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Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT
Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT

Regret vs. Remorse

Only remorse leads to a real apology and change.

One of the experiences of interacting with individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (BP/NP) is that they sometimes do not seem truly sorry. Even though a BP/NP may say he or she is sorry, there may be something lacking. The BP/NP may regret an action, but it is hard to see true remorse in their response.

What’s the difference between regret and remorse? Regret has to do with wishing you hadn’t taken a particular action. You may regret an action because it hurt someone else, but you may also regret it because it hurt you, it cost you something emotionally or financially, or led to a punishment or undesirable result. Regret can lead a person to feel sorrow, grief, hurt, and anger—but these can be for the pain he or she feels for the self, not necessarily for the other person who was hurt by the behavior.

The BP/NP can definitely feel regret. But does the BP/NP feel remorse? Remorse involves admitting one’s own mistakes and taking responsibility for one's actions. It creates a sense of guilt and sorrow for hurting someone else and leads to confession and true apology. It also moves the remorseful person to avoid doing the hurtful action again. Regret leads a person to avoid punishment in the future, while remorse leads to avoiding hurtful actions towards others in the future.

The BP/NP can learn to not get caught in bad behaviors and avoid retribution, but they rarely learn to not hurt other people’s feelings or learn not to cross other people’s boundaries, because, in fact, they think everything they do is actually caused by others. BP/NPs don’t take responsibility for their own moods or actions, so they don’t feel remorse. Instead, they typically feel angry at you for reacting negatively to their actions. They rarely even notice that they have hurt your feelings or insulted you or put down your opinions or views. When you point out that they have done something hurtful, they blame you for “being too sensitive” or too judgmental or just unloving.

Remorse comes from true empathy for the pain the other person is feeling because of your actions. BP/NPs rarely feels remorse because they don’t feel very much empathy and they don’t understand that they are responsible for what they say, feel or do. On the other hand, caretakers feel too much empathy and too much remorse. Too often the caretaker thinks he or she causes everything that happens in the relationship including the BP/NP’s feelings, reactions, and irrational behaviors. You can spend a huge amount of time trying to analyze what small nuance of your facial expression, tone of voice, or wording “caused” the BP/NP to respond in such a negative way. But, in fact, you didn’t cause the BP/NP’s response at all. Caretakers find themselves apologizing for everything, while the BP/NP spends all their time blaming you.

So how can you tell if someone is regretful or remorseful? Regret statements usually sound like this:

  • "I’m sorry that you took it like that."
  • "I’m not making excuses, but you do that too."
  • "I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t want to make you mad."
  • "Why can’t you let it go? It’s in the past."
  • "You know I didn’t mean that."
  • "Please forgive me. (Asking for forgiveness is not the same as an apology.)

Remorse statements lead to a true apology, including concern for your feelings, and responsibility for their actions:

  • "I’m sorry that I hurt you. What can I do to help you?"
  • "I see the pain this is causing you."
  • "I should not have said/done_________________."
  • "You have a right to be angry."
  • "I was wrong."
  • "I understand that it could take you a while to get over being hurt."
  • "How can I help you feel better?"

Not only are the words different, but the emotional concern in remorse is deeply felt and conveyed with a focus on making amends. Regret often seems flat, emotionless, and is more focused on moving on and getting the “punishment” over with.

Listen to the words and tune in to your feelings when the BP/NP apologizes. Is it heartfelt? Do you feel heard, and most of all, do you feel their love and concern? Don’t discount your response. If it doesn’t feel truly better, then it is usually just regret, not remorse.

About the Author
Margalis Fjelstad Ph.D., LMFT

Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT, is a therapist, author and speaker on the topic of borderlines and narcissists.

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