Regret vs Anxiety – Who Would Win?

Dec 15, 2022 | Inspiration, Leadership

How do regret and anxiety compare and contrast for you? Which feeling is most familiar to you and most likely to suck you into it’s whirlpool? Which do you have more often? What do these emotions have to teach?  A whole host of these questions have surfaced for me as I listened to two podcasts recently. 

I don’t know about you but I go through phases of listening to podcasts and trying out new ones, periods where I don’t want to listen to anything, and times when I want to try out new voices and hosts. This week was one of the latter. 

I recently listened to two podcasts focused on emotions that most of us don’t like to be stuck in the middle of. The first was around anxiety – A Better Way to Worry  on the Hidden Brain with psychologist Tracy Dennis-Tiwary and the second one was about regret – The Science of Regret from A Slight Change of Plans with the author Daniel Pink. Both podcasts  focused on how can we harness these emotions to help us – how do we make them our friends rather than trying to power on through or block them out. How do we listen to the message that these feelings are trying to communicate? 

There  were so interesting parallels and differences that connected in my brain that I am sharing to see whether it sparks insights for others. 

First the researchers and authors, point out that, uncomfortable as these emotions can be, we only feel them because we care about whatever the emotion is connected to. I’m not going to worry about a job interview if I don’t really care about whether I get it. I don’t regret not going to a party or taking that leadership development course if it didn’t sound as though it was good in the first place. 

Both emotions involve our ability to ‘time travel’ but in different ways.  Anxiety takes us to an imagined future while regret takes us back into the past and the created an imagined present that would have occurred if we had taken a different fork in the road at that point of time (if only I had taken that year off, that different job, dated that different person then now I would be….)

Both emotions, to me at least, suck me into something that feels like a whirlpool where I spin round and round and if I am not careful, revisit the same thoughts over and over again without moving through or forward or doing anything differently. It can feel almost hypnotizing and hard to realize what is happening. Catching myself in the act is sometimes almost impossible – and that is where trusted friends, mentors or colleagues can be invaluable in naming what I am unable to see. Metaphorically reaching out a hand so I can stop spinning for a moment. 

Are some of us more drawn to one emotion than the other (like being left or right handed). I started to journal around the questions; what am I most anxious about and where do I have the biggest regrets? The first question I could fill a whole journal with – anxiety is very familiar to me. With regret, I realized is that I have a tendency to reframe the past in light of the future and to name that without the choices I’ve made I wouldn’t be where I am right now. And I like where I am right now (for the most part!). But as I think more about this I also wonder whether I am glossing over some of the harder things and not allowing myself to feel the regret and the grief – and in doing that maybe run the risk of repeating the mistakes. Even positive thinking sometimes has a shadow side. 

Either way I am grateful that I stumbled upon these two podcasts in the same week as there was power in hearing the two at the same time. 

And as always I leave you with questions and an invitation to reach out and engage: 

  • How do you related to anxiety and regret – which do you feel more comfortable with? 
  • Do you have stories where these feelings have led you to new insights and growth?