A psychologist’s perspective on guilt vs. regret

February 7th, 2011 § 31 comments

I’ve written previously about my decision to have my ovaries removed two years ago in order to (hopefully) decrease the likelihood that my breast cancer will recur (“The Impetus of Fear”). Though I tested negative for the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, my hormone receptor positive cancer feeds off of the hormones that my ovaries produced. To significantly reduce the amount of those hormones circulating in my body (as a pre-menopausal woman of 38) I decided to have a salpingo-oophorectomy (surgical removal of my Fallopian tubes and ovaries). I recovered from the surgery itself within two weeks; the effects of plummeting into menopause overnight have been longer-lasting and in some cases, quite devastating.

As I do with almost any issue in my life, I have repeatedly talked to my mother, Dr. Rita Bonchek, about the ramifications of my decision. This angst has led to many talks about the difference between regret and guilt. As a psychologist specializing in issues of grief, loss, death, and dying for twenty years, she always has a keen ability to separate out what appear to be muddled feelings. She often has ways of explaining complicated topics in easy-to-understand terms and using real-life examples to illustrate her points. She and I have collaborated here to present some thoughts on these two emotions. The ideas on the differences between guilt and regret are hers; I have pushed her to explain things as fully as possible and helped with some of the re-writing.

We hope that they will help you to think more clearly about actions in your life and the emotions you have about them. We look forward to hearing your comments and any follow-up questions you have. Because my mom is not on Twitter, if you have any questions for her, it’s best to put them in a comment below; I’ll post her answers for everyone to read, too. This is meant as an introduction to these two emotions, not a comprehensive analysis of them.


People use the word “guilt” more often than is appropriate. Improperly using the word “guilt” can result in unnecessary emotional distress and harsh self-criticism. The word “guilt” refers to something you did, something which you feel you shouldn’t have done because it was morally or legally wrong. But what if the experience you feel guilty about was not something you caused or had control over? Then you would feel regret, not guilt.

Here is an actual situation: Ann1 was referred by her family doctor for grief counseling. She was unable to cope with her persistent feelings of guilt related to her husband’s death several months prior. Bob was diagnosed with a terminal illness and he was bed-ridden. He needed constant care and attention which was mainly provided for by his wife. Bob was hospitalized for three weeks prior to his death. Ann was with him throughout that time as well.

On the day of Bob’s death, his wife left the hospital room to use the bathroom. When she returned to the room, the nurse told her that Bob had died in her absence. Ann was overcome with feelings of what she termed “guilt” and punished herself for not having been with Bob at the time of his death. For months she could not function and was preoccupied with thinking how terrible she was in being absent when her husband died. She mentally punished herself for breaking the vow she had made to herself to be with him when he died. Instead of focusing on the 99% of the time she had cared for him while he was ill, she focused on the last minutes he lived.

Why shouldn’t Ann feel guilty? Because she did not do anything that caused her husband’s death; she was not there. If Ann had asked the nurse whether it was “safe” for her to leave for a few minutes and the nurse had cautioned her that Bob could die at any time, and then Ann chose to leave, then she could justly experience guilt because she ignored information indicating he could die during the time she was away. In this alternate scenario, Ann had the personal responsibility for making the decision to go, she had control of making the decision that resulted in her absence, and could therefore justly experience feelings of guilt. As a counselor, if someone is justifiably guilty for an action, I would advise them to make a confession, offer an apology, take responsbility, and — if possible– make reparations.

By disproportionately magnifying these few minutes to overshadow all of the months of care Ann had given Bob, the result was that she could not forgive herself. After discussing the difference between regret and guilt, Ann came to see that there was, in fact, nothing to forgive. She understood that she was only responsible for her own actions; Bob didn’t die because she left the room. By reframing the circumstances of Bob’s death, Ann was better able to properly grieve her loss and move on afterwards.

Though Ann did not experience guilt, she did have regret, a universal experience.  Regret refers to circumstances beyond one’s personal control. An unidentified author defined regret as “distress over a desire unfulfilled.” Regrets can pertain to decisions made concerning: education (not getting a degree), career (working at a job that offered good income but no personal satisfaction), marriage (married too young), raising children (being too permissive), medical decisions (sterilization), etc. These and other decisions can be considered mistakes.2

As an emotional response to a distressing experience, the sound of the word “guilt” is harsher and more of a self-reproach than the word “regret.” If you say, “I feel so guilty” you should make sure that the deed and circumstances surrounding it actually warrant your feeling of guilt rather than regret.

Dr. Rita Bonchek has a Ph.D. in educational psychology. She spent twenty years in private practice.

  1. names have been changed []
  2. Most often, individuals regret what they haven’t done moreso than what they have done. Often, people regret not taking chances moreso than regretting the chances they actually took. []

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§ 31 Responses to A psychologist’s perspective on guilt vs. regret"

  • avidreader78 says:

    Thank you Dr. Momma! That made so much sense to me. We are all so quick to attack the wrong “term” with the feeling that we are making the recovery for the decision/feeling take longer than it should. No wonder you are such a smart lady with an awesome mom like yours.

  • Becky says:

    Wow! I really loved this post. As an avid harsh-negative-self-talker-living-in-a-shroud-of-guilt 🙂 , this was amazing.
    Gives me lots to think about — thank you Lisa and Dr. Lisa’s Mom!

  • Kathleen says:

    A really great post that gives a lot of food for thought.

  • Ann Gregory says:

    It never occurred to me that I was using the two terms interchangeably and incorrectly. Thanks for tackling the subject and hug your mom for contributing.

  • Erika Robuck says:

    What an important distinction, and one I’ve never considered until now. Thank you very much for this post. As always, I get so much from this blog.

    Lisa, you’re blessed to have a Mamma like you do. 🙂

  • Laura says:

    Wow, this was a fantastic post that I will star and keep in my inbox forever 🙂 You are lucky to have such a good mom, and her words are right on. It’s human nature to want to blame yourself and feel “guilt,” but that’s not always the right word for how you are feeling or how you can overcome it. Thank you.

  • Thanks so much for all of these comments. I can’t wait for my mom to read them! She is already planning the next topic which is going to be fantastic. I hope you all will come back for that one too. Thanks so much for leaving your input…

  • Michael Hart says:

    This is wonderful and very thought-full. Thank you Lisa and Dr. Bonchek.

    I make a further distinction in my own head, differentiating between guilt (which, thanks to a religious upbringing, I despise), regret, and remorse. Guilt and regret are emotions I acknowledge but prefer to not dwell in. Remorse I can sink my teeth into though. Remorse includes the lessons available to learn and the actions that let me move forward. Semantics, maybe, but meaningful ones to me.

  • Miguel Rodriguez says:

    What a great post! Aside from being interesting and thoughtful, I also enjoyed the concept of the highly intelligent mother and daughter team working together in this fashion. Looking forward to more posts.

  • This post is going in my EverNote file. I. Love. It.

    It’s amazing how using the wrong word changes everything, isn’t it?

    You’re mom is a genius – which isn’t surprising since the apple CLEARLY did not fall far from the tree. 🙂

    Thank you so much for sharing your mother and her wisdom with us.

  • joannefirth says:

    Another very important post. I sincerely thank you and your mom for shedding light on an issue I struggle with daily and have for decades. This gives me a chance to step back and re-evaluate my feelings of traumatic events and losses in my life. While also helping me though all of the negative feelings that having cancer brings out. All these years, I have used and thought of the word “guilt” and never once “regret”. Now I understand there is powerful difference. Though I can not change the past, you and your mom have given me a new tool to better accept it.

  • I’m reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, and the way she talks about shame (versus, say, embarrassment) really resonates with the way your mom talks about regret versus guilt. It’s amazing how clarifying the vocabulary really helps clarify the thoughts.

