Bronnie Ware, a nurse who for years gave palliative care for terminally ill adults, has described the top five regrets that her patients expressed. I wrote earlier about the regrets of older adults, so I was interested in the items on her list. They were as follows:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
This post will focus on the first of these—not having lived a life true to oneself—which was the most common regret.
As a psychologist, I have worked with lots of clients who were living the life that someone else thought they should live. Usually it was a parent who had provided the blueprint they were trying to follow; sometimes it was a spouse or mentor. Most of these clients did actually think that they should live their own life and forget about pleasing others, but found that hard to do. They feared disappointing the advice-giver, or feared the advice-giver’s warnings would prove accurate.
- Mom told Katherine (a pseudonym), now 38 years old, that she would make a terrible parent. Katherine always yearned to have a child and fears that she and her husband will soon lose that opportunity. But what if her mom is right?
- Dad said that Kyle should give up his plan to teach, saying that Kyle wouldn’t be satisfied living on a teacher’s salary. Kyle was excited by the idea of shaping young minds and bored by the family business, where his dad wanted him. Kyle trusted his dad, though, and ended up joining the business.
In order to live a life true to myself, I need to know who I am. Finding myself is complicated not only by the messages given by significant others but by those provided by our culture, which values assertion, achievement, and material accumulation. Ignoring these influences and discovering oneself is a journey of vocation, something Brian Mahan describes as “a kind of inner consonance between our deepest desires and hopes and our unique gifts, as they are summoned forth by the needs of others and realized in response to that summons.” (I’ve discussed Mahan’s views here.) It is a spiritual journey, for I know myself only in relation to what is greater than myself, especially in relation to God, my creator.
I suspect that many of the older adults who believed they had been untrue to themselves had little self-knowledge when they made the decisions that shaped their lives. Years later, they knew themselves better and recognized the discrepancy between the life they lived and the life in which they would have flourished.
Something I often emphasize with my clients is that, even if they made poor decisions in the past, they still can use what they learn to live more authentically in the present. Self-discovery is a lifelong process, so changes made now can lead to further reflection, more insight, additional changes, and so on.
In her blog simplylifelessons, Susan Henshaw, who is currently in her late 50s, describes this sort of self-discovery. Here is an excerpt from a recent post:
“A few months ago, it got back to me that someone I admired said I was ‘too intense’. This bothered me for so long. I guess it still does, but it is true. I am intense. I take life and most of what I do seriously. This is probably temporary after recovering from going through a difficult divorce and losing both parents in the past three years, and I will try to lighten up, but, there comes a point when acceptance plays its hand, and I must say, ‘This is me, good or bad.’”
Knowing and accepting who we are is the first step toward living a life true to ourselves.