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Decent Regret – Why Shame and Guilt Aren’t Enough

Artwork of Butterfly

When we hurt the ones we love, our initial reaction is often guilt and shame. These emotions are natural and signify that we have empathy and a healthy conscience. However, guilt and shame alone are not enough. They can sometimes act as barriers, preventing us from truly addressing the harm we've caused and moving toward meaningful change.

The Trap of Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are important emotions, indicating that we recognise we have done something wrong. They show that we have the capacity for empathy and are aware of the impact of our actions. However, many of us get stuck in these emotions, which can become counterproductive.

The Emotional Freeze

Feeling guilt and shame can sometimes be a form of emotional laziness. We may believe that we have done enough by expressing how sorry we are. This is often a way to avoid the more profound work required to address and repair the harm. Additionally, guilt and shame can be ways to quickly move past the pain, hoping that expressing remorse will make the hurt go away.

Scenario 1: The Forgotten Anniversary

Alex forgot an important anniversary. When confronted by their hurt partner, Jamie, Alex immediately felt guilt and shame. "I’m so sorry, I can't believe I forgot. I’m a terrible person." Still feeling the sting of the forgotten anniversary, Jamie saw Alex retreat into a shell of guilt. When Jamie tried to explore the pain further and make sense of it, Alex got upset, saying, "I did say sorry - I do feel guilty; what more do you want?" Alex's emotional freeze, fuelled by guilt and shame and an unconscious belief that these emotions are enough, prevented a deeper discussion about why the anniversary was important to Jamie and how Alex could ensure it wouldn't happen again. Jamie was forced to surrender and give up on exploring their more profound hurt, feeling unseen and unheard, only hoping it might not happen again.

Turning the Pain Inward

There are times when our guilt and shame become so overwhelming that they shift the focus from the person we hurt to ourselves. We may start saying, "I am so stupid, I always get it wrong," or "I can't believe you stay with me." This self-deprecating behaviour can include sulking, depression, aggression towards self, and detrimental talk like "maybe you should leave me," "maybe you should be better off without me," "maybe all of you will be better off without me," and "you should have never married me." These behaviours can inadvertently make the situation about us, expecting our partner to comfort us for our remorse rather than addressing their pain. The person who was hurt and needs empathy and understanding may then need to change position and become the caretaker, forced to give up their needs.

Scenario 2: Relationship Neglect

Taylor realised they’d hurt their partner, Morgan, by consistently canceling plans. When Morgan finally expressed their frustration, Taylor broke down, saying, "I’m so stupid. I always mess things up. I don't even know why you stay with me." Instead of addressing Morgan's feelings, Taylor’s response shifted the focus onto their insecurities and self-loathing. Morgan, who initially needed to feel heard and supported, now felt burdened with reassuring Taylor. The original issue remained unresolved, and the cycle of hurt continued. Taylor’s behaviours included sulking, saying things like, "Maybe you should leave me," and expressing unworthy thoughts, further strained the relationship.

The Plea for Decent Regret

We need something more transformative than guilt and shame. One of my clients aptly termed this "decent regret." When asked what she needed from her partner, she replied, "Not your shame, not feeling guilty, but decent regret." Decent regret goes beyond the surface level of guilt and shame. It involves:

  • Accountability: Taking full responsibility for your actions without excuses or justifications.

  • Self-Reflection: Looking inward to understand what you did, why, and how it specifically caused harm.

  • Empathy: Genuinely seeing and feeling the hurt you caused from the other person’s perspective.

  • Commitment to Change: Demonstrating through actions, not just words, a genuine commitment to change and make amends.

Scenario 3: Demonstrating Decent Regret

Alex and Jamie’s situation continues. After the initial wave of guilt, Alex returned and reflected on why the anniversary slipped their mind. Alex realised they’d been overly focused on work, neglecting critical personal relationships. Instead of staying in the feelings of guilt, Alex approached Jamie again, saying, "I understand that my forgetting our anniversary hurt you deeply. I see now how much it means to you and want to ensure this doesn’t happen again. Let’s plan something special this weekend, and I will also set reminders for important dates in the future. I want to show you that I am committed to prioritising our relationship."

The Process of Decent Regret:

  1. Taking Accountability: Accountability means owning up to your actions without deflecting blame or making excuses. It’s about saying, “I did this,” and recognising the impact of your actions.

  2. Self-Reflection: This involves a deep introspection into why you behaved the way you did. It’s about understanding your triggers, patterns, and the underlying issues contributing to your actions.

  3. Empathy: Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, seeing the situation from their perspective, and acknowledging their pain. This helps you genuinely understand the impact of your actions.

  4. Commitment to Change: Making a genuine effort to change your behaviour. This involves setting tangible goals, seeking help if needed, and demonstrating through actions that you are committed to improvement.

The Benefits of Decent Regret

Embracing decent regret can lead to stronger, more resilient relationships. It shows your partner you are willing to work to make things right. It fosters trust, as your partner sees you are genuinely committed to change. It also promotes personal growth as you become more self-aware and better equipped to handle conflicts in the future.

The Essence of Trust

Trust in a relationship is not about believing your partner will never hurt you. It is about knowing that when hurt happens, your partner will be able to hear you in your pain, be accountable, self-reflective in empathy, and be committed to change. Trust is the assurance that when mistakes are made, there will be decent regret – a commitment to understanding, healing, and improving.

In relationships, we will inevitably hurt each other at times. How we respond to that hurt can deepen the rift or foster healing and growth. By moving beyond guilt and shame to embrace decent regret, we show our loved ones that we understand the depth of their pain and are committed to becoming better partners. Decent regret is about accountability, empathy, and genuine transformation – the true path to healing and stronger, more resilient relationships.

If you find yourself stuck in cycles of guilt and shame that doesn’t lead to decent regret, or if you need skills to communicate past shame and guilt, consider reaching out for professional support.

Whether you struggle to communicate your pain in a way that leads to more than your partner feeling guilt or shame or need to understand your own guilt and shame to bring healing to your partner, I am here to support you in becoming a better partner.

Ways I can assist:

  • Self-paced Resource: Enroll in my online course, "Hearing Each Other AGAIN," for the basics on healthy conflict resolution. Instant Access.

  • Personalised Support: For deeper guidance, consider in-person sessions in Johannesburg or virtual sessions for couples worldwide. Please contact me for more information or to book your session.

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