  • Kathy says:

    The example you use is almost cruel. The wife would be justified in feeling guilty if she had been told that her husband could die while she was in the bathroom and she chose to ignore that and leave the room. People die all the time, just like that *snap*. What was this woman supposed to do? Wait by the bedside every minute of the day, pee on the floor? I have heard many stories of a terminally ill person passing when his mother or wife left the room for a moment. Whether or not someone told her it was “safe” to do so, there is no earthly reason this woman should feel guilt.

    • Kathy, my mother replies:
      “The point of the example was to distinguish between guilt and regret. Kathy says ‘the wife would be justified in feeling guilt’ IF she had left the room AFTER being alerted to the time of death. I only used that possible, hypothetical happening to show why guilt was NOT the proper term for the wife. She hadn’t been warned and there was no decision for her to make. Legitimate guilt occurs when there is a direct cause and effect relationship between what you did or failed to do and serious harm resulting to the deceased.”

  • Nina Badzin says:

    Brilliant! I love the point that if we’re truly guilty for some act we’ve committed then we should do something to repair the damage. What an important distinction between guilt and regret. I wish I could anonymously send this to so many people!

  • Anonymous says:

    As Lisa knows, I had self-professed “guilt” about a previous relationship, which, after reading this, I now know is regret, not guilt. I over-analyze and even micro-analyze my actions if I think I have hurt someone. In this case, reading your piece made me realize I was reacting to a horrible transpiration of events , and, with that, I have the regret of words, not the guilt of them. Thanks for the coping model.

  • Greg Shenenberger says:

    Good education.

  • Krista says:

    Lisa – Six months ago a friend committed suicide, and a month ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I am a strong, private individual and have always been capable of handling life’s hardships. But, when I read of your own struggles with cancer, it helped me recognize I had some work to do on myself in order to help my mother through her treatment. And now, your wonderful mother’s distinction between guilt and regret is like a beacon. You’re right – her ability to break complex issues down in easy to understand terms just made a head that has been somewhat cloudy for the past 6 months clear-up and begin to refocus. Never underestimate the power of what you (and your mother) are doing – your blog is a wellspring, especially for someone who doesn’t need any stinkin’ therapy (wink).

    • Thank you so much for your words, Krista. My mother was very motivated to put some of these thoughts in a place where more people might read them and be helped. I know she is so pleased there is an audience here. She’s working on another piece now and I will forward your comment on to her. Thanks for reading and I am sorry for the hardships you have had the last six months. You will be a great support for your mother…

  • AmyG35 says:

    I read this with interest as for a long time I felt guilty for leaving my father’s bedside a few hours before he passed (in 2008). I believe my mother also felt guilty that she was not there either. We too both spent much time at his bedside but focused on the moment we weren’t there. It took me a long time to get over my sense of guilt. Thinking of these feelings as “regret” instead crystallizes how I actually feel. I wish I had been there, but not being there did not cause him to die; being there would not have prevented it. I felt bad that he was alone thinking having us there would have been a comfort to him. I have now come to believe he preferred to pass on his own, sparring us this particular pain. That is also in keeping with his personality. Thank you for this insightful post.

  • My dad died in Florida, days after I went home to LA to get documents for him. I wasn’t surprised he died in my absence and have never felt guilty about it. I know he waited until I left. This happens so many times to so many families. I believe we have more clarity and are closer to our soul, at death. Dad knew it was better that my sister was with him than me. He was right.

  • Debora says:

    Lisa, making this distinction was really interesting. I am going to practice thinking through these definitions. I think this post is also helpful toward making new decisions, not just grappling with the old! On the specific example…My mother was a nurse for a time. She told me that many people seem unable to let go until they are alone, that they want it this way, or that the physiological stimulation of another’s presence keeps them in the present. I don’t know, but I have this thought that maybe it’s a personal choice that the person makes.

