Guilt vs. Regret
By Melissa McFarlane
Certified Professional Co-Active Coach
One of the most difficult challenges for many of us is that of determining what is our “business” and what is not “our business”.
Our business is always to direct our focus towards that which is in line with the life we want to lead. Taking action is a tangible way to focus our energies, and understanding how our actions may affect the final results in our life is generally easy work. However, recognizing how we focus our energies intangibly, through our thoughts and the way we either nurture or release our feelings, can be trickier. The notion that we can choose our feelings is foreign to many. Hence, it can be particularly challenging to see clearly how feelings may or may not contribute to a desired outcome.
The distinction between guilt and regret illuminates the way in which a feeling can either help or hinder us in staying on track with our ultimate goal. Our souls use our emotions to telegraph their desires to us. People often confuse the emotion of regret, which is your soul’s way of telling you that you’ve got unfinished business, for that of guilt, which is utterly foreign to your soul.
Guilt is a personality inspired (ego inspired) emotion. Regret is soul-inspired. The distinction is important. Our personalities, or egos, care a whole lot about what people think about us. When we feel guilty it’s the result of our ego’s concern about what other people might, or actually do think about our past, present, or future actions. Guilt comes as a result of looking externally for approval, something only the ego cares about. Regret results from internal review, which is the only focus your soul has. She knows how on track she is by how she feels about her actions, thoughts and emotions at all times. She could essentially care less what others feel because she knows if she has paid close enough attention to her own “heart” i.e. her feelings as she takes actions, she will not intentionally harm another.
A client who is feeling guilty says different things to me than one who is feeling regret. It’s interesting. Awhile ago, I was talking with a client who had made a decision about which she was then choosing to feel guilt. She described her guilt in the following terms, “I should have...They’re going to be so mad…I’m afraid that” and the like. I finally asked her if she regretted the decision she’d made and she responded with a resounding, “No!” If she’d been feeling regret, her recounting would have sounded different: “I’m frustrated with myself…I feel disappointed about…I’m sorry about…I wish that” and so on.
It is astounding to me how much we cling to our guilt. We have a hard time releasing our guilt and will stare at it, hug it to us, even defend it as though our lives depended upon it. I’ve learned our lives – as they are – indeed do depend on guilt, at least in so far as it maintains the status quo. We use guilt as a way to prod us into “correct” behavior, or to distract ourselves from the challenge of honoring our own desires. This allows us to stay small and therefore, safe. Although uncomfortable, the smallness is familiar. It is an ongoing, dull pain, which, on a scale of discomfort, is far more tolerable than the acute pain that risk, conflict or the thought of change, threatens. A familiar ache is often preferable to the stabbing fear of the unknown. Hence, guilt is a perfect solution for those wishing to stay stuck while looking busy.
Maintaining a life of smallness depends upon guilt. To release it might mean what? Freedom, room to be who we truly are, or more significantly to fail at becoming who we’d like to become. As with all negative emotions guilt serves a purpose that is tightly intertwined with a desire to avoid risk. To answer the argument for guilt by saying, “It helps me to stay awake, to do the right thing, to repair a mistake,” I say to my clients, “Oh, come on! Do you really have so little faith in yourself to activate for what’s good for you? For your future? Are you sure you need the sharp stick of guilt to motivate you to be the person you want to be?!” The belief that we need guilt to help us be better people is a convenient lie we tell ourselves in order to avoid the real business of success and happiness, which comes to us when we are acting in line with our beliefs and a clear sense of purpose in life. In other words, no one really ever gets successful by feeling crummy.
One reason to take responsibility for releasing oneself from guilt (attending to regret and releasing guilt) is that in doing so one will be more likely to participate/contribute to the higher good of all.
People love to support you in your guilty feelings. After all it allows them to blame you satisfactorily which is essentially one big collusion in the misperception that you are responsible for their happiness.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating that you ignore a soul-driven desire to repair a wrong you’ve committed. What I am calling you to do is to have the courage to stop using the horrible feeling of guilt (to masquerade as) as a substitute for power.
Guilt is a sign you are trying to take care of someone else’s emotional state, (and in doing so, robbing them of their own). In nurturing a feeling of guilt you are raising your own level of importance in the life of another, and encouraging them to do the same.
And while you are doing this you are neatly distracting yourself from your own expansion/growth.
Conversely, when you feel regret it is a sign you have lost, are losing, or will lose, a part of yourself, and hence, need to pay attention in order to protect your soul’s survival.
Guilt is their business.
Regret is yours.
It is your responsibility pay close attention to your business, and equally as much your responsibility to keep your nose…and guilt, out of other’s business.
Your Business (i.e. Useful things to focus on) includes: • Your feelings • Your actions • Your thoughts • Your beliefs • Your desires • Your current reality, but only as far as it relates to your desired reality. Other People’s Business (i.e. Things that are not useful for you to focus on) includes: • Other people’s, actions, thoughts, deeds, beliefs, or desires for themselves • Other people’s , actions, thoughts, deeds, beliefs, or desires regarding you • The results in their lives.
This is soul warrior work.
The other night I watched the Meryl Streep/Nicholas Cage film, “Adaptation.” “You are what you love,” Kauffman says in this film, leaving me to ponder, “What am I today and how does this show what I love?” Are you guilty today? Do you love guilt, and all that it offers you? If so, try asking yourself the deciding question, “Do I regret the thing that is making me feel guilty?” Then, release the guilt and get about the business of righting wrongs and owning your choices. A big life is yours, but you’ll have to leave your guilt behind.
Here is a personal story to highlight the above:
The other night I told my son how happy I was for him to see him doing so well at camp, making friends easily and creating a team feeling and fun for those around him. He answered, “I’m not good. I’m bad. I sometimes get angry at the kids and yell.” I asked him if I was wrong; wasn’t he happy and helping to make others happy at camp?” He said, “Well, yes, I am. I do. But not always.” I paused. How interesting that he seemed to need to hang on to his imperfections. I asked, “Is it uncomfortable for you to feel good about doing well at camp usually?” He replied with an emphatic, “Yes!” After some discussion it became clear that my son was afraid of being “too” good, “too” happy, because of the impact it might have on others. He was also afraid that making a mistake or having a bad day might be worse if it wasn’t normal for him. Ouch.
Contact: Melissa McFarlane, CPCC
Co-Founder, Electric Kites