From Ann Mehl, annmehl.com
Bronnie Ware knows a thing or two about regret. She is a palliative care nurse in Australia who spent years caring for patients in the last moments of their lives. She began documenting some of their dying epiphanies in a blog, which later became a popular book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In it, she writes of the extreme clarity that many people were able to achieve at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from it.
As you’d expect, common themes emerged from her work with the dying (“I wished I had worked less. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends more.”) But by far the most common theme was some version of this:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life others expected of me.”
In my coaching practice, I often see people who are dying a little every day because the life they are living on the outside clearly does not match who they are on the inside. They tell me they’re exhausted. And I think one of the reasons they’re exhausted is that they are not wholehearted about what they are doing. They’re doing it because they have an abstract idea that this is what they should be doing.
At different times in my own journey, I’ve felt this disconnect too, and it’s painful. It takes constant vigilance and the asking of some difficult questions to live the life we intended. But if we are sincere in the asking, it can lead us to be more courageous, more present, more connected to our lives and the people we share it with. Here are some questions that I use to check in with myself:
1. Where am I not being fully myself? What is the reason for this?
2. Where am I not fully expressing my needs? What is this costing me?
3. Whose approval am I seeking? Why is that person’s opinion so important to me?
We all have our public and private selves to some degree. But we need to feel free to be our true selves most of the time, or the weight of the artifice can become exhausting. I had a friend in college who slogged his way through medical school because his father always wanted him to be a doctor. In his second year, it became clear that the path he was on was not suiting him. He was frequently sick with unexplained maladies, and eventually had to be hospitalized suffering from nervous exhaustion. Thankfully, he was able to talk to his father and admit that while he enjoyed medicine, his real passion was for teaching music. The following year, he changed courses and never looked back. But not before literally making himself sick trying to please someone else.
The disease to please is a common one, and nobody is immune. Many of us are taught early on that the needs of others should always come before our own, and we bend ourselves into pretzels accordingly. Nice girls don’t cause a fuss, only selfish people look out for themselves, and so on. But there is nothing enlightened about silently keeping the peace, while quietly giving yourself an ulcer from seething resentment. Learning to express your own needs, clearly and unapologetically, is the first step towards recovery. When we can do this, we become much more pleasant to be around, and more tolerant of others who have needs different from our own.
With the passing of my sister-in-law and both of my parents in recent years, I’ve looked carefully at my motivations. I wanted to make sure that the life I was living was fully my own. With practice, I learned to distinguish between a should and want statement. I want to go to the gathering this evening is always preferable to I should go to this gathering. One implies choice, the other duty. Notice how any activity that stems from choice feels uplifting, while those that stem from obligation feel deadening. Are you saying yes because you want to, or because you’re afraid to say no? There’s a world of difference.
In his epic 1915 poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot gave to the world his most enduring literary creation. Prufrock, the hapless hero, wanders alone through unnamed streets, wrestling with deep existential feelings of loss and regret. His deepest frustration, it seems, stems from what he sees as the inability to clearly articulate himself. Over and over, we get the weary refrain: “No, that is not it at all; that is not what I meant at all.” Is the life you are living the one you meant, or is it like Prufrock, a manifestation of someone else’s dream?
The people we tend to admire most are the ones who live their lives without apology. We use names like maverick, hero or genius to describe them – never allowing for the possibility that we might become one of them. But why couldn’t we? Once we recognize that our time here is finite, we are less driven by the distraction of external voices. What can you choose to do right now, so that years from now, when you’re looking back at your path, you might feel genuine pride? These are the decisions your future self will thank you for.