By: Andrew McNaughton, LCSW, CADC, Symmetry Counseling, Chicago

There is a difference between guilt and remorse. Let’s say I have done something that goes against my own value system, something that I consider to be bad. I have the choice (yes, it is a choice) to either make myself feel guilty or make myself feel remorseful about it. While on the surface, the two emotions may seem synonymous, the difference is potentially between internalizing the unhealthy negative emotion of guilt or finding motivation to change through feeling remorse.

Consider this: when we feel guilty about something we did or did not do, what are we telling ourselves? That we are bad people and our actions are proof of this? Can we actually prove this? Utilizing the Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy model, developed by Albert Ellis, Ph.D. in collaboration with Robert A. Harper, Ph.D., there is no rational way to prove this. As one of Ellis’s patients rationally stated in his book How to Stop Destroying Your Relationships (Citadel, 2001), “I am a process, not a thing, and as a process I can always change.” We are not good, bad, or neutral, however we can all act in good, bad or neutral ways. If we have never done a good or neutral thing in our lives, that does not make us bad, because the opportunity to do good is there if we choose to do it.

Guilt is an irrational, unhealthy and unproductive emotion according to the REBT model. Guilt makes us a “thing”, often as failures incapable of any success. Remorse, on the other hand, is the “process” from which we can choose to change our beliefs that inform how we make ourselves feel about experiencing failure.

What are we telling ourselves when we make ourselves feel guilty about a personal failure? Most likely it is an absolute irrational belief such as “I must never fail otherwise I am no good and a failure” or “I can’t stand it when I fail” or to a greater extreme, “Life is not worth living if I fail.” We can, however, choose to dispute these irrational beliefs, and most of us will eventually paint ourselves into a corner from which we cannot rationally prove that any of those irrational beliefs are actually true.

Remorse can be a catalyst for change. I can choose to tell myself “I failed”, yet resist the irrational urge to label myself as a failure, that I cannot stand to fail, or that failure is so intolerable that I will not survive this experience. Instead of believing in the necessity of not failing, I can state a preference to not fail, even a strong preference, but acknowledge a failing does not make me a failure. I feel remorse for my failing, but since I am a process (not a thing), I can choose to learn from this and attempt to change.

The REBT approach is relatively simple and direct, and can be applied to adversity in nearly all situations: individually, in a romantic partnership, in a family system, or other social interactions. The difficulty comes in practicing and applying the concept to daily life to reduce frequency and intensity of emotional distress. It requires changing the terminology of our inner dialogues and following the structured model developed by Ellis. Change in thoughts, feelings and beliefs is entirely possible if we choose to make it so. If you would like to learn more about REBT, I encourage you to contact me at Symmetry Counseling.