“Regrets, I’ve had a few, But then again, too few to mention . . .” sang Frank Sinatra.
Or then again, maybe more than a few!
In our culture of late we’ve seen a surge in the YOLO idea—You Only Live Once—and contained within that is to have no regrets. Especially with the youth culture, the idea is so pervasive in popular songs.
Then again, we all knew everything when young too, no?
But can you actually live without regret? And is it wise to do so? Or does that mean you’re lying to yourself?
We know where the latter gets you.
In 2012, palliative-care nurse Bronnie Ware published The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing. And while of course not a scientific study, I’d say she has as good a grasp on this as anybody, with the course of her life’s work, day by day. I’ve had the honor of dealing with the passing of loved ones, and with the Hospice nurses who aided our journeys. They are simply angels of mercy.
The top five Ms. Ware found on those deathbeds:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship. Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners. All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
”This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
Most interesting about this list is that the regrets all center around what people didn’t do, rather than what they did. Which bears out a study by Morrison and Roese that showed regretting inaction lasted longer than action regrets. And that the feelings of loss were far greater in those regrets of inaction as well.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve had each of these regrets at some point in my life. And, learned from each and every one as I worked through them. I’m still grappling with number 2! But the others I’m very conscious about while building my life. In part because I know the pain of regret when not doing so. Which is something I’d rather avoid 🙂
Long ago when studying myths, I came across Nietzsche’s philosophy of “amor fati,” or love of one’s fate. He wrote, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
Mythologist Joseph Campbell says, “There is an important idea in Nietzsche, of Amor fati, the ‘love of your fate,’ which is in fact your life. As he says, if you say no to a single factor in your life, you have unraveled the whole thing.”
So how do we square the idea of YOLO with human regret, and avoid those big 5 at the end?
Nietzsche’s work focused on waking people up from their daily habits, from the gilded cage of daily life, which make us creatures of comfort. The vehicle for people to wake themselves up, to become conscious, to change their lives, he said was regret.
And he had a 2-sided method for dealing with it, which incorporates both sides, and oddly sounds like the heart of a 12-step group:
- If you choose wrong, forget it. Accept it and love it.
- From now on, live with constant awareness of your mortality. And choose differently.
Here are 9 of ways for how to deal with life regrets:
- Find Your Life’s Purpose.
Nothing, absolutely nothing opens up one’s world like living a life on purpose. That’s where creativity and inspiration live—where you feel literally inspired by the gods.
“Follow your bliss,” Campbell so famously said.
- Quite Being a Victim.
Anytime you blame people or circumstances for your unhappiness, you’ve just given them the power to make you unhappy again. Because it’s not about them, in the end. It’s about you and your choices.
“How would your life be different if…You stopped validating your victim mentality? Let today be the day…You shake off your self-defeating drama and embrace your innate ability to recover and achieve.” ― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
- Let Go of the Past.
By clinging to those past mistakes, you keep them alive and flourishing in your psyche. Which has the odd effect of causing you to repeat them. Yes, understanding past actions helps you to move past them. And that’s the point—moving past them. Because dwelling on them, obsessing, just keeps you there. And worse, blocks you from the happiness before you.
“Let go. Why do you cling to pain? There is nothing you can do about the wrongs of yesterday. It is not yours to judge. Why hold on to the very thing which keeps you from hope and love?”–Leo Buscaglia
- Banish Excuses.
Didn’t reach the goal you were shooting for? Yep, figuring out why is imperative. But it’s so easy to start with excuses. And those are never the issue. They exist to cause you not to take responsibility for the issue.
Filled with reasons why you can’t do something?
As author John Belfort says, “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.”
- Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Take risks. I know, most of us are risk averse! I know I am. But it’s when I dive into the scary waters of the unknown that the magic arrives. Yep, this isn’t terribly comfortable, but that’s when you know you should do it.
“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy
This sounds like a no-brainer, right? But so often we judge rather than appreciate. And those two things produce radically different energy. By turning the other cheek, so to speak, by seeking the good, the positive, in those around you, connections grow stronger.
By doing so with your own life, the positive flourishes.
- Let Go of What If
Isn’t that a tough one? It’s so easy to get caught up in: What if my life were different? What if such and such had worked out? What if I’d succeeded at x?”
But, it isn’t and it didn’t.
By dwelling on what didn’t or hasn’t happened, by blaming life today on that, you’ve just flown out of the Present, back into the Past or the Future, and aren’t living your life.
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Choose to be Happy.
Because happiness is a choice. No matter your circumstances, you can still wake up every day and choose to be happy. Study after study after study in the last few decades have proven this. So why not take advantage of this?
- Never, Ever, Ever, Ever Give Up on Yourself.
You are who you have. No matter if you live in the worst conditions imaginable, have just been dealt a horrendous defeat, have suffered losses too awful to count, you’re still here.
You’re still in the game.
No one knows which way the fates will turn tomorrow, or even today.
You are worth it. There’s a reason you’re here. Pat yourself on the back, dust yourself off, and keep living.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”