Regret and shame are painful emotions often experienced after a mistake, failure, or wrongdoing. Though related, they originate from different places psychologically.
It’s associated with thinking, “I wish I hadn’t done that,” or “If only I could go back in time.” Regret focuses on the specific action or inaction one feels was a poor choice. There may be a sense of remorse and a desire to undo the past.
On the other hand, shame goes deeper into one’s core identity.
Shame makes someone feel exposed, inferior, and want to hide. Rather than focusing just on the action, shame attacks one’s whole self-image.
This article will explore the psychological roots of regret and shame, how to healthily process these emotions, and steps to overcome them so they do not control your life. The goal is to provide insight and advice to help anyone burdened by regret or shame to find self-forgiveness and emotional freedom.
The Psychology Behind Regret
Regret is a cognitive and emotional experience when we believe we have made a mistake or could have done something differently. It involves sadness, disappointment, and even anguish over past decisions, actions, or inactions.
Psychologically, regret stems from a dissonance between our expectations and reality. When the actual outcome does not live up to what we anticipated, we tend to regret the path that led us there. For example, if someone turns down a job offer expecting something better to come along but later struggles to find work, they will likely regret not accepting the original offer.
Regret also often involves downward counterfactual thinking – comparing the actual outcome to an imagined better outcome. We think, “If only I had studied harder, I would have done better on the test.” This fuels regrets as we replay better-imagined scenarios.
Some common regrets people experience include:
- Not pursuing dreams or opportunities
- Poor financial decisions
- Relationship issues like cheating or divorce
- Missed time with loved ones before they passed away
- Education and career choices
- Poor health habits earlier in life
Regret is a nearly universal experience as we often fall short of perfection. While uncomfortable, regret can be important in learning from our mistakes and prompting us to make better choices moving forward. The key is acknowledging and sitting with regret without letting it consume us.
The Psychology Behind Shame
Shame is a self-conscious emotion that arises from negative self-judgment, the painful feeling that we are flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging. Unlike guilt, which involves regret over a specific action, shame involves negative judgment about oneself.
There are two main categories of shame:
- Internal shame – Feeling embarrassment and self-consciousness over failing to meet our high standards or ideals. This can stem from personality traits like perfectionism and self-criticism. For example, feeling ashamed for gaining weight, struggling in school, or not meeting expectations.
- External shame – Feeling self-conscious about how others perceive us. Worrying that others will judge us negatively for making mistakes, violating norms, or showing imperfections, for example, feeling ashamed after being ridiculed, rejected, or ostracized by others.
Common shame triggers include:
- Failure, mistakes, and shortcomings
- Rejection, abuse, trauma
- Physical flaws, imperfections
- Prejudice, discrimination
- Poverty, low social status
- Mental illness, addiction
- Taboo behaviors or desires
- Things outside of one’s control
Shame often provokes a desire to hide, withdraw, or lash out. It can lead to low self-esteem, social anxiety, and depression if not managed. But shame is also an inherent part of the human experience – a signal of our need for self-improvement, connection, and compassion.
The Purpose of Regret and Shame
Regret and shame serve important evolutionary purposes related to our survival and ability to live cooperatively in groups. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, the discomfort of regret helps us learn from our mistakes to make better future choices.
Feeling regret signals that we should reflect on the situation, understand what went wrong, and aim to do things differently next time. In this way, regret prompts self-correction that can lead to personal growth and wisdom.
Similarly, shame evolved as a signal that our actions have violated social norms or hurt others. The unease of shame prompts us to repair ruptured social bonds and change our conduct to realign with the moral values of our community. When kept in check, shame helps curb selfish impulses and reminds us to treat others with care and respect.
Though uncomfortable, regret and shame can be productive emotions if processed correctly. The key is to experience them at moderate levels for an appropriate duration. Reflecting mindfully on regret engenders learning without getting stuck in rumination.
Feeling shame briefly can cue us to make amends without spiraling into toxic shame. Channeling regret and shame into constructive change helps us derive meaning from difficult experiences.
How to Overcome the Feeling of Regret and Shame
Regret can be a painful and lingering emotion, and shame can be an intensely painful emotion that makes us feel flawed and unworthy. It often stems from difficult life experiences, trauma, or a critical inner voice that reinforces negative beliefs about ourselves. Overcoming both takes compassion, courage, and self-love. Here are some strategies:
1. Acceptance – Avoid dwelling on “what ifs” or trying to change what has already happened. Acknowledge the regret without judgment, and focus your energy on the present. Radical acceptance of the past situation can bring peace.
2. Forgiveness – Forgive yourself for any perceived mistakes, and consider forgiving others involved. This releases blame and negativity. Recognize that we all make poor choices sometimes and focus on learning.
