Most people live their lives carrying regret on one shoulder and guilt on the other.
Guilt and regret are two very different emotions but they are often confused with one another. We must be able to differentiate between these two feelings in order to correct the mistakes we may have made in the past or to emotionally move ahead into the future. Guilt comes from intentionally doing something wrong. For instance, if you denied buying your spouse a coffee machine for their birthday – a gift that they were expecting – simply because you were angry over a recent fight with them, then you are feeling guilt. If you disappointed your spouse by showing up late for their birthday party because you were advising an old college friend over the phone over an important business deal, then that would be regret.
We experience regret as a result of realizing that something might have been done in a better way than how it was actually done. We experience guilt from the awareness of having done an action that we know was not the right thing in a particular situation. Regret can be resolved when we make up our minds to do things differently in a similar situation. For the next birthday you resolve to not only show up on time but throw a surprise party for your spouse. Guilt can be resolved when you confess to your spouse you intentionally denied them the coffee machine as a birthday gift and ask for their forgiveness.
Be kind to past versions of yourself that didn’t know the things you know now.
While it is common for religions to preach the importance of forgiving others, not much is spoken about forgiveness to one’s self. What if the guilt and regret we feel come to haunt us with regards to persons who are no longer part of our lives through distance or death, say, in the case of an ex-spouse or deceased parent, or what we have come to perceive as a ‘wrong choice’ made by us in the past? This is where guilt and regret come to look similar, in the sense that they are both forms of non-forgiveness to one’s self that prevent us from moving forward. In such a case, we need to learn to practice self-forgiveness. We must learn to accept the fact that we were not born wise. Rather, we were born to evolve through our so-called mistakes and so-called wrong choices; we are here to learn our lessons. There are no right or wrong choices. We act in a particular way and make a certain choice based on current circumstances and knowledge of self and the world at that moment in time. In retrospect we conclude we could’ve done it differently or better. When you find yourself paralyzed with guilt and regret, blaming yourself for a wrong choice made in the past, think of your former selves as different persons whom you need to treat with kindness and compassion. Admit you are fallible, you are human, embrace your humanity with kindness, and move forward into the future with what you know now.
Archna Sahni is a life coach who supports persons in holistic development and living, through transition and conflict, and in spiritual development and awakening. Her other avatars include published poet of two collections First Fire (2005) and Another Nirvana (2018), educator, and spiritual practitioner of meditative practices based on her own kundalini process.