Deathbed regrets: examine your fears to avoid them

How the ‘deathbed regrets’ taught me to examine my fears and change my routines

Not long after my mother had passed away I came across an article about a book written by a palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, who had drawn up a top-5 of ‘deathbed regrets’. She had had many conversations with people in their last days about what they wished they would have done differently in life. She wrote a blogpost and later a book about it.

The top-5 deathbed regrets she listed are:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me;
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard;
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings;
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends;
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Detail of the tomb of Carel Hieronymus van In- en Kniphuisen and his spouse Anna van Ewsum (Midwolde, Netherlands)

Some have critised this top-5 as misguided advise, because someone facing death and having little left to lose doesn’t have to make the hard choices someone needs to make in the heat of life. Although personal perspectives do change from early life to midlife to end of life, I think that that criticism ignores one important fact. Many people lead their life guided by thoughts and fears that prevent them from leading the life they actually want. I know, because I found out that I was one of them. How does that work?

How emotions develop in early life

Some of the most fundamental emotions that humans regularly experience are fear and anxiety, which can express themselves in many forms. According to psychologist Erik Erikson, these fears and anxieties take different forms when we are very young (0-4 years old) and further develop as we move forward in life. Some typical forms are anxiety related to:

  • Guilt: (a fear of) negative regard because we break a rule;
  • Shame: (a fear of) negative regard because we don’t live up to expectations (our own or those of others).

Erikson’s point is that our childhood experiences determine how we deal with emotions like guilt and shame in later life. You can find more details about Erikson’s theory here. Let’s see how they might play a role related to these five regrets.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

Living up to expectations in spite of your own wishes is often closely associated with avoiding guilt out of fear of breaking social norms or avoiding shame for not living up to expectations.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard

In many cultures working hard is considered a virtue: something we are expected to strive for. As such it sets an expectation. Therefore, you may be inclined to avoid shame over prioritising your own life ambitions over work, or perhaps avoid shame for supposedly not being able to cope with the job’s ‘responsibilities’, i.e. expectations that can easily be inflated in our minds.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings

Again, in many cultures ‘staying rational’, ‘staying focussed on the facts’, being sober minded, being ‘level-headed’ or ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ is considered a virtue. Within these cultures these expectations are often more applied to men than to women. For example, men in particular are expected not to cry. A woman crying or getting angry may be ridiculed as being ‘sentimental’ or ‘hysterical’. Therefore, not expressing your feelings even though you do experience them, may be related to avoiding shame over not being able to cope with your emotions, hence not living up to expectations.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends

Not staying in touch with friends may happen for many different reasons not necessarily linked to anxiety. In the anxiety spectre it could have come from prioritising ‘work’ over ‘life’ ambitions, similar to the second point above related to ‘working hard’.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier

Why would you not be allowed to be happy? Again this may occur out of avoiding guilt for perhaps breaking a norm that puts ‘duty before pleasure’. Others may be trying to avoid shame, because they might think that having fun ‘proves’ they are inadequate to reliably execute their duty. In some cultures there is a belief that you can only be or become happy after suffering for it.

There may be many other explanations for why people end up experiencing regret. Regret is an emotion in its own right when we experience reality to be different from what we think it should have looked like AND we think we largely created that reality by our own actions.

So what do we learn from all this?

A view to greener pastures (The Begwns, Wales)
Fears and anxieties shape our behaviour more than anything else

First of all, it made me realise how our fears and anxieties, more than anything else, shape our behaviour. In principle there is nothing wrong in itself with feeling anxiety, guilt or shame. These emotions point to a potential conflict between your actual situation and the preferred situation that personal security/safety, social norms or your personal ideals dictate respectively. So they have a purpose to help us navigate through life.

Fear can hold us hostage

But, and that’s my second learning, if we allow them to run our lives unchecked, that is without examining critically what it is they prevent us from coming into conflict with, they may prevent us from achieving what we really want and feel good about it in the process. That’s what Bonnie Ware’s list prompted with me: a critical examination of my fears, doing a reality check and trying to reflect on what is really important to me.

Your routines are your life, fears nudge your routines

The third lesson I take from this is that our fears pop-up in very simple everyday situations that don’t immediately lead to the big regrets discussed above. Rather they nudge our routines in subtle ways, that may compound into regrettable long term results. For example, you may want to spend more time with your partner or family, but somehow you always end up leaving work late. Why is that? Probably because you have a few fear-driven assumptions in your head that ultimately always make you prioritise work over ‘life’. For example, you may fear that leaving work early (i.e. on time) may be judged badly by your manager or your colleagues, leading to guilt or shame. Or you might fear that you will never finish your work if you don’t work late – as if you’ll ever finish working. These kind of fears may be entirely justified, but sometimes they’re unreasonable. The question is: are you satisfied with how your routines and fears are shaping your life now and in the future? Or could you approach these dilemmas in a different way?

Fear and anxiety can nudge your routines, making your life look much different to what you wanted. (Pancake rocks, New Zealand)
Examine yourself

I was surprised to find out how many of my routines were nudged into a certain direction because of little and big fears and anxieties. The impact on my life on a whole has been significant. There are a few tools and techniques available to examine your fears and anxieties for yourself. If you want to learn more about those drop me a line privately here.

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

Robin Sharma
Ndogo lagoon seen from the Vera Plains (Gabon)

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2 thoughts on “Deathbed regrets: examine your fears to avoid them”

  1. It is also true that “life can only be understood backward and must be lived forward”. Many times it is being by being stuck experiencing a plateau in our development that we integrate what we have learnt and touch, even if briefly, what we need to examine and experience moving forward. It can be a time of confusion with very mixed feelings and the meaning of it can only be appreciated retrospectively when one has moved on.

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