In Recovery: How to Deal With Remorse and Regret From the Past

People in a support group

Feeling remorse and regret is a fundamental part of life. Everyone has these feelings from time to time.

Whether it’s a missed opportunity, a hurtful action, or a decision that led to certain consequences, dealing with remorse and regret can be challenging.

Yet these often related but separate emotions are not only a natural part of life, but they are also crucial to feel and acknowledge. This is perhaps especially true for anyone on the recovery journey.

Feelings of remorse and regret have most likely been simmering under the surface all along, but it’s only as we start to regain clarity through recovery that we get to really feel them. For some, it can seem as though they are feeling them for the very first time.

This is particularly true for alcoholics or drug addicts who have previously numbed themselves so often from these unpleasant feelings. 

So, learning how to allow these feelings to surface, being present with them, as well as how to deal with them, is a key part of recovery.

It’s one that will help us grow and make the positive transformation that’s needed.

Defining regret and remorse

But what exactly are these emotions we all feel? What is the purpose of them?


Regret is a sense of sadness or disappointment about something that has happened or something we’ve done or said. It doesn’t always involve a moral judgment but is more often about wishing things had turned out differently. 

It can also arise when we wish we’d tried, done, or said something that we failed to try, do, or say when we had the chance. 

The word “regret” itself is from Old French regrater that means “bewail the dead.”

The feeling we get with regret is typically a great sense of loss and deep sadness about something that has been done or failed to be done – and it is frequently connected to remorse.


Remorse is a deep and painful feeling of guilt or shame for something we have said or done that we know is wrong. Often this feeling comes from somewhere deep-down, even if part of our mind is trying its best to dress it up as being something that’s not so bad.

It often comes with a sense of moral responsibility for one’s actions. It’s a sign that we recognize the impact of our choices and behaviors on ourselves and/or others.

“Remorse” derives from Latin. Re- meaning “expressing intensive force” and mordere “to bite.”

So when we have remorse it’s like we are severely biting away at ourselves, gnawing at our insides – and this is why it is such a painful feeling that often lingers and gets progressively worse if left unprocessed.

Why do remorse and regret particularly show up in recovery?

Whether it’s from addiction or mental health problems, remorse and regret are common emotions experienced in recovery. But, in fact, they are vital emotions to feel and realize for recovery, especially at the start of the journey. Here are some reasons why:


Middle age man sharing struggles during support group meeting with multiracial people siting in circle and comforting him

Recovery often begins with the acknowledgment that something is greatly amiss in our lives. There is never any way to find a solution until we first admit there’s a problem.

That is why the first two words of the 12-Steps recovery program are “We admitted…” 

This awareness can often begin through the recognition of past mistakes and their consequences.

Although these feelings may have weighed heavily, for a great many people starting recovery this is the first time they have consciously acknowledged them. 

Then, there is often encouragement from a sponsor, coach, counselor or therapist who helps the person new to recovery to write and/or speak about these feelings and begin processing them.

Motivation for change

The purpose of writing and speaking about our regrets and remorse is not to make us feel bad (or even worse) about ourselves. It is so that we can really realize how our past choices and behaviors have negatively impacted our lives and the lives of others.

In this way, remorse and regret can become the first motivators for change. While these emotions are usually uncomfortable, sometimes greatly so, they also provide a strong incentive for making a positive transformation.

This could be such as to improve ourselves, treat ourselves better and/or to make amends where necessary and appropriate. These amends are often to ourselves, and can lead the way for an addict to stop and stay stopped from their unhealthy habits.

Learning and growth

When we become aware of and feel remorse and regret, it encourages us to reflect on our past choices and behaviors. It helps us to recognize areas for self-improvement, as well as learn new ways to avoid repeating the same patterns.

Remorse and regret are not signs of weakness, but are signs of our capacity for growth and change. In fact, all our feelings need to be felt as they can be considered as signposts pointing to the right direction for our lives and the right way to live.

When feelings are painful, they have served their purpose in getting our attention. Just as with physical pain, emotional pain is always seeking our attention to signal that something is wrong – to urge us to make changes or do something differently.

If we pay attention to feelings of remorse and regret, we can get to a place of healing and wellness much more swiftly. Resistance or masking/numbing the pain usually makes it worse and means it will take longer to heal – just as a nasty cut that’s ignored will remain open and raw, and become more painful.


