This is the second post in a series of articles on psychological terms and principles that are often misunderstood or applied inappropriately. And because the concepts of shame, guilt, regret, remorse, and contrition have been the subject of great debate within the professional community of late and also because they have such importance to matters of character, even though these terms are not strictly psychological in nature, and even though I’ve written some on the topics before, I thought a renewed discussion of the topics to be not only timely but also of great potential benefit to the discussion to come.
Regret is the unpleasant emotional response (generally, sadness or unhappiness) we have to an external event or circumstance. It comes from a French word meaning to “complain” or “lament.” You can have regret about not being able to attend an event because of a prior commitment. You can also regret an unfortunate happenstance, a bad stroke of luck, or disappointing turn of events. You can even have regret for a situation that arises purely as a consequence of your own behavior. But in any case, the regret response is a purely “amoral” one. That is, feelings of regret have nothing to do with the perceived moral rightness or wrongness of anything. Rather, regret is only about the displeasure you feel about the circumstance itself and the negative impact it may have on you.
Remorse is very different from regret. Remorse is the experience of deep anguish over something you’ve done that has created a bad circumstance or caused injury to others (whether that injury was intended or unintended). The word comes from a Latin word meaning “to bite with more force,” and refers the gnawing feeling or gnashing of teeth a person of conscience who knows they have done wrong might experience. It’s a moral response to a moral failure and as such, it arises out of a sense of guilt.
By definition, character-impaired folks have deficient or sometimes even absent consciences (I go into this in detail in Character Disturbance). So, genuine remorse is usually not in their vocabulary when they do things that hurt others. They might well have some regret for the practical consequences of their actions, but that’s not at all the same as being remorseful. And, because they are predisposed to use their typical ways of coping (e.g., denying, lying, “justifying,”blaming, etc.) to deal with situational stressors, while they might experience momentary regret over an adverse consequence of their behavior, they usually only dig in their heels and become more determined than ever to have their way, primarily because they lack remorse. That’s precisely why they don’t seem to learn from experience. They actually do learn, and learn plenty. They just don’t learn the lessons we’d like them to learn. It’s because of their lack of remorse that they don’t re-assess their general approach to things and seriously consider modifying their style (I have a lot more to say about this both in In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance).
Guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done, whereas shame is feeling bad about who you are. The popular wisdom for some time has been that guilt is both essential and often helpful to moral functioning but shame is to be avoided because it’s counterproductive at best or outright toxic at worst. Some folks have extended the meaning of shame to include feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, or disgrace. But shame is not synonymous with any of these things (Words have to have meanings and it’s important to distinguish terms). And only recently have some researchers bucked the long popular trend by presenting evidence that some shame can indeed be good. When we appraise ourself as lacking in some way, especially with respect to the integrity and solidity of our character, it can be an occasion for us to renew a commitment not just to do better, but to be better. And as I have written about often (see, for example: Neurotic or Character Disorder? – Criterion 4: Shame) while I have known thousands of “repeat offenders” over the years who felt badly each and every time they misbehaved, I’ve never known anyone who really turned their lives around just because they felt guilty (The great psychologists Jung and Adler are famous for regarding most guilt as a rather cheap substitute for legitimate suffering [i.e. the much harder work of real change]). Regret and remorse weren’t enough to make them change either. Rather, it was only when they could no longer live with themselves and the kind of person they’d allowed themselves to become that things finally turned around. Shame saved them where guilt, regret, and remorse all failed. It prompted them to undertake the arduous task of forging a better character. The groundbreaking research of Samenow and Yochelson on the criminal mind pointed out that one of the major cognitive distortions or thinking errors that kept recidivist criminals on the antisocial path was believing themselves to be “still a good person” despite continually and unhesitatingly violating the major rules and trampling the rights of others. And while they might be momentarily embarrassed at being found out, these “career criminals,” like the corrupt politicians, serial cheats, die hard swindlers and various other recalcitrant disturbed characters out there, can be best described the same way: shameless. For more on the topics of shame and guilt see: Neurotic vs. Character Disorder? Criterion Three – Guilt and Wolves In Sheep’s Clothing: Do They Really Have No Shame?
Contrition is a poorly understood concept despite how essential it is to repairing damage in relationships. I’ve written about it a few times before (see, for example: Contrition Revisited). The term comes from a Latin word meaning “crushed.” The contrite person feels crushed in spirit – crushed under the weight of their own moral deficiency. And the contrite person recognizes and accepts the work it might take to rebuild a sense of self they can live with. You know contrition is genuine by the actions a person takes. The contrite individual 1) doesn’t make excuses, minimize, justify, or try to save face but humbly acknowledges their failures and shortcomings and sincerely strives to make amends, and 2) makes genuine and sustained efforts to not only to do better in the future but also to be a better person. Contrition is much more than saying you’re sorry or appearing sorrowful. It’s proving through your actions that you really are sorry and working hard not to find yourself feeling sorry for the exact same failure in the future.
I can’t count the number of times therapy has failed to be effective or gone awry in some way because a therapist misinterpreted regret for remorse, equated embarrassment with shame, or presumed contrition to be present just because a person showed some signs of unhappiness (You’ll find an excellent example of this both in Character Disturbance and in the article: Wolves In Sheep’s Clothing: Do They Really Have No Shame?). You always have to look for the clear signs (I’ll have more to say on the meaning of this term in an upcoming post) that someone is not only genuinely sorry for what they’ve done but also sorry in a way that can prompt them to make changes in the future. It’s all to easy to say you’re sorry and that you “take responsibility” for your actions but all too difficult to actually accept the need for change and then to display how seriously you’ve taken responsibility by working like the dickens to make necessary changes. All too often I’ve heard disturbed characters claim that they have taken responsibility for their actions yet provided no behavioral evidence of a sincere desire to make amends or change their ways (scenarios illustrating this can be found in both Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome).