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The top regret of the dying: Are you living your true life?

During her time working with people who were dying, nurse Bronnie Ware found that one of the top 5 regrets is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” (Source: The Top Five Regrets of the Dying by Bronnie Ware)

How do you know if you are living a life true to you? What steps may you take to pause, audit your life, and course-correct where needed?

In my late twenties, I found myself in the hospital, being told I might not make it and was numb, not knowing if I cared. By this time, I had been in an existential crisis, realizing the path I had worked so hard to pave for myself was not the one I wanted to be on, yet I had not given myself permission to pause and ask myself what I wanted or needed. I did not give myself permission to make these questions a priority.

Like the many patients Bronnie had met, I was full of regrets, thinking of all the years I spent hiding parts of myself to be who I thought others wanted me to be. I was no longer connected to my intrinsic purpose or meaning in my life. This left me empty and lacking direction to the point that the emotional exhaustion turned to apathy, which nearly cost me my life.

Through a bit of luck, holding on to a sliver of borrowed hope from those around me, and resilience of mind, body, and spirit, I survived.

And while I wish I could tell you I pivoted and course-corrected straight away, I did not. Unable to tolerate the feelings that arose from the emptiness inside of me, I went back to work determined to prove to myself that I could be the person who others needed me to be. At the time, my sense of worth depended on it.

Predictably, this did not promote healing. A year later, I was admitted inpatient once again and finally surrendered to the need to transition out of the career that once defined me.

Along my healing journey these past several years, I have connected with incredible people who have left prior careers and pivoted multiple times.

What I realized in my reflections was how resistant I was to allowing myself to quit and take a chance on a new path. Instead, I risked my life to avoid feeling like a failure. While my career pivot and now pivots once did feel like an epic catastrophic failure, it has always been natural for me as an outsider to celebrate other individuals who pivoted. Rather than shame them as I did myself, I have felt a strong desire to support them compassionately, knowing the grief and instability of identity loss during transitions.

Not once did I think that these people were a failure nor that they should stay on a course that no longer suits what they need or want. I celebrated them on their journey to live this beautiful life aligned with what brings them meaning, purpose, and fulfillment.

Interesting how our brains work when evaluating the same for ourselves, isn’t it?

Time and intentionality have allowed me to extend the same compassion I would provide others to myself and release myself from the guilt and shame. I now accept that every step of my own journey has had its purpose and led me to where I am, fueled by the desire to help people live a life true to themselves, knowing the pain of being out of alignment.

When we feel dependent on being who others want us to be, one of the hardest steps we may take is to give ourselves permission:

  • Permission to pivot
  • Permission to prioritize our wants and needs
  • Permission to resist the pressure from others

What do you need to be able to give yourself permission to live a life true to yourself, free from societal or familial expectations that often lead us astray?

What’s the next step you can take, today, on your journey?

Remember: This is your life; you’re in the driver’s seat. What can you do, today, to reduce the likelihood of regrets on your deathbed?

Jillian Rigert is an oral medicine specialist and radiation oncology research fellow.

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