At some point in our lives, we’ve all felt remorse: that feeling of deep regret or guilt for a wrong we’ve committed. And most of us are familiar with “buyer’s remorse”: the regret felt after making a purchase—usually a large one—or several purchases that, a) we can’t afford, or b) regret for other reasons, such as realizing we might have gotten a better deal if we had waited.
But we also feel remorse when we’ve cheated in some way, as kids in school on exams or selling someone a product that was defective. Consider in addition, willfully hurting someone by saying or doing something we know might harm them, but made us feel good momentarily at that time. Feelings of remorse can cement us in past negative memories that can pop up whenever we see the object(s) we purchased, or the person we hurt, or think about the gravity or stupidity of what we have done. Remorse can also be a psychological downer by making us aware of what we should have done better, sooner, righter. (Note: psychopaths are incapable of feeling remorse or shame because they lack these emotions—thus, are not ideal friends.)
More than just the consequence
As journalist and author Mignon McLaughlin stated, “True remorse is never just regret over consequence, it is regret over motive.” McLaughlin wasn’t talking about buyer’s remorse. She was talking about the remorse we feel when we’ve done something that takes calculated forethought and we know it isn’t right. We purposely did something to hurt someone or bring them down.
Over the years, remorse had come up repeatedly with clients in our clinical practice: A high school student obtained test answers for a final exam (he was caught and expelled); a contractor promised several of his elderly clients to make repairs or build home additions, but then absconded with their down payments (he served time in the local jail); a disgruntled office worker who felt unappreciated and underpaid stole items from work (she was fired). But, as you may suspect, the most frequently discussed reason for feeling remorse beyond these cases with our clients is the generic case of when anyone knowingly causes harm to another person. This includes spreading lies and repeating gossip as well as when a significant other cheats on their mate in some way, such as lying about drinking, drugging, gambling, watching porn, or doing random sex.
True remorse causes angst
In the cases of the high school student, contractor and disgruntled office worker it was difficult to determine whether or not these folks actually experienced true remorse. Sure, they experienced some guilt and consequently felt anxiety because they had been caught and had to make amends. But it was never clear as to whether or not they would have felt true remorse about their motivation had they not been caught. For the high school student, improving his failing grade was the incentive; for the contractor, it was paying off gambling debts; and for the office worker, it was a way to get what she thought she deserved.
However, in the majority of our other client cases where harm to another, especially a friend or family member, was caused, deeper anxiety was experienced – sometimes to a heightened degree. Why? Because these folks realized that they knowingly, purposefully caused pain, hurt, and anguish to someone else, and in doing so, they fundamentally changed that relationship negatively, sometimes permanently.
Stop, learn, forgive, move on
When feeling heartfelt remorse, stop! Take a few deep breaths and examine why you created this past negative experience. This is hard because you may want to blame something or someone else for your actions. Take personal responsibility and ask yourself if there was something else you could have done to avert the situation. Was there a “high road” you could have taken, instead of the low road that you veered off on? This is an important step in planning a positive outlook in which similar negative actions are prevented in the future. Realize that what’s done is done and while you can’t change the past, you can choose not to recreate that negative situation. You can learn from this experience and vow to yourself you won’t do it again.
Also, take this opportunity to learn the lesson of not making destructive present hedonistic (impulsive, short-term) decisions; rather, thinking through their potential future (long-term) consequences which should become true of all your decision making.
Next is perhaps the most difficult step: Ask for forgiveness; first of yourself and then from the other(s) you hurt. If for some reason it is not possible to ask for forgiveness of those involved (for instance, perhaps the other person passed away or the cause of your remorse is an entity such as a business), imagine that you have been forgiven. Then move on with your life. But where you can, reconnect with that person, do so with this simple formula: "I am sorry, I did a bad thing to you. It was wrong and it will never happen again. Please forgive me."
True Remorse = Thankfulness
Taking true remorse a step further, when we accept responsibility, trace our motivation, and make amends, we can be thankful for the lesson, even if it was excruciatingly hard. We have the opportunity to learn from it and live through it. We can choose to become a better, more enlightened person and create for ourselves a brighter, kinder, more compassionate future. That is the time zone in which we all flourish.