Self-evaluation and reflection on our past are healthy because we can learn from our life experiences and mistakes.
It is healthy to ask:
- Could I have done better?
- Could I have made better choices?
- Would things be better if I had only done things differently?
The results of reviewing and evaluating past decisions and behavior can bring us feelings of guilt, regret and shame for what we did or did not do. These feelings can be the result of bad choices and/or sinful behavior, but not always. Sometimes the feelings we experience are false guilt, false shame or unnecessary regrets. These “false” feelings can be the result of faulty thinking and the unreasonable expectations that we and other people place upon us.
Dwelling on past behavior and the resulting emotions of guilt, shame and regret keeps many people from living and enjoying abundant lives now.
Defining Guilt, Shame and Regret
Guilt is the emotion or belief that one has done something wrong. Guilt can be either real or imagined (false guilt). False guilt is the result of a perceived wrong that is not founded in reality.
Shame is the feeling or awareness of dishonor, disgrace, or condemnation. Genuine shame is associated with genuine dishonor, disgrace, or condemnation. False shame is associated with imagined dishonor, disgrace or condemnation by our expectations or the perceived expectations of others.
Regret is an intelligent and/or emotional dislike for personal past acts and behaviors. Regret is often felt when someone feels sadness, shame or guilt after committing an action or actions that the person later wishes that he/she had not done. Regret also describes a dislike for action not taken or avoided.
A Myth About Guilt
When you experience guilt, regret or shame, there is always some sin or offense against others that you have committed. This myth is often used by others to guilt or shame us into doing what they want. That’s commonly referred to as placing a “guilt trip” on a person.
How you deal with guilt, shame or regret depends upon:
- The source or cause of the feeling (who/what is causing the guilt?)
- The validity of the feeling (is the feeling based in truth or imagined?)
As Christians, all of us sin or commit offenses against others, and we can experience either Godly sorrow or worldly sorrow: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”(2 Corinthians 7:10)
What is Worldly Sorrow?
We can simply regret what we have done, and then move on—many times doing the same wrongs against God and others. That’s worldly sorrow. In worldly sorrow, the focus is on self, regretting being caught and the consequences rather than feeling guilt and shame for committing a sin against God and others.
What is Godly Sorrow?
Godly sorrow is when we know that we have offended God, bring our confessions to Him and others and repent (turn completely away from the offending behavior). In Godly sorrow the focus is on the wrong we have committed against God and others.
Whether your guilt, shame and regret are real or false, dwelling on past mistakes or omissions can rob your life of the abundant joy that could be yours, your family’s and your friends’. When worries about the past become overwhelming, it is time to seek help from others.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT