Herb StevensonDeveloping Your Natural Talent
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Facing Regret:
the Crossroad of Anxiety and Guilt

by Herb Stevenson

Modern men often are plagued with regret about some aspect of their life, whether it is related to dreams unfulfilled, to missing the mark in a major project, or to making decisions in haste that later lead to a wish to have done differently.

A conscious and choice-full life is rarely filled with regret because the person tends to be fully-present in the choice-making process. From an existential perspective, regret occurs when we have “a profound desire to go back and change a past experience in which one has failed to choose consciously or has made a choice that did not follow one’s beliefs, values, or growth needs.” (Lucas, 2004, 58) It is a painful blending of existential anxiety and existential guilt that can be experienced as angst and/or anguish.


Freedom is an inescapable truth for mankind. “Our freedom within certain boundless.” (2001, 30) We can choose to live consciously or we can choose not to choose and therefore live unconsciously. Regardless of our choosing, “it is an irrefutable and irrevocable fact that we have free will.” (2001, 31)

A Fish in Water

Culture manifested in family of origin, ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, etcetera, presents the illusion that we are not free because like a fish in water, we are immersed and therefore unaware of these limiting or constricting influences. Nonetheless, we choose to deceive ourselves into believing that we are not free because like a fish, we can move out of water so as to know it and therefore decide whether to be confined by it or to accept it consciously within our free will.

“Once we have mustered the courage to understand, to accept, and to face fully the absolute existence of our free will, we will discover it can give us unequaled power to handle our fundamental problems. To accept and to understand one’s free will is to have reached maturity, to have developed the capacity to live life fully. (2001, 31-32)

To fully understand our free will requires that we constantly use self-reflection and introspection to examine what we choose and choose not to choose. This process results in the development of conscious awareness. As we develop our conscious awareness, we begin to find other cultures or fields of immersion that hold a frame of reference of how to be in the world. Once these fields of immersion are revealed, we begin to realize that there are other cultures, etc., and therefore that we are immersed in our own culture. Once we realize this state, we have further revealed personal freedom in choice and in use of free will.


“To feel responsibility for one’s actions is not merely a desirable frame of mind, but is above all the recognition of a fact of human existence, a fact that follows directly from our understanding of our free will or freedom.” (2001, 40) “Blaming other people or external circumstances for our problems, misfortunes, failures, and meaninglessness is not an insight into the “true” nature of things, but merely a cheap and eventually ineffectual form of escape. To blame others merely means making a decision to avoid responsibility which ultimately and inescapably is one’s own.” (2001, 41.) We are responsible for the quality of our lives.


“Realizing the fact and nature of our freedom makes us mature; it gives us the reins of our life—we can exercise control, direction, and command over our own existence, We each become an individual, with all the satisfaction, concreteness, solidity, and security that this implies. Successful and authentic living and action require a constant consciousness of the fullness of our freedom and the corresponding responsibility and control.” (2001, 78) In short, responsibility is learning to showup (be fully present) without preconceived notions while being able to clearly set boundaries and to take action congruent with whom you are.


We tend to spend tremendous amounts of energy subduing anxiety. Because it exists within every person, it is a part of the human condition. However, because we are a symptomatic society that ranks discomfort within the “bad” symptoms or conditions of life and comfort within the “good” symptoms of life, we tend as a society to eliminate part of what it means to be human. When we get down to the basics of humanity, we realize that the “experience of anxiety is not an undesirable pain but is, in fact, a fundamental clue to the authentic structure of the human condition.” (2001, 92)

Authentic Anxiety

Authentic anxiety reminds us that we can experience life as pointless, empty, boring, and meaningless, while at the same time being terrified to admit it. (2001, 93) Simultaneously, anxiety reminds us of the nothingness of life that is experienced via dread, anguish, and angst, each reminding us of the deep sense of loss of those things that matter most. Anxiety is the threatened loss of existence as we know it. Often, anxiety leads us into despair where “we discover that ultimate anxiety discloses that the indestructible presence of consciousness. Rather than death, we discover “the very ground of being that we are. Thus anxiety is the threshold that leads to the understanding that the consciousness and the ego (which is not the same as my body or my person) cannot be thought of as not existing.” (2001, 95)

In short, “anxiety is the natural condition of human beings. Anxiety is [fear and] reveals truths that we wish to hide but in fact need for our greater health. Anxiety is the experience of growth itself. How does it feel to proceed to the next stage of growth? The answer is, be anxious. Anxiety must, therefore, be valued, not denied. [Moreover,] “the healthy person is the courageous one, the person unafraid of anxiety, who says yes to life in spite of the overwhelming omnipresence of this abyss of death. In fact, courage means to know a secret: anxiety is pure energy. It can go in either destructive or constructive directions; you make the choice. To be is to say yes to anxiety [and overcome your internal fear].That is the meaning of courage. (2002, 142)

As described above, “existential anxiety, also called authentic anxiety, is the unique aspect of human experience that reveals our truth of what it means to be human.” (2001,124-125) When anxiety is denied, our nature for depth and breadth of existence is denied. “And that denial leads to conditions of inauthenticity called, variously, mental illness, neurosis, maladjustment, maladaptation, melancholia, and so forth. But above all, the denial of existential anxiety leads to a lack of meaning in life, to an existence without a task, to a condition of despair—because we must live yet cannot live. (2001, 125)

Neurotic Anxiety

Neurotic anxiety, typically referred to as resistances in Gestalt theory, is secondary anxiety. It is the denial of authentic anxiety , or, if you prefer, it is anxiety (or fear) about anxiety that is played out by denying its existence. Hence, fear of the truths that might surface about ourselves and the avoidance of pain in various form of psychological discomfort lead away from the insights that can surface from authentic anxiety.

Authentic anxiety results in an experience of some truth, whereas inauthentic anxiety converts the pure energy into various mechanisms such as repression, projection, dissociation, compulsion, obsession, compensation, sublimation, and so on. (2001, 126) Neurotic anxiety leads to various degrees of unhappiness because we have not developed sufficient internal and/or external support to face or bear the truth of our existence. More specifically, neurotic anxiety limits life because a jaded picture that life should only be positive, joyful, ecstatic or pleasant is a naive’ is used to justify denial of the authentic anxiety.


Guilt is defined as a feeling of having committed wrong or failed in an obligation. When applied to presence or present-centered living we find that guilt has a more indepth meaning. “Existential guilt is guilt about unfulfilled potential, about self-betrayal and anger at one’s weakness. [Whom I am.] Neurotic guilt has two layers: the denial of the existence of existential guilt altogether, and the internalization of external and essentially irrelevant rules and values.” (2001, 295) [What I am supposed to be or do]

“Freedom leads to the anxiety of guilt, for whenever you choose freely, you can deny freely, and whatever value you deny by your choice can lead to guilt. In fact, guilt is proof of the existence of freedom, for guilt is what you feel when you have made a deeply personal and very difficult choice. To face the anxiety of guilt is to move forward with courage.”(1979, 73/2002, 143) “To choose means to say yes to one thing by saying no to another.” (1979, 73) Often, the yes is to answer the call to be whom you are versus what you’re suppose to be. In such situations, a sense of joy results from yes-saying to whom you are and the sense of guilt derives from no-saying to what you’re supposed to be. “Joy is proof of a decision made, but so is guilt.” (1979, 73-74) Guilt is the realization that a decision has been made and the existential awareness is that decision-making is an authentic, free and human activity. As such, the existence of...guilt proves that you have the strength to make decisions, to evaluate your own life by your own standards, and to choose and maintain your own standards and values. (2001, 75)

“Existential guilt of the most profound pains in life, a pain impervious to medical and psychological treatment,...regret over unfulfilled possibilities, grief over unrealized potential.” (2001, 297) It is the deep and unadulterated awareness that we did not show up for our self whether it be in life, love, learning, relating, dreaming, or living.

Existential or ‘good’ guilt “cannot be cured. [It] is the essence of humanity. [It] is a means to self disclosure, and the wisdom thus gained can make one free...The guilty person can gain strength, maturity, and joy as the result of a direct confrontation with [‘good’] guilt. (1979, 72-733)

“Neurotic guilt is the limitation placed on life when one rejects the guilt about possibilities. People who do not recognize that they are always betraying their most genuine intrinsic values are individuals living on the surface, who spend most of their time trying to forget the real values of life. It is also the act of swallowing whole a set of external rules...[such as family, ethnicity, culture, institutionalized customs , and nationalism] and then forming an overdeveloped stance of judging ourselves and others. This second type of neurotic guilt leads to the defensive personality. It is exhibited by people who do not feel entitled to their rights, do not feel they belong in this world, and find it necessary to apologize for actions, demands, and needs that most people find quite acceptable. They must therefore depend on others to tell them who they are and what they must do.” (2001, 296)

In truth, guilt is healthy when we understand that “existential guilt refers to the knowledge that you are betraying what your own inner wisdom tells you about your own purpose and the choices before you. At issue is being honest with oneself about— What do you want? What is right for you?”—not what are you supposed to do. (2001, 296-7) As such, it is important to understand, existentially, you are not responsible for the decisions of others. Guild is real and important. To mature, be your guilt; identify with it; it will give you strength. Assume fully the responsibility that your guilt suggests. It will reveal your original source of guilt—when you ignored or betrayed your true self—and make you independent and dissolve artificial polarities. (1979, 80)

How We Create Regret

As noted in the beginning paragraphs, from an existential perspective, regret occurs when we have “a profound desire to go back and change a past experience in which one has failed to choose consciously or has made a choice that did not follow one’s beliefs, values, or growth needs.” (Lucas, 2004, 58) It is a painful blending of existential anxiety and existential guilt that can be experienced as angst and/or anguish.

Making Mistakes

In terms of our day-to-day existence, to live in good faith means to be fully present in the moment and consciously live in a way that is congruent with one’s beliefs and values. Life is choiceful. When we make a mistake in decision, deed, and or understanding of the future, if it is in good faith, we will experience a modicum of regret and likely learn from the situation as we move on in life. We know that we based our decision, deed or understanding of the future on what we knew in the moment. However, if we make a mistake in bad faith, that is, incongruent with one’s beliefs and values, then we can become painfully aware of having chosen poorly without the ability to correct it.

Failing to Choose Well

In basic terms, every decision involves relinquishing an infinite number of other choices. “To choose means to relinquish or even kill other choices or possibilities” (Lucas, 2004, 62) Interestingly, in not choosing by literally not choosing and following the road of least resistance or as in not consciously making a decision consistent with our circumstances, facts, and personal values, we choose. Hence, when we act out of habitual thought patterns created from parental and other influences, such as “it’s the way men in our family do things”, a choice is made, albeit semi- or unconsciously. In failing to consciously choose, we withdraw from our responsibility to live well by creating our own life. Generally, “these are moments in which we acted without purposeful, conscious choosing. We were not present; our experience was more characterized by a divided consciousness, and hence we were living in bad faith” (Lucas, 2004, 59-60) to oneself. Existentially, we feel guilty because at some deep level, we become aware that we have abandoned and betrayed the self. “It is a sense that I abandoned myself at that moment and instead serviced another reality at the expense of my current experience, needs, and choices. The effect is that at some level I feel that I have let myself down... and I am acutely angry, despairing, and full of regret” and there is nothing I can do about it.

Failing to Live One’s Potentialities

Existential regret can be also understood through failing to live one’s potentialities. ( May, 1983) This is seen when “we consciously consider our choices and let ourselves down by choosing to do what is easier rather than responding to our inner values, integrity, beliefs, potential, and knowledge.” (Lucas, 2004, 60). Abraham Maslow believed that even though we have a predisposition towards self-actualizing, we also can defend against growth. In the latter case, defending against growth, we will tend to experience regret because we took the easy way out or chose to do less than we are capable.1 He foretells that, “if you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you’ll be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life You will be evading your own capacities, your own possibilities.” ( Maslow, 1993, 35)


Block, Peter & Peter Koestenbaum (2001) Freedom and Accountability at Work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Koestenbaum, Peter (1971)The Vitality of Death: Essays in Existential Psychology and Philosophy. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood.
.........................(1974) Existential Sexuality, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall
.........................(1978) The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical
Philosophy, Westport Connecticut: Greenwood
........................(1979) Managing Anxiety, Millbrae, California: Celestial Arts.
........................(1987) The Heart of Business: Ethics, Power and Philosophy. San Francisco, California: Saybrook Publishing.
........................(2002) Leadership: The Inner Side of Greatness—a philosophy for leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lucas, Marijo, (2004) Existential Regret: A Crossroads of Existential Anxiety and Existential Guilt, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol. 44. No. 1, Winter, 58-70.

Maslow, Abraham, (1993) “Neurosis as a failure of personal growth”, In M. Vich (Ed.) The farther reaches of human nature. New York, Penguin.

May, Rollo(1983) The Discovery of Discovery. New York, Norton.


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