Palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware wrote an eye-opening blog post about the five most common regrets she hears from people in the last weeks of their lives.
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
The top two regrets are unsurprising. The last three also make sense at a glance, but it is a little surprising to see them in the top 5. Of all the possible regrets people have when looking back on their lives, these come up again and again as among the most important.
The more I thought about this list, the more I realized something else interesting. Number 3 is actually at the root of all 5 regrets, especially for women. Although our society considers it more acceptable for women to express emotion, the range of acceptable emotions is limited. Most women are taught not to express anger, for example, or any feelings that could rock the boat. Even in the most liberated women, our Inner Patriarch whispers that people won’t like us or love us if we are angry or critical or even “too” direct, that our worth as women is tied into keeping the peace and caring for everyone else’s happiness—before and often instead of our own.
But why is this such a common regret among the dying? Suppressing our feelings clearly has ripple effects in our lives. In the moment, holding back seems like a minor act that avoids the discomfort of confrontation or the possibility of rejection. But the habit of holding back begins to define our relationships with others as well as defining who we are.
When we hold back our feelings, we create a dishonest foundation for all relationships. We might think we are keeping the peace, but doing this regularly has the opposite effect. Why? Because the feelings don’t go away just because we decide not to voice them. And even though we aren’t expressing them directly, we are expressing them, whether we like it or not—in our body language, our tone, our choice of words, and so forth. The other person picks up on something but can’t respond directly because we aren’t being direct.
The more we do this, the more distance we put into the relationship because the unexpressed is always there, building up. Intimacy becomes difficult, even impossible, because one or both people aren’t honest about how they feel or even who they are. Furthermore, we don’t give ourselves a chance to resolve the situations that are causing these feelings, so we set ourselves up to feel this way often and with increasing intensity. Too often, this leads to bitterness and resentment. The discomfort and rejection we seek to avoid each time we hold back becomes an almost inevitable result of holding back.
This impulse, holding back to please others, is quite clearly tied to the most common regret, living according to others’ expectations rather than our own. It is also a large part of regret #4, not staying in touch with friends. The healthier our relationships with others, the more likely we are to see their value and to prioritize them in our lives. This is especially important as we enter the time of life when we begin to lose more and more friends and family members.
But learning to express our feelings is also key to avoiding regrets #2 and #5 because it affects who we are in profound ways. After all, if we don’t have the courage to be honest about our emotions, how likely are we to have the courage to take chances on our dreams, to make necessary changes in our lives for our own happiness, including being honest (with ourselves, our colleagues, our bosses) about our work? The habit of holding back our feelings becomes a habit of holding back. Period.
One caveat, of course, is to recognize that you don’t need to express how you feel about every little thing to every single person you encounter. The closer your relationship with someone (or the closer you want to be), the more you should share with that person. Even then, learning to prioritize what’s important to express and what isn’t, an ability I call discernment, is essential to being honest without being cruel or self-centered.
Telling the truth, even the brutal truth when necessary, is a characteristic all visionaries share (See “We Are the Truth Tellers”> and “Barriers to Truth Telling”). You can’t make a difference in the world, much less in your own life and work, if you don’t have the courage to see it—and tell it—like it is. No regrets.
Image credit: Photograph by Dar’ya Sipyeykina