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Regret and Her Horrible Twin, Guilt

By Michelle May, M.D.

A Parable about a Hidden Force that May Be Keeping You Stuck

The sisters Regret and Guilt look a lot alike but they are very different.

When Regret makes a mistake she cries, “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done that!” or “Why did I do that?” or “I’m never doing that again!”

But when Guilt makes a mistake she yells, “You idiot, you blew it again!” or “You are such a loser-what’s the matter with you?” or “You might as well give up; you’re never going to get it right.”

Regret makes mistakes all the time. She figures that everybody does, especially when they’re learning something new. Regret doesn’t even really seem to mind making mistakes because she always learns something that helps her do things a little differently the next time. She even laughs at herself and shares her mistakes with others so they’ll learn too. She doesn’t care that other people sometimes do things better-but she wants to be the best she can be so she never gives up trying.

Of course, Guilt makes mistakes too but she blames herself because she believes she should know better. Instead of helping her learn, her mistakes just prove that she is a bad person and that something is wrong with her. She is often angry with herself and sometimes other people. Secretly, she feels unloved and unworthy so with every mistake she resolves to do things perfectly the next time to prove to everyone else that she is good enough.

One day, Regret and Guilt agreed that it was time to make some lifestyle changes. Regret regretted that her energy level was low and she wasn’t able to do all of the things she wanted. Guilt felt bad too-guilty that she was “too fat and lazy.”

Like most people, Regret had been on dozens of diets and knew they just didn’t work for her. She decided that this time she would make small changes to the way she ate. She started by paying more attention to her hunger and fullness cues. It sounded simple enough but it wasn’t as easy as she thought, especially when someone brought donuts to the office. After two days of eating donuts mid-morning, she realized she needed to make a plan. She gave herself extra time in the morning to have breakfast and pack lunch. She also made a list of other things she could do when the donuts were calling her. She continually tweaked her plan to figure out what worked the best and congratulated herself on her small successes.

A few days into it, she had a really stressful day at work and was thrilled when she remembered that it was her co-worker’s birthday because that meant cake! She wasn’t hungry but had a piece of the delicious chocolate cake while she celebrated with her friend…then went back for another piece after everyone else returned to their desks. Within an hour she noticed she felt tired and a little sick-but still stressed out. Regret regretted her decision to have the second piece of cake-but not the first! She decided that next time she felt stressed she would take a short walk instead of going back for more.

Guilt liked the idea of using hunger and fullness too-but she had failed on so many diets that she doubted she would do any better with this approach. She told herself that this was her last chance to get it right so every time she felt like eating she made sure she was hungry first. She felt great because she was doing it perfectly! After a week of only eating when she was hungry, disaster struck. She had already eaten most of her lunch at her desk when her boss showed up with cake to celebrate Secretary’s Day. She had a piece even though she wasn’t hungry. Within a few minutes she was berating herself for her terrible mistake, telling herself that she had failed at this too – just like she thought
she would. She gave up and went back for a second piece. She felt so bad about herself that she picked up a pizza and ice cream on the way home. After all, she couldn’t even get this right so what was the point?

Although Guilt was well intentioned, her unrealistic expectations and the shame and blame she heaped on herself were preventing her from learning, improving, and forgiving herself when she made choices that didn’t work out well. She even felt guilty for feeling guilty!

She finally asked her sister for help. Regret explained that while there's always room for improvement, toddlers fall down many times before becoming proficient at walking. They may cry but they don't feel ashamed. Instead they get up, make adjustments, and try again. Her favorite words of wisdom:

  • Perfection is not possible–or necessary.
  • When you make a mistake, don't miss the lesson.
  • Small changes slowly add up to big changes.
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About the author

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yo-yo dieter and the founder of the Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs and Training. She is the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: A Mindful Eating Program to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle , winner of seven publishing awards. She is also the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat with Diabetes, Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat for Binge Eating, and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating for Bariatric Surgery. Michelle shares her compelling message and constructive keynotes with audiences around the country, offers workplace wellness programs, and has trained and licensed hundreds of health professionals to facilitate Am I Hungry?® Mindful Eating Programs worldwide. She has been featured on Dr. Oz, the Discovery Health Channel, and Oprah Radio, and quoted in Diabetic Living, Fitness, Health, Huffington Post, Parents, Self, USA Weekend, US News & World Report, WebMD and many others. Her personal success story was published in Chicken Soup for the Dieter's Soul. Michelle cherishes her relationships with her husband, Owen and grown children, Tyler and Elyse. She regularly enjoys practicing yoga and hiking near her home in Phoenix, Arizona. She and Owen, a professional chef, share a passion for gourmet and healthful cooking, wine tasting, photography, and traveling.

3 Comments

  1. How true.
    I work with many clients on their comfort eating. Not only the regret-guilt link but also the other underlying emotions and beliefs that trigger emotional or comfort eating.
    Many people who eat when they feel down or stressed do so because they believe they can’t stand the discomfort of their negative emotion. Helping them change those beliefs will also change their eating habits and help them feel better about themselves.
    Anne

  2. A great parable… Some of my clients have the all or nothing thinking which gets them into the cycle of “good”/”bad” eating. We work on developing not only a healthier eating plan that they can LIVE with, but an awareness of their thought patterns and resulting behavior. Once they have the awareness, they can choose to change the thoughts, which ultimately changes the behavior. Win-win

  3. Anne and Jan, thanks for your insightful comments. These are exactly the issues that need to be addressed; guilt just keeps us stuck in old patterns.

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