I would like to make a distinction between guilt and regret. The following are my own definitions:
Guilt – The feeling that results when I think I have done something to hurt myself or someone else and that I am a terrible person for having done so who is deserving of damnation.
Regret – The feeling that results when I think I have done something to harm myself or someone else and that I had better learn from the experience and figure out how to avoid that behavior in the future.
When we have the guilty thoughts, we can become depressed or anxious and very likely to be frozen from taking any constructive action to correct it. When we have the regretful thoughts, we may be disappointed and concerned but are more likely to resolve to take action to improve ourselves.
One key distinction between these two ideas is that in guilt, we are labeling our entire self as horrible, terrible, damnable, and no good. In regret, we are labeling our behavior as bad, undesirable, and something to be avoided in the future, but we recognize that undesirable behavior does not encapsulate our entire being.
So how can we transform unhealthy guilt into healthy regret?
Many religions tell us to hate the sin but love the sinner. Another way of putting this is that it is best to have unconditional self-acceptance. What does that mean? That whatever we do is okay and we should always feel good about ourselves? Absolutely not! We do not always behave well and had better try to avoid hurting ourselves or others. Unconditional self-acceptance simply takes the more realistic and balanced view that although we want to always behave well, perfection is not possible for human beings and there are desirable traits and behaviors that are also a part of our self-definition. We accept that we are valuable because we are alive, we exist, and we have the right to be as happy as we can be.
This is an important concept to take in. We can rate behaviors but we had better not rate people. I may very well say that I feel bad about something I have done and that is not a pleasant experience. But if I rate myself as an awful person because of that behavior, it is going to be much more than simply unpleasant. It will likely lead to a depression that is going to prevent me from improving myself and leave me feeling miserable. It’s alright to have a negative feeling about your behavior, because that can be a motivating factor to engage in more desirable behavior in the future. But to have damnation toward your total self is no more constructive than it is accurate.
We know that children need to know we love them even when they behave badly. Few of us would respond to a bad grade on a report card with, “You stupid lazy idiot. You can’t do anything right! I’m ashamed that you are my child.” But yet, many of us may do exactly that to ourselves. It may very well be that you received messages like that from your parents when you were a child. Now you are simply rehearsing those same damning thoughts again and again to yourself. The good news is that although this self-damning orientation may have been started when we were kids, we now have the power to think in more helpful, realistic, and flexible ways.
So please don’t ask yourself what you are worth, how you can prove your worth to others, and what you have to do to be a worthwhile person in your own eyes. Instead, acknowledge that you want to have as much pleasure as possible and as little pain as possible, both in the short-term and in the long-term. And then go about working toward making that happen while accepting that you cannot always succeed. Have the kind of forgiveness for yourself that you might have for your child or loved one.
We can prefer to do our best. But we had better not demand that we always do so.
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