It would seem obvious that guilt and regret are two very different emotions but when examined more closely, they have many of the same characteristics and can often be confused, one for the other. In order to fix the mistakes that we may have made or to move forward emotionally, we need to be able to differentiate between these two feelings.
When my father passed away, I was not at his side. The media continuously announces that so-and-so “died peacefully in his sleep last night, his family at his side”. My father passed away in the wee hours of the morning; I wasn’t there; I wasn’t expecting that he would pass that day and no one called me to notify me that he had taken a turn for the worse. In fact, I had called to check on him at 1 a.m. and was told he was fine. And yet, feelings of guilt haunted me for months.
Guilt comes from purposefully doing something wrong. For instance, if you intentionally denied your loved one their favorite meal, just because you were angry with them, then you are feeling guilt. If your loved one was disappointed because you could not make their favorite meal because you forgot to purchase a specific required ingredient, then that would be regret.
Regret can be summed up by exchanging it with the words “I wish”. I WISH I had been there with my father when he passed away. I WISH someone would have called to notify me that the time was near. Other examples include “I wish my husband was physically or mentally capable of running errands with me”… but he isn’t or I wish I didn’t need to call in a respite care worker to watch my Mom while I’m gone”….but I do.
The difference is that guilt is felt when what you have done was intentionally done to cause the other person harm or pain in some way. Regret is felt when you inadvertently caused pain or harm (perceived or real) to someone and that you wish you could change the past.
Guilt can paralyze you if you do not acknowledge it, so it’s best to deal with it immediately. Apologize to your loved one (and anyone else involved) if appropriate or make a plan to change your action if and when the situation occurs again. This will help you to let go of the feelings of guilt.
When dealing with regret, you can also identify what you would have done differently and also how to alter an outcome, but in general, no apologies are necessary.