Guilt, Shame, Regret, and Forgiveness


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I am typically surprised when I mention to people, or advise them of things that seem (to their minds) to be something Pagans don’t do… or think… or perform…

My question then is, “Why would you think that a Witch doesn’t pray?”

Or fast, or feel guilt or remorse, or struggle with forgiveness?

These feelings are human and the means to acknowledge and deal with them so that we can grow and improve relationships — with ourselves, with others, with deity — are not monopolized by one particular faith or religion. I think it’s safe to say that if someone never feels guilt or shame or regret, then they have a severe psychological issue or handicap.

Along with that, I think there are different definitions for several words that get mixed up. Mixing and confusing them with one another makes it more difficult to deal with them. Ultimately, the goal when feeling or experiencing any of these is Healing and seeking Wholeness and the Well-Being of Self and Others.

Guilt is a feeling caused by having offended someone or something held in high regard. If I don’t hold the offendee in this role, then there typically isn’t guilt to follow. It is a feeling that arises because of my behavior towards another (human or not), or society (lots of ‘anothers’) but because all people have different things they hold in high regard, it’s not really possible to come up with any sort of universal constant that causes guilt for all people. I will feel guilt or not based on what rank or position of importance given to whatever it is I’ve offended. It’s outwardly directed, based on my interactions with others.

There may be shame, but I don’t consider that the exact same thing. Shame is embarrassment for my performance or behavior, thinking it was poor or a bad reflection of myself. Sometimes they go together, guilt and shame, but not always. It’s more inwardly directed and based on a personal standard I hold myself to. Both are very personal emotions, but I find their uses are limited to what can be learned from them and what purpose they can serve towards improvement.

Regret is a feeling that arises from unresolved guilt or shame. If the situation has been resolved satisfactorily, then regret is lessened or removed. There is little lingering emotion connected with a situation that’s been resolved. It may be considered or viewed from a more detatched perspective, analyzed and thought about, but the emotional connection to the situation isn’t there as strongly. I personally strive to resolve guilt and shame through apologies, restitution, or being more conscientious and mindful of my actions in the future. Sometimes regret lingers, reminding me why such-and-such was a poor decision in the past, so it has its purpose and value.

This leads into the use and need for forgiveness.

Forgiveness should always be given. That’s not necessarily as unselfish as it sounds though. 🙂

Forgiveness is two-fold. Its purpose is for the offender to be absolved of their guilt or shame and for the person harmed to have closure and healing. Both can be valuable, but the first is less important than the second in my opinion. If I have been hurt then offering forgiveness, whether it’s been sought or not, allows me the chance to let go of the pain I’m experiencing. It’s given so that I don’t have to hold onto the emotion attached to the situation any longer. I counsel a lot of people to try this method when they’ve been wronged. Friends or family will often say, “I’ll never forgive ___ for what they did to me.” thinking that by witholding forgiveness, they’re somehow causing pain to the one who hurt them. Maybe they are, but in most cases, not so much. It is THEY who are still carrying the burden and it is THEY who cannot move on, not the person who hurt them. Most of the time, that person has moved on if they felt any guilt or regret to begin with. Forgiveness of the self is important for this reason as well. One cannot move on and grow if they are still dealing with unresolved guilt, shame, or regret towards himself or herself.

An apology doesn’t necessarily have to precede forgiveness, though it’s appreciated. Forgiveness is a means to heal the self. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that you have forgotten what happened to you or that you condone the harm inflicted. It doesn’t mean that you have to open yourself up to that again from this person. It just means that you have made the decision to heal, putting the authority for your own well-being back where it belongs: in your own hands, and not relying on the apologies of another that may or may not come.

None of these feelings or actions should be ignored or overdone. They, like others, should be accepted and looked at and felt through and returned to balance. Learn what these four are, and acknowledge them so that you can learn from them.

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