At first glance neither of the above emotions seems particularly attractive, but I’ve come to believe there’s a profound difference between the two. Namely: remorse is workable; guilt is not.
We’re all familiar with guilt. Feeling bad about something we’ve done, we slide into self-recrimination. Often we try to distract ourselves from this unpleasantness with a favorite addiction. The situation just keeps getting worse from there. Guilt is a sticky, dense, unpleasant emotion — the essence of stuckness. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche points out that guilt, like pride, is really just another way of reifying the self, making it solid and ‘real’ — only this time, the ‘real’ self is ‘bad.’ From a Buddhist perspective, guilt is simply ego-clinging, and a particularly unpleasant version of it at that.
Guilt is both sticky and stuck. When we’re in it, we’re not free to do much else. Remorse, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for real transformation. When we come to the honest understanding that we’ve behaved in a way that’s hurt someone, we have the opportunity to make amends. We can alter our behavior from that point forward. Genuine remorse sees the pain that we’ve caused, and resolves to not do it again. There’s an opportunity for action in remorse that isn’t available in the stuckness of guilt.
Even if we’re not able to speak with the injured party, we can work it symbolically through ritual: set up a photo, light a candle, write down our apology and our new intention, burn the paper with the old pattern of behavior, vow to do it differently next time. Making a clear commitment to a new way of acting — to speak the truth in the moment, say, rather than hiding behind our fears of ‘hurting someone’ (often that’s just a cover-up for our own fears) — is the liberating secret hidden in the apparently painful mess of remorse.
Thanks to Jungian analyst and astrologer Liz Greene for pointing my thoughts in this direction a long time ago, in her book The Astrology of Fate.