HavingTime.com featured a post of mine entitled, “The Top 5 Regrets In Life You Should Avoid.” In the article, among other things, I touched briefly on a book written by a palliative nurse called “The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying.” I have not read the book, but I did read the five regrets and used them in my post. Now, in this series, I will be delving deeper into each statement and reflecting on various strategies to implement in hopes of avoiding the same deathbed regrets.
Deathbed Regret #1:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
I find the saying “listen to your heart” to be weightless, ambiguous, and cheeky. I don’t hate on people who use such mantras, but when it is the advice that a person offers me, I can’t help but internally roll my eyes and ask, “What does that even mean?” I listen to my heart and the only thing it tells me is that my body is still alive. Thanks, heart.
This saying is comparable to the one that advises, “be true to yourself.” The ambiguity irks me to the core. What does it even mean? If this is the top regret of the dying then I must be among the minority in my skepticism of such simplistic and visceral sayings. I must be missing something.
When I have a hard time comprehending any combination of words, I dissect it to pieces so I can gain a deeper understanding of what is trying to be said. In this case, when I break the sentence down, I see why it is a lament so close to the heart of the dying. I read, “I wish I’d had the courage…” and “…not the life others expected of me.” From examining the bookends, I develop a clarification of the center. To be true to yourself is not merely a cheeky motto tossed uselessly across conversation. It involves bearing the courage to be authentic while being freed from the common entrapment of people-pleasing.
Finding The Courage To Be Authentic
Ernest Hemingway said, “Courage is grace under pressure.” Google Dictionary defines the word as “the ability to do something that frightens one.” The definition assumes a preexisting fear. One cannot be courageous unless one has been frightened. One cannot be graceful unless one is under pressure. Courage is the active movement against fear, like swimming upstream against the swelling currents. It is mustered in the deep breath before a high dive or employed on the stage steps before addressing an auditorium full of eyes and ears. Definitions of other words like bravery and boldness don’t necessarily have the same nuance. They are more about an inherent quality of strength while courage focuses specifically on the active pushing against a natural inclination to cower.
It is not hard for any of us to admit that staying true to self is a frightening concept. We become aware of others’ eyes on us as early as four or five years of age, and we start adapting, shifting our preferences to please the people in our community. Then in elementary school, it roots even deeper as we recognize the qualities of our peers and shrink in the shadows cast by them as we shine the spotlight. A quiet insecurity grows louder as we convince ourselves that people will not accept or appreciate our authentic selves. The fear burrows into our being as we all ask a form of the same question lying at the core in each of us, “am I too much to love? Maybe not quite enough?”
No one is free of insecurity. If courage is only possible in the face of fear, let us acknowledge the fear of authenticity, and wrestle with our natural coping mechanism that is the source of so many other issues: people-pleasing.
Fighting The Enemy Of People-Pleasing
Have you seen the movie, “Yes Man”? Jim Carrey plays Carl, a businessman notorious for saying no to any adventure in life. Carl winds up at a motivational conference where Terence Stamp shocks him awake into saying yes to any and every opportunity that presents itself. “You say no to life and therefore you’re not living,” the trailer claims. It is a typical comedy, light and uplifting, and featuring an all-star cast. The film’s message? In order to truly live, we need to say yes with fervent frequency. That might be a needed lesson for some, but most moviegoers are probably more like me in that they have the opposite issue as the boldly cynical Carl; they can’t stop saying yes, and they’re deathly afraid to say no. Humans don’t like to disappoint. We bend over backwards, spreading ourselves too thin and sacrificing our authenticity for something as fleeting as a half smile or a high five.
Much of my personal struggle with anxiety and depression can be traced to my obsessive need to appease others. I littered yeses like Hansel dropping candy on the trail to the witch’s house. Anxiety bubbled up as I spread myself thinner than I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. And depression took root as I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t please everyone. It is vital to learn the simple use of the two-letter word, no. No, I don’t want to – No, that’s not a healthy decision for me – No, I’m just not ready at this point – No, I’m deciding not to do it – No, that’s not who I am. No.
To keep from crying the same regrets on our deathbeds as so many before us, we must be true to ourselves. If, like me, the ambiguity of that statement bothers you, hear this: be courageous in the face of your fears of authenticity, and learn how to say no when it is called for. Too often, we lose ourselves by people-pleasing and shapeshifting. Get to know yourself again, not just the the PG version that you play for others, but your authentic self. Explore your wants, needs, preferences, hopes, dreams – discover you. Be courageous, be honest, say yes to authenticity, and say no to people-pleasing. Life is simply too short.
“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” – Dr. Seuss