Guilt and Regret

It is painful enough when we experience a tragic situation in our lives, death of a loved one, separation, an accident or other mishaps. We often make it worse by giving ourselves a hard time for it. As counsellors we reassure and encourage acceptance as clients face the inevitable. A painful situation doesn’t change when we make ourselves wrong for it. What is the purpose of making ourselves feel guilty?

Feeling guilty is a widely experienced foible of our society.

Recently we had a different perspective on guilt being presented to us. During his last visit to Christchurch, Lama Samten from the Buddhist Monastery Karma Choeling, north of Auckland, told us that he has had difficulties understanding the exact meaning of feeling guilty. Someone who grew up in Tibet knows regret, but does not feel guilty.

Lama Samten suggested that feeling guilty might be based on the assumption that at the time we would have had the power or capacity to do things differently. When we feel guilty, we overestimate ourselves.

How about this? You feel guilty, and instead of rejecting yourself for it, you let yourself feel regrets, and at the same time, develop compassion with your limits. What is there for you to learn? Assume that at the time you did your very best. From the perspective and knowledge you have now you might do things differently, but at the time then, you had no other options. Our feelings are often much stronger than our mind. What is left is our opportunity to soften: “I wish I had not done that” or “I wish I had done something different”, and feel the pure grief.

It’s a humbling gesture, to accept our limits. It also can free us from guilt.

Regret gives us the option to make up if we hurt another person, it allows for a softening that is necessary in asking for forgiveness. When we make ourselves feel guilty, on the other hand, we intensify our suffering and often harden.

A few days later we saw an English film with the title, “If only …”. A man who had had an affair told his partner. She left him and then met someone else. He regretted his action. In this movie, he was given the chance to go back in time and relive the situation when he got home. This time he didn’t tell her. Eventually, she still met this other man and ended up having an affair with him herself and breaking up, despite all his attempts to keep her away from him.

This movie showed that things happen the way they are meant to happen. We seem to have no or little control over them. Our opportunity is in understanding how we repond moment by moment to the given situation. There is nothing we can do in retrospect, and there is nothing we can do about what is.

For example, when it rains and you feel bothered by this, it won’t change the fact that it rains.

There is also nothing we can do about the past. We can learn from our mistakes. This is helped by staying open, soft and honest about our limitation.

Tell me, what does it do for you, if you punish yourself with guilt?

It says in the bible, “the truth will set you free”. As counsellors we support the truth to come through. This means to gain a realistic perspective where you neither put yourself right up nor put yourself down, but face yourself honestly and compassionately. Then, we notice, change occurs naturally.

Sometimes, however, we might not even have regrets, even though our actions were harmful to ourselves or others. Guilt can be obscured by unacknowledged shame.

I once met a man who had been accused of sexual abuse. He told me that if he even would consider the possibility to have done what he was accused of, he would not be able to live with himself.

Often we have a great investment to uphold a certain picture of ourselves, our image. We think, that’s all there is to us. Holding on and defending that creates suffering. It can be a relief to realise our true self, our limits, to face our mistakes and to feel regrets. We support ourselves when we face ourselves with compassion, “I did my best at the time”, rather than punishing ourselves with guilt and self loathing.

Compassion and self love soften us, and allow for new experiences.

If it is hard for you to do it by yourself, a good friend who affirms you while still facing the reality, or a compassionate counsellor can help you.

Mirjam Busch & Rudolf Jarosewitsch


Copyright © 4/1999 by Rumijabu | Originally published in Southshore Beacon #106, Apr1999

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