3. Reframing – Put the regretful situation in a wider context or look for positive angles. View it as a life lesson or opportunity for growth rather than a failure. Reframe thoughts more kindly.
4. Living in the moment – Don’t let regrets steal joy from the present. Appreciate the current gifts and possibilities in your life. Engage fully in worthwhile activities that align with your values.
5. Self-compassion – Treat yourself with kindness and care when feeling regret. Recognize the shared human experience of mistakes and imperfection. Channel regret into motivation for positive change.
6. Embrace Vulnerability – Open up to supportive people who make you feel accepted. Being vulnerable allows others to know and care about the real you. It creates intimacy and connection, countering the isolation of shame. Brené Brown’s research found embracing imperfection was key to overcoming shame and regret.
7. Seek Counseling – A mental health professional can help you process shame and regret in a judgment-free space. Therapy provides tools to cope with shame and regret, build self-esteem, and rewrite limiting beliefs stemming from past experiences. Counseling empowers you to be resilient when the feelings surface.
8. Challenge Inner Critic – Notice negative self-talk and false beliefs fueling shame. Ask yourself: “Would I talk this way to someone I care about?” Replace self-criticism with encouragement. Remind yourself of your strengths and self-worth. Shakespeare said: “To thine own self be true.”
With perseverance and self-love, shame and regret can be overcome. Be patient and celebrate small wins. In time, self-confidence can eclipse the pain of shame. You have an inner light – let it shine.
9. Learning and Growing – Regret and shame can sometimes provide learning and personal growth opportunities. While painful emotions, they often point to areas where we have room to improve. We can take these painful experiences and make positive changes if we reflect carefully.
For example, if you regret not spending enough time with a loved one before they passed away, you might change to prioritize your relationships moving forward. The regret highlights how precious our connections are, and the lesson is to not take our loved ones for granted.
Or if you feel ashamed about something hurtful you said or did, that shame may motivate you to be more considerate of others. It can highlight room for improvement in how you treat people. The shame, while uncomfortable, pushes you to reflect and do better.
Keep the growth mindset: “My mistakes do not define me, but I can learn from them.” Regret and shame are part of being human, and if processed healthily, they can help us mature and develop into our best selves.
When to Seek Help
Living in regret or shame can take a serious toll on mental health. While it’s normal to experience these emotions occasionally, excessive rumination or obsession over past mistakes indicates that professional help may be warranted.
Some signs that counseling or therapy could be beneficial include
- Constant feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing
- Severe depression or anxiety stemming from regret/shame
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicidal ideation
- Isolation and withdrawal from family/friends
- Difficulty functioning at work, school, or in daily life
- Intense guilt that doesn’t fade over time
- Dwelling on hypothetical “what-ifs” or how the past could have gone differently
The benefits of seeking counseling for excessive regret or shame are immense. A therapist can provide tools to:
- Process emotions healthily
- Challenge critical inner voices filled with self-blame
- Gain perspective and see situations more objectively
- Move past ruminating thoughts or behaviors
- Develop self-compassion and self-forgiveness
- Set goals for personal growth and positive change
- Heal from past hurt or trauma fueling current shame
- Build confidence and self-esteem
Ultimately, the goal of counseling is not to erase difficult emotions altogether. Instead, it equips individuals to understand themselves and their reactions better. With professional guidance, one can learn to mitigate regret and shame so they no longer control one’s life. Relief is possible for those suffering, but reaching out for support is the critical first step.
Living Without Regret
Regret and shame can weigh us down, but moving forward and living life to the fullest is possible. Here are some principles for living without debilitating regret:
1. Focus on the present. Dwelling on the past can keep us stuck. Make the most of each day and take steps to live the life you want now. As the saying goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift—that’s why they call it the present.”
2. Forgive yourself. We all make mistakes, but beating yourself up accomplishes nothing. Accept that you’re human, learn from your mistakes, and grant yourself self-forgiveness.
3. Reframe your outlook. Instead of ruminating on regret, look for the lessons and opportunities for growth. Everything has a purpose and teaches us something if we have an open mindset.
4. Practice gratitude. Counting your blessings daily and feeling thankful for what you have left less room for regret. Make gratitude a habit.
5. Focus on what you can control. The past is permanent, but you have power over the present and future. Make choices that align with your values to write a new chapter.
6. Be your best self. Who do you want to become? Visualize that person and take steps daily to develop compassion, integrity, and wisdom.
As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
Dwelling on regret keeps us stuck in the past. By learning from the past, living presently, and hoping for the future, we can move forward without regret’s weight holding us down. Life is a journey of growth, and our experiences shape us into wiser, kinder, and better human beings when we approach them with an open and forgiving heart.