  • […] Lisa Bonchek Adams. (2011, February 7th)  A psychologist’s perspective on guilt vs. regret           (Blogpost). Retrieved from http://lisabadams.com/2011/02/07/from-a-psychologists-perspective-guilt-vs-regret/ […]

  • Amie says:

    This is wonderfully written and I hope it take a load off many shoulders. I will take this short article with me throughout my life and remember the difference you have taught me.

  • Jeanie says:

    My Mother passed away Sunday evening – 3 days ago and I was not there. Of course I felt guilty for not choosing to be there and regret that I was not there. I saw her on Friday and planned to return the next day. The next day I could not lift myself from my recliner but told myself I would go the next day, but again, I was stuck in my recliner. I was anticipating her death of course not knowing when. Five weeks ago, at 95, she was completely independent and coherent with some memory loss, but she took herself to the bathroom and fed herself, etc. Then she fell in the bathroom, fracturing her pelvis and a lumbar vertebrae. I stayed with her day and night most of the time, only missing one night and a couple of afternoons. After two weeks she was discharged to the nursing home where she progressed rapidly with her daily physical therapy and to everyone’s amazement, she was getting herself up with her walker and taking a few steps and had discontinued her narcotic pain medicine. I would go to the nursing home everyday sometimes, miss a day and go twice the next day. In the past couple of weeks, she began to take a few bites of her meals then say she wasn’t hungry. I started bringing food from home – food I thought she would eat, food she liked and letting her smell it before giving her a bite, I had hoped her appetite would improve. Looking back was stressed more than I knew then. I’m been reading everything I can to try and ease my deep hollow feeling of loss and in one article I concluded that I was already grieving. I was grieving because she wasn’t eating. On Saturday and Sunday that I chose not to go see her will be difficult for me to get over. It was just she and I – I had no other family support or relief person to grieve with or to share my worries. I know I didn’t cause her death and never thought I did but she was happy with me just being there seated beside her bed. Sometimes she would even shoo me home knowing I had other things to do. True I didn’t do anything that should cause guilt but it’s what I could have done and didn’t that gets me.

  • Jacqui Mills says:

    I have terrible guilt feelings AND regret that I let my husband down to the extent that his death could have been prevented. Had I known he would be in danger, I would never have let him stay in the hospital. They were going to discharge him, but I thought he wasn’t ready to go home, i.e. it is known that hospitals discharge people too soon and he still could not walk properly, so I mistakenly thought he would be better getting rehab in the hospital. He had nothing life threatening by the way. After another few days, he caught a hospital infection – pneumonia – and they seemed to give up on him without trying other antibiotics. From Friday to Monday morning that was it. I wasn’t allowed to stay with him. Had I taken him home a few days earlier before he caught the infection, he would still be alive. On the day of the funeral, my 95 year old mother had a fall and ended up in hospital, but they wouldn’t discharge her – the opposite – even though there was nothing wrong with her because they thought she would be in danger of falling in her flat. She had carers coming in but they weren’t much good. I should have taken her home and stayed with her. She had two falls on the ward and they lost her dentures so she couldn’t eat properly. I eventually took her home three months later through getting legal advice and stayed with her. However, she had to return to hospital after a few weeks because of a chest infection and gave up, still not being able to eat properly. I feel responsible because I let them both down. Especially my husband. I should have taken him home when I had the chance. I will never forgive myself or the hospital. He should still be allive. He was only 64.

  • Morag hanka says:

    My heart goes out to everyone on these posts,I grieved for my mother for nearly 2 years following her death,I focused on things I wish I had done and dismissed the many wonderful things I had done,my mum was so independent and strong in her younger years and when she became old and frail and moved in with me to care for her I started to grieve and feel so sad about how my strong mum was now so frail,she was nearly 101 when she died and I know I should have felt grateful for her long happy life but I could not overcome the physical pain of grief. I have turned a corner now,I close my eyes and I feel dear mum with me,my world will never be the same without her in it. Love your parents and spend time with them whoever you can,they leave such an empty ache behind when they leave. God bless you all.

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