Having remorse and regret can help us develop empathy and compassion, for ourselves and others affected by our past actions. We can also better appreciate how it is for others who are struggling.

This gives us a sound understanding of the human condition and enables us to be able to help others who are suffering. This is a key part of 12-Steps programs and many other recovery approaches.

How to deal with remorse and regret

While it’s essential to acknowledge and feel the emotions of regret and remorse, it’s important not to wallow in them. This will merely hinder anyone from moving forward and being at their best, causing more feelings of regret and remorse, and becoming a vicious cycle.

It can even become an excuse that leads back to the old unhealthy habits. But, thankfully, there are ways that we can effectively deal with regrets and remorse, including:


Fitness, calm and breathing of black woman outdoor in nature, mountains and blue sky background

Show yourself the same compassion, love, and understanding that you would give to a best friend. Speak to yourself kindly and forgive yourself for past errors. Focus on positives, such as your decision to start recovery.

Remember this phrase too, as it will apply to most things that cause regret or remorse: “When I look back on some things, I realize I could have done it better or differently – just at the time I couldn’t.


Accept that the past cannot be changed. No amount of remorse and regret will alter one thing about what has already happened or about any missed opportunities. 

In fact, the only thing it will change is the present moment, by taking it away from you – and often ruining it. 

Instead, accept what has (or hasn’t) happened and start thinking about how you can make amends and/or do things differently moving forward.

This process of self-reflection and learning is a powerful tool for personal development. Remember the most important thing is what you are doing now.

Make amends

If your remorse and regret is due to something you said or did that hurt others, make amends where appropriate. Taking responsibility for your actions and making sincere efforts to repair the damage can be incredibly healing.

It’s usually best to make an amend as promptly as possible. Face-to-face is most effective – so long as making the amend won’t cause harm to anyone else in any way. This is why it’s extremely important to seek guidance on this from a 12-Steps sponsor or an experienced professional before you dive in.

Ensure that if you do meet someone (or make an amend by video-call, over the phone, or by letter/email) that you’re not tempted to go over it all again. Especially avoid trying to justify or make excuses for why you acted in the way you did.

Practice meditation and mindfulness

smiling man while working in front of computer. mindfulness concept

Mindfulness and meditation can help you stay in the present moment – and reduce self-focused, negative feelings of regret and remorse about the past. 

Both practices can help you to observe your thoughts and emotions without judgment, keep things in perspective, and prevent you from making rash choices or acting upon them impulsively.

Set realistic expectations

Understand that healing and personal growth take time. Be patient with yourself and set realistic expectations.

It’s perfectly normal to have setbacks. What matters the most is your commitment to keep making overall positive progress.

Recognize this progress, no matter how small it may seem. Positive reinforcement will help counterbalance feelings of remorse and regret.

Helping others

If you attend a 12-Steps group, consider paying it forward by doing “service” – that is, helping others in recovery, in some way. By becoming active in your local group – for example, greeting newcomers, setting out the chairs, making the tea/coffee – and lending support to anyone asking for your help, you begin to incorporate “being of service” in how you live your life every day. 

Beyond the group, when you are ready, helping other people (in big and small ways) will help you feel better from within, giving you a sense of purpose and fulfillment. This can be anything from volunteering for a local charity or soup kitchen, donating items to a local organization that helps those in need, participating in a community clean-up, or helping out a neighbor with a project. 

Find support

Group of people talking to one another in a group therapy session

You don’t have to go through this journey alone. Talking about your experiences can be hugely cathartic and help you gain perspective.

Reach out to friends and family members who you trust; and find a therapist, coach or counselor who can provide professional guidance and support as you work through your feelings of remorse and regret.

How Tikvah Lake Recovery can help

Nestled within a tranquil natural environment, our luxurious campus sits by a beautiful lake, giving an idyllic and secluded backdrop for enhancing physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. Bathed in Florida’s year-round sunshine, we are surrounded by stunning nature that’s ideal for promoting deep relaxation and healing.

Our first-rate team of experienced professionals specializes in addressing a wide range of emotional and mental health concerns, including addiction. Through our personalized, evidence-based therapeutic approaches, our primary goal is to guide our guests to a swift and sustainable recovery.

Take the first step towards healing – reach out to us today and start your positive transformative journey.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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