I came across the five regrets of the dying back in 2014, when I was transitioning out of my corporate job and into working for myself, and I found them to be a powerful reminder of what really matters. These regrets were collected by Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, who spent many years working in palliative care, taking care of patients who knew that they only had weeks left to live. What an incredible gift, to have access to these insights while we still have the opportunity to address them. Let’s take a look at each of the five regrets of the dying, and dig into what they might mean to each of us.
Five regrets of the dying
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
One of the first exercises that I did as I began to question and redefine what ‘success’ meant to me, was coming up with a list of my core values. The first time I did this, I identified three: freedom (after a lifetime in the rigid routine of education and then corporate life); personal development (I’m a passionate lifelong learner); and authenticity. That last one may have become overused, but clichés are created for a reason.
For me, authenticity – being true to myself, bringing my whole self to the table, feeling fully aligned with what I’m doing – became hugely important. For so long, I had been the ‘good girl’ who did as she was told, living up to other people’s expectations, listening to those internal ‘shoulds’ and following the safe, conventional path. Now, finally, I was trusting my intuition and choosing to listen to my own inner guide. And this has continued to be a guiding force for me, in life and in business.
After taking a big courageous decision, it’s easy to settle back into our comfort zones over time, to allow those doubts and negative comments to push us back into conformity. It’s a continuous effort to challenge myself, question my choices, and design a life and a business that feels right for me, rather than following the template that the latest guru is touting, or being swayed by what I see on social media. But it’s something that I know is critical to my happiness and fulfilment.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
We spend such a large chunk of our time working and it’s inevitable that most of our efforts will be focused on doing well at work. This is true when we’re working our way up the traditional career ladder in a large company, but it’s even more the case when we are working for ourselves. The more passionate we are about our work, the more likely it is that we put our all into it. That’s very admirable, and through our hard work and dedication, we can make a huge difference – to the livelihood of our families, to the job satisfaction of our teams and employees, and to our customers or society as a whole (depending on the work we do).
However important work is, though, there are also other things – other people – that matter. Working hard to the detriment of our health and relationships, burning out as we put work before everything else and we sacrifice our own mental and physical wellbeing while missing important milestones and moments in the lives of our loved ones, is what will inevitably lead to regret (when it’s too late to do anything different).
As a self-confessed ‘good girl’ – perfectionist, over-achiever, hugely self-motivated and dedicated to always doing my best, always doing more – this is an ongoing struggle. I continue to work on this (bu-dum), challenging myself to prioritise nutrition and exercise, take more breaks, and, ultimately, remember the big picture of what really matters.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
Oof, feelings, this is a tough one. If you, like me, have grown up in a society where we praise and prioritise rational thought, the ‘stiff upper lip’, remaining in control and not showing weakness – well, expressing your feelings doesn’t exactly come naturally. In fact, even knowing what your feelings are in the first place can be quite the challenge.
I’ve worked with a coach recently who talked about expressing your ‘raw feelings’, rather than communicating your perceptions and stories. This is the key to sharing your feelings with others – your partner, your parents, arguably even your colleagues – without lacing your statements with blame and antagonising the other person. But, of course, it requires that you dig a little deeper to understand what that underlying raw emotion that you’re feeling really is.
Maybe, we’re trying to protect other people – definitely, we’re trying to protect ourselves – by holding back from expressing how we feel. I do believe, though, that if we can be more open and vulnerable (where appropriate, with people who have earned our trust – this is important), this is the key to building deeper and more meaningful relationships, addressing any issues and not leaving important things unsaid.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
We live in a world where we can have 500+ Facebook friends, where we’re on WhatsApp every day, and regularly connecting with people and commenting on their Instagram posts… but, when it comes down to it, how many of those friends are actually in our trusted inner circle? How many of them know the real us? Are those online interactions meaningful, or are they just superficial messages that don’t go beyond basic small talk?
Over the years, I’ve tended to keep just one real relationship from each phase of my life – secondary school, university, my first corporate job – while the rest stayed a little more on the surface, a little more distant. I also had an incredible group of close friends during my nine years in Geneva, and although it’s natural that we haven’t stayed as close as we would have if I had kept living locally, I can’t help but feel sad that I haven’t stayed in more regular contact. And, more recently, I feel like I’ve had such incredible rich conversations and experiences with people I’ve met both online and in person since I started to travel and build my business – and, yet, these are not people I could talk to about the real things that matter, the problems, in my personal life.
In the light of the recent pandemic and our experiences of living in lockdown, it’s arguably all the more important to stay in touch with the people we love, to check in with how others are doing, and to nurture the relationships that matter the most.
5. I wish I’d let myself be happier.
It’s a big one to end on, and it feels a little vague and wishy-washy. What makes us happy? What’s getting in the way of being happy? And what can we do to ‘let ourselves’ be happier? Although it’s a difficult one, it may well be the most important of them all. And, if we don’t yet know the answers to those questions, maybe that’s a good place to start: to find out what would make us happier, and to make little shifts to move in that direction.
To some extent, that’s what I’ve been dedicating the past years to finding out, for me personally, while helping my clients do the same. What does a meaningful definition of ‘success’ look like? What do we value, what matters most in our lives? And how can we go about creating, attracting, more of that in our lives?
Which of these five regrets of the dying resonates most with you? Where do you feel you need to make a shift to avoid having this regret on your deathbed? Let me know in the comments!