that they fail to offer the potential to enliven us. Whether we are 18 or 80, emotional choice is always an option. While social media is filled with colorful and appealing messages like, Have no Regrets and Life’s too Short for Guilt, the reality is that the depths of life occur in the light and in the shadows.

In Healing through the Dark Emotions, author Miriam Greenspan writes, “The word shaman means to “see in the dark.” There is a shamanism of the dark emotions – a way of maintaining awareness in the midst of the chaos and the turbulence of the darker regions of the psyche that ultimately affect our perception of who and what we are. Painful emotions challenge us to know the sacred in the broken; to develop an enlarged sense of Self, beyond the suffering ego, an awareness that comes from being mindful of life’s difficulties, rather than disengaging from them.”

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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