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What is Regret and Remorse?

Regret is a rational & often emotional reaction to some unexpected consequence of an event or action. It is a feeling of disappointment and repentance that nobody ever pursues or hopes to feel.

Remorse in comparison is a deeper, stronger, emotional reaction which may include personal guilt, societal shame, humiliation, resentment or even anger.

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In order to really appreciate or understand the crucial role apologies can play in our daily lives it helps to understand the differences between the mistakes we make and the apologies we deliver as a result—some actions we regret, while others we are truly sorry for.

Mistakes, Actions & Feelings of Regret

We'll begin by describing important differences between mistakes and actions that elicit feelings of regret and those that expose stronger feelings of remorse. Perfect apologies should be tailored to address one or the other type of mistake, in most cases.

Regret is a rational, intelligent and, on occasion, emotional reaction to some unexpected, unintended and often costly consequence of some event or action.

Apologies that expose feelings of regret are often designed to address the consequences of actions people have taken but wish they hadn't, or actions they have not yet taken but wish they had.

We usually regret the consequences of relatively minor mistakes or errors and, given the option of revisiting the decision, would probably decide to do something else.

However, we also express regrets for the consequences of events over which we have very little control, or for actions that are intentionally taken for perfectly rational reasons but nevertheless produce unintended consequences.

Examples of this would include:

... An apology from an airline to its passengers for canceling a flight;

... An apology from a mechanic for charging much more than a customer expected for unforeseen repairs;

... An apology for having to fire someone because of poor job performance or incompetence; etc...

Companies often express regrets for the harm caused by their decision despite the fact that a similar decision would be taken in the future for the same reasons.

For example, airlines often apologize for canceling flights because of poor weather but would do the same thing under similar circumstances in the future. Decisions can be right even if the consequences for the customer are costly.

In fact most business apologies take the form of addressing the consequences of one or another unavoidable yet regrettable event.

Regrets are typically amoral—there is no right or wrong associated with the actions; it's the consequences that matter (Miller 2005:83)1. In most of these cases the expression of regret through an apology is really secondary.

Mistakes, Actions & Feelings of Remorse

Remorse, on the other hand, has a strong empathy component that elicits a much stronger personal and emotional reaction of personal guilt, societal shame, humiliation, resentment and even anger. So while regret leads one to avoid future actions that will affect us personally, remorse is about avoiding future behavior that affects or hurts others.

While regret is amoral and concerned with good versus bad consequences, remorse has more to do with right versus wrong actions 2.

Feelings of remorse are often caused by actions that constitute serious and painful errors of judgment and often draws out powerful compulsions to fix the mistake(s) through personal change and sacrifice.

Regret & Remorse FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions]

Our regret FAQs are designed to help us better understand the various types of feelings we experience when we feel that sense of disappointment and repentance after an event or action is taken.

What is the definition of regret?

Oxford Languages defines regret as "a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done." We support this definition and expand on it by explaining the subtleties of regret in all its forms in our article on regret & remorse.

What are synonyms of regret?

Given its many forms, regret synonyms describe the many different emotions and feelings that live under the umbrella of regret, including but not limited to:

feelings of remorse, contrition, repentance, guilt, penitence, shame, anguish, grief, sorriness, pangs of conscience or guilt, self-condemnation.

How to deal with regret?

Just like the definitive steps in formulating a sincere apology, there are several clear steps you can take to deal with regret.

1. Face the reality of the situation, specifically what about the situation you regret
2. Forgive yourself because self-forgiveness is the only key to moving forward
3. Makes amends with a hearfelt apology if you've hurt others or a form of restitution if the situation warrants it.
4. Look to the future, forget about the past. We can't change the past but we can learn from it for the future.

How to get over regret?

Once you've dealt with your feelings of regret by facing the reality of what caused them and then forgiving yourself and making amends, you then need to look the future.

To truly move forward you need to look at things from a different perspective and turn that regret into a positive. This is achieved by looking for opportunities to turn your regret into gratitude.

Be grateful for the lessons learned, be grateful that you can apply those lessons to future decisions and actions, be grateful for the opportunities and self awareness that regret has afforded you.

Thoughts of "I could've", "should've", done or said this or that in the past, turns into "I can" and "I will" in the future. By viewing regret as something to be grateful for, you will not only be able to get over your regret but also move past it.

Review our selection of regret quotes and our collections of quotes on remorse and forgiveness.

1  - William Ian Miller (2005) Faking It. London: Cambridge University Press.
2  - peripatus.blogspot. com/2005/09/remorse-and-regret.html

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