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

Mar 19, 2019

I mentioned this last month: the top regret of people interviewed by nurse Bronnie Ware in her book The Five Top Regrets of the Dying. Well, let’s learn from this and apply it right now, while we’re alive and well. The words sound easy, but the application of them, once we start to unpack the ideas, is incredibly difficult.

And we can misunderstand them, too. One of the commonest misconceptions is that it’s selfish not to fulfill others’ expectations of me. We can spend our lives being nice, kind people, helping others, being a good mother, a good partner, a good friend, but so often this behaviour, which is good in itself, is propelled by the fear of upsetting others, our need to be seen as a nice person.

Buddhist psychology refers to this as ‘attachment to reputation’. It’s probably more powerful than attachment to security, food, power, money, sex and the rest. It’s so pervasive, we rarely notice it. It underlies most of our actions. It’s almost as if we have no other way to define ourselves except in terms of how we’re seen by others.

Look at how we feel when someone doesn’t approve of us, even a person we don’t especially care about. It’s unbearable! It’s logically true that we are who we are within ourselves, not what people think, but it’s so hard to have the courage to believe it.

And this is just the small stuff. Look at how hard it is when it comes to making the big decisions: leaving your husband, changing jobs, finishing an old friendship that isn’t productive – we’re terrified to even go there! Because we’re worried about what people think. 

The first step in the process is to ask myself, ‘What do I want?’ Really ask it, and really look inside for the answers. Mostly we’re scared to even ask the question because already we’re thinking, ‘No, that’s not possible. I can’t do that, I shouldn’t do that.’ It needs great courage and self-respect to even go there. But we have no choice: if I don’t know what I really want, who does? I have to be the boss of my own life.

But how to know that what I want is the right thing? I remember one time the Dalai Lama said that we should always aspire to do what is most beneficial, and if we can, better to think of the long term rather than short term.

In other words, we need to get our motivation right: our reason for doing things is what counts, not always the thing itself. 

For example, someone might give a gift but mainly because of the craving for approval. Another person, let’s say, might leave her kids for a week to do some training in her job but with the motivation to improve her skills so that she can better take care of her family. The first person helped someone but didn’t help herself at all. The second not only helped others in the long term but grew herself as well. 

A bird needs two wings, remember: wisdom and compassion.

Of course, it’s hard to make the tough choices. So much disruption and pain involved in leaving that partner, let’s say. But the long term suffering of fear and hopelessness and depression and resentment are far, far worse.

We really do need to be brave. ‘What do I want?’ ‘What is the right thing to do?’ Once we can ask those questions, the rest will follow. The more we look inside, the more we aspire to do what is most beneficial, the more courage we’ll have to make the right choices. So much pleasure and fulfillment comes from that!


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