How to Move Beyond Painful Guilt and Regret

How to Move Beyond Painful Guilt and Regret

Guilt is a strong emotion! 

It can hijack our thoughts and crush our confidence.  Sometimes it can feel like we're in a deep, dark pit.  And when we spend too much time in that pit, guilt can paralyze us and cause us to feel empty inside.  Time in the pit will keep us from reaching our true potential, rob our joy and drain the life out of us. 

I only know this because I've been there!


Yes…I admit that I'm guilty of allowing guilt to damage my sense of self-worth and morph into an emotional mine field — impacting every area of my life.  And it really isn't all that surprising when I honestly look at the triggers I was up against on a daily bases…

  • My Ex rehashing the past — blaming me for everything

  • Comparing my situation to friends and family — experiencing envy and inadequacy

  • My daughter's complaints around having divorced parents and living in dual stepfamilies

  • Cultural expectations and ideas around what constitutes a person's failure or success

The triggers were everywhere and it seemed like getting out of the "guilt-pit" would be impossible!

Guilt vs Regret

While there are various definitions, I believe that guilt and regret are somewhat different. Understanding the differences can be helpful for those of us who struggle with negative beliefs about ourselves and painful emotions around past and current experiences.

Let's start with guilt.  It seems that guilt occurs when we're actively involved in doing something that we know is wrong.  An example might be:  "I feel guilty that I badmouth my Ex in front of the kids.  I know it's not good for them to hear that kind of stuff".

Regret, on the other hand, is the emotion we experience when looking back on an action and feel that we should (or could) have done something differently.  Regret is different from guilt because when the action the took place, we didn't consciously realize we were doing something wrong. 

Maybe the action occurred around a situation we had very little control over or it was a benign action (or inaction) that we later wish we'd handled differently.  "I regret that my kids were exposed to a really nasty fight that happened during the divorce.  I didn't realize they were in the next room and I should've made sure they were out of earshot".

Hopefully that sheds some light into two very complex emotions.  But regardless of which one you're  dealing with, moving beyond guilt and regret is a process that will take time.  Here are three things to consider the next time you feel yourself sliding into the pit of guilt or regret.  

Mindfully Manage your Emotions

Learn to recognize and anticipate what types of situations are likely to trigger an emotional response in you.  This will give you a sense of control over your emotions, rather than being blindsided.  Once you're able to identify your specific triggers, then you can decide how you'll handle them in the future.

For me, I realized that I experienced painful emotions when my Ex would cast blame or voice his negative opinions about me.  So, I decided to start responding differently to this trigger.  I simply embraced a helpful mantra that I repeated to him (and to myself):  "We'll have to agree to disagree about that".  Then, I would politely end the conversation and refuse to internalize his misguided opinions.

I love this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt:  "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent".

I've also limited my exposure to social media because sometimes is causes me to play the comparison game.  I start to feel like I just don't have what it takes, which leads to regret and self-doubt.  

Carefully choose how you'll respond to your emotional triggers…and to unrealistic expectations (self-imposed or otherwise).   And don't turn your kids' complaints into a personal criticism against you.  It's okay if kids need to vent their frustrations. Life can be tough, but don't make mole hill complaints into a mountain range of self-criticism and guilt trips.  

Being mindful means that you bring your conscious attention to what's happening in the moment — instead of getting hijacked by your emotions.  Mindfulness is about letting go of the past and focusing on where you're at right now. 

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Own What's Yours

If you're struggling with guilt around a current issue, that's something you probably need to pay attention to. 

Guilt can be healthy when it helps us to realize where we're getting off track.  It motivates us to make a shift toward improvement.  The truth is, there's no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect spouse…we're all going to make mistakes and get off track sometimes. 

It's much healthier to own your mistakes and get back on track as soon as possible rather than getting weighed down in a sea of growing guilt and shame.

If you've done something hurtful or there's a habit or behavior that's causing you to experience ongoing guilt, find the courage to face it and make a change! 

You may need to reach out for some help from a trusted mentor, coach or counselor to work through the issue.  But it'll be well worth the effort to be free from the guilt and in a much better place. 

You might also need to make some apologies so that everyone involved can move toward forgiveness.  Asking for accountability shows that you're willing to take responsibility for your actions and your committed to change:

"Listen kids, I'm really sorry for all the negative things I've been saying about your dad lately.  I'm going to try really hard to stop doing that because I know it's not okay.  But I may need your help … if you notice me sliding back into old habits, I'm giving you permission to call me on it".

Promptly take responsibility and respond to guilt if it means that something really does need to change…but don't allow guilt to drag you into the pit!  Do whatever it takes to make things right so that you can be free to move forward.

Stay Forward Focused

If you're feeling overwhelmed by regrets from the past, now is the time to shift your focus.  The bottom line is that you can't go back in time and change the past or undo any mistakes you've made.  Beating yourself up over things you "should've" or "could've" done is unproductive.  It only leads to negative thought patterns and more pain!   

To steer clear from the pit of regret, choose to stay forward focused.  Accept that what's happened in the past is simply part of your past.  It's not your current reality or your future

Make a conscious decision to forgive yourself and stop looking backward.  You don't have to stay stuck, reliving old mistakes. 

Instead, choose to learn from the past and reflect on all the amazing, imperfect progress you're making now - that's something to celebrate!

Take Action

If your burdened by regrets and failures from the past…or if there's a current issue that's causing you to experience guilt — take action now! 

Unresolved regret and guilt can take on a destructive life of its own.  It can impact the quality of your parenting, your relationships and overall well-being. 

But you don't have to slide into the pit!  It may require some courage and a little hard work, but you can overcome these negative emotions and move forward to reclaim a joy-filled life! 

QUESTION: What's one step you can take to release guilt and regret today?  Leave a comment below…

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