In 2009, Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse wrote the second article for her newly formed blog, Inspiration and Chai.
The article was called Regrets of the Dying.
After too many years of unfulfilling work, Bronnie Ware began searching for a job with heart. Despite having no formal qualifications or previous experience in the field, she found work in palliative care.
For eight years she tended to the dying. Rather than feeling depressed and drained, Bronnie’s life was transformed. She was repeatedly offered lessons and life-changing insights while sitting by the bedsides of dying people as their carer and listener.
In her blog post, she outlined the most common regrets of the people she had cared for. The post flowed completely of its own accord, without hesitation, simply drawing upon powerful, clear memories.
That post went viral and was viewed by more than three million readers worldwide in its first year.
But something else happened in parallel.
By applying the lessons of those nearing their death to her own life, she developed an understanding that it is possible for every one of us to live a regret-free life if we make the right choices.
Regret is not all bad news.
We all have regrets. Some are little regrets like, not taking an opportunity when it presented itself or making a mistake with our eyes open. But then there are bigger regrets.
Regrets that can make our lives a living hell, taking us through a whole spectrum of emotional states.
One side of the spectrum is the dark lament we feel when we’re reminded of how fucked up and flawed we are. But the other side of regret, the side that makes it all worth it, is the light it shines in. That light guides us to a better understanding of ourselves — and ultimately to a place of acceptance of how fucked up and flawed we are. — Mark Mason
- Regret is a sign that we are engaged with life. Without regret, we cannot learn from our mistakes, and we are destined to repeat them. The anxiety and the feeling of dissatisfaction are the messages from our souls saying something is wrong and needs addressing.
- Addressing regret leads to a better life. Leaving regret unidentified can lead to self-hatred. We can see around us people who can’t forgive themselves after they had done something wrong. They constantly blame themselves. They can’t find happiness until they address the regret of their lives. There is life after regret. One can recover.
- Identifying regret leads to remorse. And in remorse is the nirvana. Remorse involves insight into what one has done to others. It is the beginning of becoming aware of how one behaves and wanting to do something differently. When you can begin to experience genuine remorse for what you’ve done, something authentic starts to happen.
- Regret is an opportunity to do things differently next time. Though very painful regret can be a gift. It can be a doorway to a better way of living. A right kind of regret which can be understood and worked through can lead to remorse and repair is the strongest sign of life meaningfully lived.
Three kinds of Regrets
Simply put, regrets are the choices we made.
We think we should have done something better but didn’t. We should have chosen a better life partner, but didn’t. We should have not said those harsh words but we did. We should have taken that more exciting but risky job, but didn’t. We should have been more disciplined, but weren’t.
We regret these choices, which happened in the past and can’t be changed. We compare them to an ideal path that we think we should have taken. We can’t shake the idea from our heads of what could have been if only we had made a different choice.
And since we cannot change those choices we start regretting them.
I would divide regrets into three kinds.
Something you did wrong.
We all have done something we shouldn’t have. We are humans after all. We make mistakes. But carrying that mistake to your grave is a bigger mistake.
Opening yourself up to the possibility of making mistakes and learning from the experience is a better way to deal with this kind of regret rather than beating yourself over it for years to come.
It’s not an easy thing to do but with practice, it does get easier, because the more we can allow ourselves to make mistakes and learn from them, the fewer mistakes we make.
Yet, strange as it sounds, there are people for whom this kind of regret can become a safe haven, because it can protect them from the pain and risks of living a full life.
Two out of the five regrets of the dying who confided in Bronnie Ware fell in this category.
Something you want to do all your life and didn’t do it.
The number one regret of the dying that they admitted to Bronnie Ware was:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
It is not unusual for people to keep living the life that others expected from them rather than gather enough courage to live the life they want to live.
Unlived life also becomes that cause of unfulfillment, anxiety, self-loathing. Many people seeking therapy because they feel paralyzed by regret and yet unable to live a full life. We hate our work, our relationship suffers and our self-confidence suffers too. ‘I’m so terrible. I’m dreadful.’ It is self-flagellation, and it can be incredibly damaging to our mental health.
When we are trapped in a cycle of dissatisfaction and inability to live the life we truly want to live, we blame others for our fulfillment. This when the regret becomes toxic.
The grass is greener on the other side.
There is a tendency with regret to see the pathway you didn’t take as inevitably better than the pathway you did.
It may well be that this other pathway would indeed have worked out better but the point is that we cannot know for sure.
It is that certainty, that transformation into the knowledge of what can only ever really be a supposition, that is the hallmark of toxic regret.
It is the ability to accept yourself, to recognize that there was a wider context to your actions and to understand that you made the decisions you made based on the values and the information you had at the time, that leads to remorse and self-knowledge.
What regrets do you have?
Are you living the life you wanted to live or the others prescribed for you?
Are you spending enough time with your loved ones?
Do you have plenty of time to enjoy life or you are always rushed?
Are you in contact with your friends and loved ones?
Do you express your feelings?
Do you allow yourself to be happy?
Are you keeping up with the Johns or do you have the courage to walk your own walk?
Is there any space for creativity or your life?
Two years ago my biggest regret was that I was not able to spend much time writing.
I tackled it head-on. I took early retirement and started concentrating on writing. Now I am a full-time writer.
Here are a few things you can do to tackle your regrets.
Whether your regrets are large — like choosing to turn down a job or not trying hard enough for a medical school entrance exam or unkind things you said to someone, letting go of regret is beneficial.
Here are a few things you can do to create a little space between you and your regrets:
Make a list of your regrets and try to understand the rationale behind your choice.
It might seem counterintuitive, but if you find yourself thinking about your regrets it can help to write about them. Did you really make the wrong choice? Can it be corrected? If yes, what measures can you take to correct it. If not, what can you do to let it go. What lesson you can learn from it so that you don’t make the same mistake.
If you have done something wrong and you have realized, and feel remorse it is time to forgive yourself. If you have fallen short of your expectation, it too is the time to forgive yourself. There’s no magic solution to make you feel okay immediately with whatever you regret, but by processing and forgiving yourself you can begin to let go.
It is not the mistake that counts, it is the lesson it teaches you.
This is just another way of gaining context and perspective because hanging on to mistakes means you are not paying attention to the lesson it carries. And you are not moving ahead. Even if you have made the wrong choice repeatedly, it is time you learn the lesson because now the stakes are even higher. It is time to change the course.
If your regret involves other people, it is time to forget and forgive them as well. If appropriate apologize and make amends. Sometimes it is just a matter of reaching out.
If you suspect that someone will genuinely benefit from your delayed apology, it is better to reach out, rather than regret it at your death bed.
View regret as an opportunity to do things differently next time, rather than a signal that you should give up trying altogether.
If you have caused hurt or harm, instead of beating yourself up, do what you can to repair the damage.
Tackle your regret head-on while there is still time.
Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to “get it wrong.” Forgive yourself and others. Life is too short to keep grudges.
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