Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 10;   March 4, 2020: Workplace Remorse

Workplace Remorse


Remorse is an unpleasant emotion. But it need not be something we suppress or avoid. It can provide a path to a positive learning experience that adds meaning to life.
A remorseful dog

It isn't only humans who can experience remorse. And some other species can even show it. Photo by Bruno Cervera

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 both
plausible 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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Contribution Misattribution  Next Issue

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[McConnel 2018]
Terrance McConnel. "Moral Dilemmas", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Available here. Back

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