A recent article listed the top 5 regrets of people who were in the last stages of a terminal illness. These regrets had nothing to do with unfulfilled bucket lists but rather reflected regret that the truly important things in life had been usurped by the more urgent and the more comfortable. Their deep reflections on their regrets came at the end of their lives when it was too late; however, they leave us their wisdom so we won’t make the same mistake.
And as I read this list I realized two things. One, I could have some of the same regrets should my life end today and second, each of these regrets if allowed the light of day would have resulted in healthy stress (growth, energy, momentum) rather than dis-stress.
The first regret was Not Being True to Myself. Being authentic can be difficult particularly if you are a person who doesn’t like to rock the boat or call attention to yourself. And for others circumstances seem to make being true yourself almost impossible. Mothers and fathers will often tell me that they can’t just ignore the needs of their children or their work for that matter because what they do in these roles is key to their lives. And underlying their protests is guilt. How can they be true to themselves when others depend on them?
So stress builds and for many the feeling of losing oneself in service to others grows as well.
I know because I have been there. And what I have learned about remaining authentic and true to myself is this. I don’t have to lose myself just because I have responsibilities. It wasn’t an easy lesson and it took hard work to change to a more authentic life but it was so worth it.
Here are three things I have learned…and am still learning…to do:
1. Stop when my body says stop. If I am going to be true to myself, I have to respect the vehicle that supports and carries me. When my body is tired or hungry, my stress level increases. If I ignore these signs, then I am of no use to anyone especially myself.
2. Stop saying Yes when I mean No. The fear of disappointing others or being seen as less than committed to a project or relationship often leads me to say yes when I really want to say no. And a “maybe” is as good as a yes in many situations. I had to learn that saying no to something also meant saying yes to something else. And that something else was often myself and the things that truly excited me. There are ways to say no that are gracious and well received. This can be a growing edge but the result lowers the stress of doing things you don’t want to do.
3. Stop taking on responsibility for someone’s emotional state. And this is connected to number 2. I have no control over how someone will react to me or my words. I only have control over my own reactions and responses, which, if I am honest, take enough of my time and energy. Adding another human being’s complex psychological make up to my plate is a recipe for a main course of stress. I have a mantra that I repeat when I get caught here…”it is not my job to manage their emotions.”
If I arrive at my deathbed exhausted from being overly responsible for things other people could have done and carrying the burden of trying manage emotions other than my own, it will be a clear choice on my part. However, because I have the gift of the words of the dying and because I can take the time to reflect and refocus my life, I can also choose to arrive on that day having been true to myself. After all, life is a terminal disease and none of us gets out alive. However, we do have a choice as to what regrets we will leave behind.
Here’s to authenticity!