Why do we feel guilt, shame and regret? We asked Lutheran psychologist Dr Michael Proeve, whose research interests include shame, guilt and remorse, to unpack what these emotions teach us and what their relationship is to repentance for us as Christians.

The Greek theological term ‘Metanoia’ is often defined as ‘a transformative change of heart’. It is the turning again or change in mind and change in living that in Christianity we commonly call repentance.

And if we are to live repentance and articulate our experience of it, we may do this through the language of emotion. For, as creatures of flesh and bone as well as spirit, we are used to speaking our experience through those fusions of thought, feeling, physiological response and interpersonal action that ebb and flow and recur in our lives, which we call emotions. I want to focus on three emotions that I believe feature when we work through repentance: regret, guilt and shame.

The idea of looking backwards seems contrary to one of our current cultural imperatives of ‘moving forward’ but looking backwards is what regret entails. The Frank Sinatra song My Way talks of having had ‘… a few [regrets], but then again, too few to mention …’. However, I suspect people who endorse this view either have extraordinary foresight or more likely are not paying attention to the consequences of what they do. The rest of us have regrets.

Psychological interest in regret has been developing since the 1990s and the value of regret is recognised in business-oriented self-help literature. Put simply, we experience regret when we wish that things were other than they are. This is broad, in that we may regret the situations and behaviour of others, but I want to focus particularly on regret as it applies to ourselves when we wish that we could turn back time, and start the day, month or even years again. Regret for actions and opportunities we did not take may preoccupy and weigh very heavily on us, but our behaviour is often a painful source of regret and need for repentance. When we regret, we think of mistakes we made, that we should have known better, and we want a second chance.

Though regret may bite and ache, it offers us the motivation to look at how we might do things differently and make the changes that we can, if we should be given a second chance. We can feel regret because of what we have suffered, but we may also regret what we do because it has hurt others, and this is where regret links to guilt.

Guilt is known as a self-conscious emotion in that we evaluate ourselves against standards and rules. When we feel guilty, we judge our behaviour negatively against the rules and standards we hold for ourselves, particularly about behaviour towards others, and we feel responsible. We want to apologise, repair matters, and remind ourselves to live by the values we hold. Recent psychological thinking sees guilt as generally a good thing, as people who feel guilty tend to be empathetic towards other people, understand their perspectives, and they want to repair their relationships with others.

However, there are times when guilt is not so helpful to us or others. For example, sometimes people take too much responsibility for what happened in circumstances where others would not judge them so harshly.

When we feel guilty, it can be good to ask what we are truly able to control and be responsible for, as we cannot necessarily control all circumstances and we cannot control what other people do. We can then repair what we can repair, reach out to other people whom we have hurt and be more conscious of living according to the values we hold.

The emotion of shame, however, is a mixed blessing. Shame is a very painful emotion, which involves judging our whole self as inferior or bad, and perceiving that other people see us that way too.

Some scholars hold that shame serves a valuable function, as shame tells us that we are in danger of being rejected by others. It may therefore impel us to change our behaviour or to repair what we have done. However, this may happen only to the extent that we believe that we can repair what we have done.

Also, people commonly feel shame not because of their behaviour, but because of their appearance or because of things done to them. In these circumstances, shame results from events or aspects of ourselves for which we are not responsible and which we cannot necessarily repair.

As well, whether shame results from our behaviour or not, we can respond to shame in unhelpful ways. People may cope with shame by turning it outwards, being angry and blaming others. Or we may cope with shame by isolating ourselves and hiding from others. So, shame can result in responses of attack or paralysis, neither of which benefits others or ourselves.

The way out of shame is often by means of the opposite of shame, which is compassion. When others treat us with compassion and accept us for who we are, and we learn to do the same towards ourselves, shame can decrease. If shame comes from what we have done, we may then transform shame into guilt, take appropriate responsibility, and return to our values.

There are few more striking descriptions of guilt and shame than King David’s outpouring in Psalm 51, his prayer of repentance. For Christians, as for David, God is the compassionate ‘Other’ to whom we may bring our shame, guilt and regrets, to be restored, renewed and compassionate towards ourselves. In turn, when we can be compassionate towards others, their shame may be lessened, they can feel appropriate guilt, and they may be renewed and may renew their relationships.

A clinical and forensic psychologist, Dr Michael Proeve is an academic at The University of Adelaide. He is co-author or co-editor of the books Remorse: Psychological and Jurisprudential Perspectives, and Remorse and Criminal Justice: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. He has had a long involvement with the Lutheran Church as a congregant and member of church committees.

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