Have you ever been in a situation like this?
A close friend or partner promises to show up for something and cancels at the last minute. You’re upset, annoyed, or some combination of the two. When you finally work up the nerve to talk to them about it, they listen and then hit you with a statement like this:
“I’m sorry things came up, and it hurt you.”
Wait, what now?
If you’ve been on the receiving end of a not-so-apologetic apology and felt the underlying sting of it, you’ve experienced an important nuance between regret and remorse.
Sometimes it’s hard to articulate exactly what feels off about statements like this.
Understanding the differences between regret vs. remorse can help put those important differences in perspective so you can react (or not) accordingly.
What is the difference between regret and remorse?
Put simply, regret is like wishing you’d made a different choice and could take something back. Remorse, on the other hand, is feeling truly sorry for hurting someone with your actions. Regret is about your decisions, and remorse is about the impact on others and owning your part in it.
Regret is tricky, though.
We can regret something only because it is unpleasant and we don’t like discomfort. It’s possible to feel regret over a decision but not remorseful or sorry.
And that distinction is where a lot of things break down in conflicts with loved ones.
Regret can also be singular. We can regret things that have nothing to do with anyone but ourselves and our decisions.
So let’s explore regret further.
Regret is a self-focused emotion.
It involves all those bad feelings we have about something we did (or didn’t do) or something that happened that we can’t change or take back.
Sometimes we regret things because they hurt someone we loved, and we wish we hadn’t done that. Other times, we regret things because we had to pay a price for them.
An example might be in cases of infidelity. Does the person feel bad because they got caught and it’s caused conflict in their marriage? That’s regret.
Do they feel deeply sorry for the pain they caused their spouse and want to take responsibility for their actions? That’s remorse.
Regret is not always the same as sorry.
it’s important to note that, at its core, regret just means you wish something didn’t happen.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of people out there who only feel regret because of a personal consequence to them.
It’s not that they’re sorry or want to take responsibility for what happened. They just wish the outcome had been easier for them.
This is a common distinction for narcissists and people suffering from BPD. They don’t exactly feel empathy but rather, dislike conflict or having to deal with other people’s emotional responses to their behavior.
It’s more about avoiding punishment for actions than considering the emotional needs of others.
That’s the uglier, selfish side of regret.
But there are other angles to explore as well.
Regret and Missed Opportunities
There’s also the type of regret that haunts you. These are the more singular experiences – the job we didn’t take, the opportunity we let go by, or the person we let go of too soon.
These are the “woulda, coulda, and shoulda’s” of life. The missed opportunities that make us constantly mourn for what might have been had we made different choices.
I know this one all too well. As someone who squandered away her 20s and early 30s, drinking heavily to escape an unfulfilling life in a career that made her miserable, I get this one.
Still wrestle with it some days.
Which is why we should also acknowledge the ways too much regret harms us.
The Downside of Regret
Regret can have a lot of drawbacks.
Missed opportunities can lead to dissatisfaction with your current situation and, in some cases, even resentment toward yourself or others.
You ever meet somebody still kicking themselves over something that happened ten years ago? It’s exactly like that.
These negative feelings can hold you back and prevent you from enjoying the present moment or making the most of future opportunities.
When you get caught up in “what ifs” and “if onlys,” it stunts you.
There’s a utility to regret, which we’ll address in a minute. But people who are captured by it can’t access those benefits.
Instead, they’re stalled – trapped inside their own head in an unwinnable battle (unless someone invents the time machine soon).
Here’s what this looks like in practice.
Let’s say you had a chance to go on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work overseas with one of your friends, but you decided to pass on it because there were too many unknowns. But your friend went ahead with it.
Fast forward five years, and they’re living their best jet-setting life while you’re “stuck” in the same career in the same city, doing basically all the same things.
And it eats at you every day. You love your friend, but their social media account taunts you. That could’ve been you!
But it’s not, and it makes you look at your life and think, “I ruined it.”
You’re so consumed by that feeling that you make yourself miserable and start to believe that you’re destined for a very dull, ordinary life, and that makes you feel depressed and unhopeful about the future.
This is an example of how regret can be harmful, as it keeps you dwelling on the past instead of embracing the present and looking forward to the future.
But it doesn’t have to go that way.
The Upside of Regret
Despite its challenges, regret can actually be a powerful force for positive change in your life. When you feel regret, it’s like your mind is telling you there’s a lesson to learn from your past experiences.
By reflecting (instead of dwelling) on those “what ifs” and “if onlys,” you can gain valuable insights that help you make better decisions in the future.
Regret can paralyze you, or it can inspire you to take more chances, step out of your comfort zone, and truly embrace life’s opportunities.
During those first months of sobriety, I spent a lot of time on the downside of regret. I’d look around at my friends and former colleagues who’d gone on to do amazing things, and I was basically starting over in my mid-thirties.
It killed me.
But then, the longer I stayed away from alcohol, the more empowered I felt to have agency over my life. What were the lessons?
- Don’t stay in a job you can’t stand.
- Do the work to get your mental and physical health in check.
- Find what interests you and pursue that.
Over time, I managed to do all of that and more. Here’s a great example of using regret to motivate you from Gary Vee, where he talks about how he passed on investing in Uber twice, which, ultimately, made him lose out on about $300 million.
So that’s regret, now what about remorse?
Remorse can be very different from regret.
It’s a deep sense of guilt, sorrow, or even shame for your actions, particularly when they’ve caused harm to others. At its core, remorse is about admitting one’s mistakes and taking responsibility for them.
Remorse is rooted in empathy.
It helps us understand the impact of our actions on others and encourages us to make amends and do better next time.
The Bright Side of Remorse
Even though it feels horrible, remorse (just like regret) comes with some benefits that can help us grow as individuals. Here are a few:
So, while remorse can be tough to deal with, it plays a key role in helping us become better, more caring people.
The Challenges of Remorse
Despite its benefits, remorse can also come with its own set of challenges.
Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-punishment can weigh you down, leading to negative thought patterns and a decrease in self-esteem. It’s important to strike a balance between acknowledging your remorse and not letting it consume you.
Sometimes that’s easier said than done, especially when the weight of our remorse is too much for us to bear alone.
In those cases, consider getting additional support via therapy or counseling. Depending on your situation, there may even be support groups out there to help you process your guilt and move forward with your life.
How To Tell If Someone Is Regretful or Remorseful:
It’s hard to know exactly if someone is showing regret or remorse. Wouldn’t it be great if we could peek inside another person’s brain to see what’s really going on?
Until science opens that Pandora’s box, we’re left to try and interpret people’s behaviors and words and draw conclusions from there.
Here are some practical tips:
That being said, everyone expresses emotions differently, and some people might be better at hiding their feelings than others.
It’s important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding and consider having an open and honest conversation with the person to get clarity about their emotions.
Resources on Regret vs Remorse:
If this topic interests you, here are some good reads you might want to explore: