Have you ever said something you wish you hadn't? Or said something out loud that you wish you hadn't even thought? Or "lost it" in a meeting when you just couldn't keep it together long enough for some jerk to make a fool of himself without your assistance? If you recognize these situations, or similar ones, then you know the feeling of remorse.
Remorse is different from regret. We can feel regret about any incident or condition that's troublesome or unwelcome, for ourselves or others. And we can feel regret even if we played no role in bringing that trouble about. By contrast, we feel remorse about situations for which we feel to some degree responsible. [McConnel 2018]
Remorse is a "negative" emotion in the sense that we'd rather not feel it, thank you very much. But remorse is a part of life. Feeling remorse is one indicator that we're still alive inside. And remorse can provide guidance for learning. In manageable doses, remorse is something to be thankful for.
When remorse takes over our inner life, when we feel remorseful almost continuously, when we replay endlessly one painful incident after another — that's when we know we're in trouble. That pattern can be an indicator of clinical depression. I can't offer much insight about that pattern in this short post, other than this: if you feel that you're in the grip of that pattern, it might be time to find a counselor or therapist to talk to about next steps.
So let's set that situation aside for now, and explore a more common kind of remorse that I'll call incident-specific workplace remorse.
Incident-specific workplace remorse is a feeling of remorse associated with an incident that occurred at work. Like most remorse, feeling it can be painful. But incident-specific workplace remorse doesn't follow you home every night. It doesn't stick with you all weekend. You feel it from time to time, possibly intensely at times, but it isn't a 24/7 life partner for weeks or months on end.
Because there isn't much anybody can do to change past events, dealing with workplace remorse related to a past event entails changing either how we view the event or events, or how we feel about them, or both. Fortunately there are steps to take. Below are three suggestions. In what follows I'll refer to the person feeling remorseful as Rhett (for Remorseful) and Rhett's conversation partner as Paula (for Partner).
- Re-interpret the incident
- Remorse about the incident can sometimes depend on a particular interpretation of what happened. For example, if Paula seemed to suddenly bring the conversation to an end, one interpretation that can lead Rhett to a sense of remorse is the idea that he said something foolish or insulting. But it's also possible that Paula was so engrossed in the conversation that she forgot about what time it was, and suddenly remembered a previous commitment.
- Finding Because we can't change past
events, dealing with workplace
remorse entails changing how
we view the event, or changing
how we feel about it, or bothplausible re-interpretations of the incident can sometimes bring an end to the feelings of remorse by creating overwhelming doubt about the interpretation that led to remorse. The more plausible re-interpretations you can find, the more likely to vanish is the feeling of remorse.
- Reframe the feeling
- Changing the experience of the feeling of remorse is an alternative too. For example, Rhett can regard the feeling as a reminder that he has something to learn about Life. Or perhaps he can contemplate the seriousness of the situation, to determine whether the intensity of his response is proportionate, relative to other errors he might have made in his life.
- By attending to the scale of the loss or damage, or by focusing on what is to be gained from the incident, Rhett can change what the incident means to him. He can convert a painful memory into a less-than-painful opportunity to learn.
- Learn from the incident
- Every remorse-inducing incident is an opportunity to practice learning from remorse. One technique for learning involves noticing what led to the incident. Collecting these observations from multiple incidents can reveal patterns. When Rhett later senses one of these patterns forming, he can take steps to prevent himself from repeating the actions that could lead to feeling remorse.
- These observations need not be restricted to his own actions. Rhett can watch others to see how they handle similar situations. Whether or not they're successful, he can harvest lessons.
Although incident-specific workplace remorse does feel bad, often we can choose to look upon it as we would a warning of a less serious kind — a fine for parking a vehicle illegally, or a minor burn from touching something hot. Keep the incident in perspective, take the warning seriously, and learn from it whatever you can. Top Next Issue
Love the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:
- Selling Uphill: Before and After
- Whether you're a CEO appealing to your Board of Directors, your stockholders or regulators, or a project
champion appealing to a senior manager, you have to "sell uphill" from time to time. Persuading
decision makers who have some kind of power over us is a challenging task. How can we prepare the way
for success now and in the future?
- Give Me the Bad News First
- I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that if you wait long enough, there will be some bad
news. The good news is that the good news helps us deal with the bad news. And it helps a lot more if
we get the bad news first.
- Four Popular Ways to Mismanage Layoffs: I
- When layoffs are necessary, the problems they are meant to address are sometimes exacerbated by mismanagement
of the layoff itself. Here is Part I of a discussion of four common patterns of mismanagement, and some
suggestions for those managers and other employees who recognize the patterns in their own companies.
- The Retrospective Funding Problem
- If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many
organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by
amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this.
What's stopping us?
- Brain Clutter
- The capacity of the human mind is astonishing. Our ability to accomplish great things while simultaneously
fretting about mountains of trivia is perhaps among the best evidence of that capacity. Just imagine
what we could accomplish if we could control the fretting…
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 7: Toxic Disrupters: Tactics
- Some people tend to disrupt meetings. Their motives vary, but they use techniques drawn from a limited collection. Examples: they violate norms, demand attention, mess with the agenda, and sow distrust. Response begins with recognizing their tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 7.
- And on June 14: Pseudo-Collaborations
- Most workplace collaborations produce results of value. But some collaborations — pseudo-collaborations — are inherently incapable of producing value, due to performance management systems, or lack of authority, or lack of access to information. Available here and by RSS on June 14.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenHoWzUJVeioCfozEIner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info