Do You Know The Difference Between Guilt, Shame and Regret? Here's One Way To Reduce All Three

Monday, March 03, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood


Guilt, shame and regret are similar emotional experiences. However, there are subtle differences that matter for our mental health. While guilt and regret follow a similar path towards making us feel shitty, we may be even more receptive to shame in our current overly connected state.

Shame = just one added bonus of Pinterest


The Causes of Guilt, Regret and Shame

While guilt, regret and shame can feel similar, they have different triggers. 

Guilt may be defined as negative feelings after committing some type of wrong, usually associated with moral or legal implications. 

Regret is feeling sadness about a past wrong, either intentional or accidental.  

Shame is a slightly different animal from guilt and regret, and generally comes about in the context of outside forces. Society, family and peers tell us we should feel badly about something through mechanisms like humiliation. Shame is more a response to external pressure instead of our internal moral compass, and this is usually the one that causes the most severe self-esteem shifts.

Put another way:

Fucking up your Pinterest cupcakes without an audience = Regret

Being pissed because you fucked them up right before your kid's birthday party = Guilt (if you feel it is morally wrong for your kid to go cupcake-free, and most of us do)

Seeing that shit splashed on Facebook, complete with harrowing comments from douchebags = Shame

Because of the public implications of the shaming process, shame tends to encourage a face-saving response much more often than feelings like guilt or regret, making parenting fads that embrace public shaming an even worse idea. Perhaps this is related to some primitive element of believing shaming pushes us lower in status, or its ability to trigger depression and anxiety. It is no surprise that defensive behavior is seen when someone is faced with public shaming or attack.
Take for instance the controversial topic of breastfeeding (used here purely for illustrative purposes and not to knock either side). Obviously, there are two very different perspectives on it, but both can--and very often do--trigger shame responses in women. 

Someone who does not breast-feed:

Guilt: if someone believes breast-feeding is best for their child and has chosen not to, or can't.
Regret: about not nursing in the past if they find better reasons for it later.
Shame: if other individuals in their circle berate them for not doing so.

Like some dude at the park telling her 'breast is best'.
"It's my kid, asshole. Mind your biz."

Someone who does breast-feed:

Guilt: if early teachings defined formula as better due to misinformation or for whatever reason.
Regret: if later information leads her to believe breast-feeding was wrong, say if she thinks that her dietary choices led to allergies or stomach upset for the child (which is rarely the case).
Shame: if those around her do not support this practice or try to humiliate her for engaging in it.

Like some dude at the park telling her to cover up.
"No, asshole, you go to the bathroom to eat."

The path you ultimately choose in any context may be largely dependent on which drive proves to be stronger. No two women will respond to any number of issues the same way due to differences in early learning and other internal factors. It's one reason that a screaming match in the middle of the park is rarely productive: everyone really needs to believe that they are right to avoid very real emotional upheaval, regardless if the issue is breast-feeding or to a lesser extent, cupcakes. 

Being right doesn't just mean being correct for the sake of it. If rightness means you don't have to feel guilty, or have a panic attack, you damn sure better try to find a way to make yourself heard. Too bad the other person usually has the same goal. It's enough to make everyone feel like shit, especially when we get to see these issues revisited on social media all day long.

Education may be the most adaptive response we can have when faced with contradictory drives where we have the potential to feel guilty or shameful no matter what we choose. Those possessing higher levels of good information tend towards higher confidence in their decision making, and subsequently feel better about their choices later.

Reading up on a topic can also help you to challenge negative thought patterns related to guilt and regret by providing alternative theories to moral issues, or generating research which states that no child ever severed attachment with their parents due to burned cupcakes. It can also provide you with the information needed to avoid that situation in the future, therefore decreasing future potential for guilt. If you feel badly about something you did, research whether similar situations were highly detrimental. If not, score, you can just challenge the thought. If they were, read up on what might trigger those situations and how to avoid making similar mistakes. Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense.

In today's society, education may well be the intellectual equivalent of dominant behavior, though I suppose that could just be what intellectuals tell themselves. Whatever choices women make, they may avoid responses like guilt, regret or shame if they are able to rationalize their choices in a concrete way and justify themselves calmly to others, should they feel compelled to do so. While justifying yourself out loud may not have many advantages, at least if we can justify things to ourselves, we should be in a better place emotionally.

Topic-Relevant Resources

The Woman That Never Evolved
Monkeys, anthropology, girl power and evolution.

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers

Our Babies Ourselves
Anthropology and childrearing with a unique focus on the effects of culture on mothering