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Guilt

Managing Regret and Guilt When You Really Hurt Someone

Hurting others makes us feel terrible. Here are some ways to handle the guilt.

Key points

  • Guilt and regret are natural but can hold us back from doing things to make situations better for those we hurt.
  • Working to move forward will help those we hurt It's the best response when we make severe mistakes.
  • Being clear about your intent to make things better is a way to offer some clarity in a difficult situation.

Mistakes make us feel terrible. Guilt and remorse are two emotions that typically follow making mistakes. They carry with them a lot of emotional distress impacting our ability to move on from bad outcomes.

Other people will often try to make us feel better when we make mistakes. Saying: “It was no big deal” is one way people try to alleviate our pain from making mistakes. “This too shall pass” is another way people try to help us recognize that the negative impact of what happened will end eventually. Pointing out how we may not be the only ones responsible for a mistake can also be a way of trying to help us feel better.

But what if your mistake was a big deal? And what if the mistake was one that will have major repercussions for a long time and was one that was clearly all your fault? What do you do then?

I see people in therapy all the time facing this dilemma. They know they messed up and know that what they did hurt others. It may have been a bad business decision, ignoring a regulation that should not have been ignored, or not keeping close enough watch on a child. It may also have been engaging in an affair or revealing a secret that was never meant to be shared. When clients come in with these problems they know they did something wrong and that they hurt others. They are not looking to be talked out of feeling responsible, but they do want to know what to do with the pain.

If you think of this from our animal nature, why we feel so strongly after major mistakes can seem obvious. Animals all are hard-wired to react strongly to error, this prevents them from making the mistake again. Animals out in the wild, with whom we share a lot of the same behavioral patterns, cannot afford to make major mistakes. Turn the wrong way when trying to escape a lion and you become lunch quick.

That is the more obvious explanation for why mistakes impact us so much. But it does not say anything about how animals deal with mistakes. Animals respond quickly to mistakes as a way of avoiding them. But how exactly they respond can tell us even more about how we can handle major mistakes effectively.

Nonhuman animals, for instance, do not dwell on mistakes. They do not ignore them but do not dwell on them. When animals lose a battle, often due to mistakes like misjudging an opponent or poor strategy, they accept what happened and move on as best they can. It would not be correct to say that they ignore the mistake but, rather, they incorporate the mistake and loss into how they move on in the future. Staying “future-focused” helps animals keep their eyes open on doing what they can to make things better despite what just happened.

Behavioral research on mice also can give us a different way of looking at regret. In a study of mice and mistakes Sweis, Brian, Thomas, and Redish (2018) found evidence that “regret” in the animal world is associated more with making a mistake a second time. When mice made mistakes for finding food they were not clearly impacted by the mistake other than taking steps to not make those mistakes again. In other words, “regret” was associated with not learning from mistakes.

And then, finally, there is the study of “guilt” for nonhuman animals. There have not been many such studies but one (Horowitz, 2009) found that dogs tended to show signs of “feeling guilty” primarily in response to how their owners acted. What was interpreted as dogs feeling guilt was actually a response to external cues. Research like this supports that guilt often comes about by perception of how others respond to mistakes.

Results of comparative psychology research across species on guilt and remorse support some good suggestions for how to deal with our mistakes:

  1. Own up to your mistakes and do not hide from them. Allow yourself to feel bad but also remind yourself that the only way you are going to make things better is to focus on moving forward.
  2. Try to “live in the moment”. Admit to yourself and others what you did and find every way you can to make things better. Focus on what you can do “right now” to make things better. That includes finding ways to make up for problems your mistakes caused.
  3. Make clear to yourself and others that you are doing everything possible to learn from your mistakes.
  4. Use clear statements to those you hurt showing that you know what you did, how it impacted them, and how you will have to face the consequences. The more direct you are with others the more direct they will be about what they expect from you moving forward.
  5. If you feel “stuck,” be direct about that feeling to those you hurt. Even if they do not know what specifically they expect from you it is still better to show you are trying to find a path forward.

Sadness and anger at ourselves when we do things that really and severely hurt others are natural responses. But allowing them to keep you from moving forward and improving things is not only going to hurt you but is also likely to make life more difficult for those you already hurt.

References

Horowitz, A. (2009). Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural processes, 81(3), 447-452.

Sweis, Brian M., Mark J. Thomas, and A. David Redish. (2018) "Mice learn to avoid regret." PLoS biology 16.6: e2005853.

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