Difference Between Guilt and Regret

Guilt and regret are two emotions we experience a lot like humans, these are both stages of change in a person’s life and are very closely related to healing in a person’s mental state.

However, one must not confuse them as being synonymous they are two completely different emotions and need to be tackled in completely different ways.

Guilt vs Regret

The main difference between guilt and regret is that it stems from two different states of being, guilt stems from an action of some kind that was situationally inappropriate or morally dubious on the other hand regret stems from certain inaction or a different action in a situation which a person had authority over.

Guilt vs Regret

Guilt originates in a person out of conscience a person possesses a certain moral compass. In a classical sense, the word originates from the old English word gylt which would commonly refer to a crime or sin or even moral dubiousness.

Guilt is very closely related to grief, it is a natural emotion that has been used in much classical literature.

Regret is a state of repentance due to some kind of inaction or an action that was uncalled for in a certain situation.

In classical etymology, the word originates from the French word regreter which would refer to long for something or someone and when it was introduced as an English word, its meaning morphed into “a feeling of distress in the mind at something done or left undone.

Comparison Table Between Guilt and Regret

Parameter of comparisonGuiltRegret
DefinitionA committing of a crime or an offence breaking the lawThe repentance of not acting or acting in a certain way
HistoryIts usage first started in early 14th century EnglandIts usage first started in late 14th century France
Literary UsesThe feeling of guilt has been used in famous works for example “The Fall” by Albert CamusThe feeling of regret has been used in works like “The imperfect Enjoyment” by John Wilmot
Emotional ImpactIt is one of the seven stages of griefIt is not a part of the seven stages of grief
EtymologyIt originates from an old English wordIt originates from a French word
Difference table between Guilt and Regret

What is Guilt?

Guilt by definition is an emotion that is born when a person believes that they have been unfaithful to their standards of conduct.

Guilt is a state of mind in which one experiences internal conflict at having done something that one believes should not have done. Sigmund Freud described this as an outcome of the struggle between the ego and the superego.

It is a common response to doing something ill. It is an instinctual reaction to a bad action. Alice Miller claims that most people experience the guilt of not living up to parental expectations and this is the most common guilt.

There is also the fact of guilt that is not based on internal conflicts and thus having a pang of existential guilt about living life due to actual harm on others.

In evolutionary psychology, psychologists theorize that guilt helped maintain beneficial relationships. If a person feels guilty when he harms another he is less likely to harm others and more likely to show kindness to people around him.

These people are good at forming a relatively stable group. They deal with conflict in a rather empathetic way. Thus guilt makes it possible for us to forgive.

What is Regret?

Regret basically refers to a sensation or feeling which is rather complicated in nature, one tends to have a strong feeling that another wiser decision must have been taken provided the consequences.

The perception of this emotion stems from a longing for a certain outcome in a given situation, some in action, and regarding self-control.

‘Agent regret’, on the other hand, is a particular concept. It throws light on how a person can be in any circumstance and regret their involvement in it, despite the fact that this involvement was innocent or unintentional.

Regret is very different from remorse in the sense that it is heavier in terms of responsibility.

For example, a child can regret not going outside to play while it’s still sunny outside, but the remorse borne by a man for killing his children would not compare to a lightly used term- ‘regret’.

This is exactly why if a person is directly involved with whatever caused the accident he may feel remorse. Regret stems from the failure of achieving a certain outcome from a certain situation.

Main Differences Between Guilt and Regret

  1. Guilt is an emotional response to an immoral action or some kind of inaction while regret is an emotional response to an action that has already happened but wish did not happen
  2. Guilt is primarily a social tool that exists to instinctually promote empathy among humans regret on the other hand is more of repercussions of action taken
  3. Guilt can originate due to grief and in severe cases branch out into more of a downward spiral regret is however a negative emotion that can be predicated upwards
  4. Guilt etymologically speaking comes from old English gylt while regret comes from old French regreter
  5. Guilt is an emotion that can be felt even when you are part of a group the phenomenon is called group guilt while regret is a highly personal emotion
Difference Between Guilt and Regret


In a world of constant interaction between people, actions and reactions are bound to happen, these actions are bound to spark feelings of guilt and regret.

Just knowing and experiencing isn’t enough, one has to understand the consequences and the weight of their actions to completely escape the cycle of regret.

Regrets and guilt are bound to a person’s personal life and bound to be dealt with. Knowing these emotions is key to a psychologically sound and healthy life.

Guilt is an emotion that is born from a sense of social belonging. Its roots are deeply engrained in our development as social creatures since the man in itself is a ‘social animal’.

Many of our psychological developments are engrained with the social interaction we go through every day and guilt is a prime emotion that helps us fit into society and live fulfilling lives.

Regret is also an extremely strong emotion that develops our character and psyche and makes us emotionally and mentally sound individuals.

Wishing a person had made a different choice in the past because the consequences of the decision are the feelings of regret and this helps us grow as a person and live life the way it’s meant to be.


  1. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930244000435
  2. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-08705-009
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