Healthy Mind

‘I’m a Psychologist, and Here’s How To Protect Yourself Against the 5 Biggest Regrets People Have at the End of Their Lives’

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/Juergen Bauer Pictures
Imagine someone who is nearing the end of a long life contemplating what they regret or wish they had done differently during their life. If you had to guess, what would you assume came to that person's mind first? Well, spoiler alert: "More hours spent in work Zoom meetings" doesn't crack the top five biggest regrets when dying that people tend to experience. Rather, according to motivational speaker Bronnie Ware's 2012 book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, most focus on authenticity, enjoyment, and community:
  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 had the courage to express my feelings."
  4. "I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends."
  5. "I wish I had let myself be happier."

A common thread? Existential issues that require massive lifestyle shifts in order to solve over time. And yet, as we age, the amount of time itself that remains for being able to implement these shifts dwindles. So, what can you do now—no matter your age or health status—to work toward living a life that will protect you from feeling these common end-of-life regrets?

"Those who are self-aware tend to move into life’s possibilities. Those who are less self-reflective often get mired in negative cycles that can lead to regret." —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist

"When we are young, the world seems vast and filled with endless possibilities; time and opportunities seem infinite," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. "However, as we age, 'what ifs' and the finite nature of life loom ever larger. Those who are self-aware tend to move into life’s possibilities throughout life. Those who are less self-reflective often tend to get mired in negative cycles that can lead to regret."

Consider it another way: If you a particular listed regret (or even several) resonates with you, start small and integrate a specific habit or mindset shift into your everyday life. Below, Dr. Manly gives tips for how, exactly, to accomplish that.

How to protect yourself against the 5 biggest regrets when dying that people experience, according to a psychologist.

1. "I wish I had the courage to be true to myself, not the life others expected of me."

If you're dealing with this regret in the present, work to squash any limiting beliefs you harbor around who you think you have to be, and why. Though there's myriad reasons why someone may stay in a certain lane, there's also always opportunity to strive towards becoming your most authentic self.

If you're bummed about not being true to yourself in the past, work on eliminating those regrets at the source. "Notice when a regret begins to form in your mind," Dr. Manly says. "This often surfaces through inner commentary, such as 'I wish I would have…' or 'I’d have been happier if….'" Then, commit to making shifts (even if tiny) toward that way of living.

2. "I wish I hadn't worked so hard."

Rectifying this regret can be tricky depending on your industry and the general demands of your role. What this can look like for most people is creating specific boundaries. Maybe it means taking paid time off, if that's an available benefit to you, or maybe it's vowing not to check your email over the weekends (and messaging that boundary to your manager). Maybe it means switching gears to a career path. Whatever makes sense for you, specifically, will depend on your interests, goals, and needs.

That said, everyone can work on committing to and not regretting the path they do take. For example, I'm a design-school dropout, and I sometimes regret many all-nighters that, in retrospect, feel like they were all for nothing. But when I find myself in these regret spirals, I work to remind myself that those all-nighters ultimately helped lead me to my current work situation, which I love. It's healthier to focus on the time spent where you are now versus the time "wasted" elsewhere.

"Focus on the blessings that did accrue as a result of the path you did take," says Dr. Manly. "For example, if a retired teacher regrets not going to medical school at age 24, it is important to focus on the life events that did occur as a result of supporting and guiding many children through teaching."

3. "I wish I had the courage to express my feelings."

"Take action to address any 'I wish I had' thought loops," say Dr. Manly. "In many cases, you can do something to address some aspect of whatever the wish or wishes might be. For example, if a client tells me, 'I wish I’d been a better parent,' I support the client in reaching out to genuinely connect with their children in the present."

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

On a similar note, pick up the phone! If you're out of contact with someone and want to reconnect, that friendship still might be salvageable. If that approach isn't available, then try to redirect your attention.

"Forgive yourself for any failure to act," says Dr. Manly. "Then channel your energy into creating positive connections with loved ones—and also increasing your circle of friends."

5. "I wish I had let myself be happier."

Happiness isn't so much a destination as a state of being, and while a lot of external factors might impact your level of happiness, it's always worthwhile to shift to a more positive mindset. Whether you achieve that by listing things you're grateful for in threesdoing little acts of kindness, or enjoying small moments of hedonism, there are certainly strategies available to change your perspective. "No matter your age, it is never too late to expand your ability to love, connect, and be true to yourself," says Dr. Manly.

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