When author Bronnie Ware published The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, the inspiring book based on her years as a nurse, the world had quite a reaction. So many of us who get caught up in the go-go-go of daily life screeched to a halt to read about what would really matter when we looked back. What we learned is that people thinking retrospectively about their lives regret working too much and expressing their feelings too little. They wish they'd have let themselves be happier. They're sorry they lost touch with meaningful friends and that they put the expectations of others above their own values.
Ware broke down the countless sentiments she heard from patients over many years into five chief regrets; however, all the statements echoed a single, central theme: Stay true to what matters most; stay true to yourself. So what can we do to ensure that we lead a life that is uniquely meaningful to us? How can we uncover our truest selves? What strategies can we use to identify and challenge the obstacles (both external and internal) that keep us from pursuing, not just our wildest dreams, but our basic values as individuals? Here are three essential steps to living your own life:
Step 1: Think About What you Really Want
For most of us, just knowing who we are is, in itself, a challenge. According to research from the Center for Disease Control, about 40 percent of Americans haven't determined a sense of purpose in their lives. It's easy to, say, live life on your own terms, but if you haven't figured out the terms, you may feel like you're drifting through your own existence. When you don't know what you want, you're navigating life like a ship without a rudder. Figuring out your principles can help you stay on course no matter what life throws at you. If you want to live a meaningful life, you should start by asking yourself the question, what really lights me up? What matters to me? Your family, your community and society in general will have plenty to say about what you should be doing, but, ultimately, only you can answer this question. You're in control of your destiny.
Thinking about what you want is not a selfish act, but it is a fundamental part of knowing yourself. Asking yourself what your principles are doesn't mean casting everyone else aside. In fact, it often means just the opposite. Deciding what matters to you involves recognizing the people who matter to you, determining that they are a priority in your life and that caring for them is part of what makes you happy.
When you live a life that you cherish, everything around you holds more meaning. You are likely to be kinder, more considerate and more understanding of other people and their paths in life. When you are the most fulfilled yourself, you can be the most giving of yourself. A 2002 study showed that happy people are more likely to have "fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health, and a long life." The study further indicated that positive emotions are often linked to characteristics like "sociability, optimism, energy, originality, and altruism." You have the most value in the world around you, when you find and invest in the gifts that you uniquely have to offer.
So, ask yourself what lights you up. If you like certain friends or feel good around a group of people, do you make them a priority? If you love a particular activity, how much time do you actually award it? And if you aren't sure what you're passionate about, try a bunch of things. Don't assume you know everything about yourself or put yourself in a box, because you could be missing out. I know this is true from personal experience; years ago, I had a fear of teaching and believed to my core that I would be bad at it. I was invited to teach a college course and quickly learned that I couldn't have been more wrong. I love to teach, and it has been a huge, deeply fulfilling part of my life since. Taking this kind of step will support and strengthen your real self.
Step 2: Set Specific Goals
Often people focus on their goals in negative terms. Instead of, "I want to look my best, so I'm going to eat healthy" they tell themselves "You're so fat. You should starve yourself this week." A better approach is to write down your main values and the behaviors that you would manifest that are in line with these beliefs. Try to keep the list to a few, so you can really focus. Then, think about specific actions you can take to move closer to your goals. Set smaller waypoints that you will accomplish along the way. This way, it will be easier to keep yourself accountable and track your progress.
A recent study showed that people who wrote down their goals, formulated actions to achieve those goals and sent weekly progress reports to a friend accomplished significantly more than those who merely set a goal. This study concluded that three coaching tools (accountability, commitment and writing down one's goals) were extremely effective in helping people succeed. If you create too many goals or set impossible standards, you're more likely to get overwhelmed. You may wind up feeling scattered and anxious as opposed to organized and on-track. Taking this step will help keep you on your own side.
Step 3: Ignore Your Inner Critic
When you start taking actions toward your goals, be wary of the roadblocks that will inevitably arise. The first enemy you'll encounter is your "critical inner voice." The critical inner voice is like a coach in your head that attempts to keep you feeling "safe" by maintaining your defensive adaptations to life and reinforcing the familiar old identity you grew up with. It may put you down and undermine your desires with thoughts like, "You don't really want that, do you?" "You have never gone after it before," "You probably aren't even capable of that." It will warn you about taking chances and trying this new approach to life: "If you go for what you want, you are setting yourself up for failure, and it will be so humiliating if you fail."
The critical inner voice is the language of the anti-self, the part of a person that is against his or her own self-interest. It is made up of a destructive point of view that was incorporated early in life. The anti-self is self-critical and cynical towards others, self-hating and paranoid and suspicious of others, and, at its ultimate end self-destructive and destructive to others. A person's real self, in contrast, is made up of their own unique wants and and desires. It is life-affirming and goal-directed.
Human brains are wired to focus on whatever seems dangerous or events that we experience as life-threatening. Unfortunately, because of this, negative events from our childhood can leave a stronger impression on us than the positive ones. A parent suddenly "losing it," for example, can look scary, even life-threatening to a small child. Because of the child's complete dependence on parents and other caretakers, their emotional impact is significant. As children, people internalized the destructive attitudes that their caretakers directed or acted out toward them during moments of stress. These attitudes, along with parent's attitudes toward themselves, which were also internalized, help formulate the inner critic.
Throughout people's lives, their moods are influenced by their critical inner voice. When you attempt to differentiate from these thoughts and live your own life based on the wants, desires and goals of your real self, the "voices" often get even louder. Have you ever noticed the anxiety that arises when you start taking steps to achieve a goal? Did critical inner thoughts get in your way, either undermining your efforts with self-doubts or luring you to procrastinate? Unfortunately, it's easy to get lost in our own mind, ruminating, but not taking action.
If you really want to go about changing your life, it is helpful to adopt a zero tolerance policy toward your inner critic. When you notice that you're starting to attack yourself, interrupt that thinking without question. Don't let yourself argue or mull it over in your mind. Just remind yourself that these are just critical inner thoughts and that it is never appropriate to have a mean, taunting or nasty attitude toward yourself. Catch on to the triggers that ignite this negative thinking. Remember, your "voices" can be subtle and pick on things that have some reality or are areas you are weak in. Be careful of thoughts that that sound friendly or seductive (e.g., "Don't bother to exercise today. You deserve a break." "Just stay at the office a little longer. Work is what you do best. You can spend time with your family some other time"). Don't be fooled by them; they are not acting in your interest!
"Overcoming Your Inner Critic" is the subject of an upcoming eCourse I'll be presenting starting this September. As you start to challenge this inner critic, you can take notice when "voices" arise, but do not give in to spending time ruminating about them or entertaining them as reality. You can say to yourself, "there I go again, attacking myself," and then let the thoughts drift by. Shift your focus to taking the actions toward your goal and monitoring your way points, persevering in your actions. Be wary of people in your social world that are toxic to your goals. Instead, choose to spend time around people who support you and who are allies in your pursuit of your goals. Above all, keep holding yourself accountable in your actions. Dare to be your own person, and the rest of the world will reap the rewards.
Join Dr. Lisa Firestone for the eCourse "Overcoming Your Inner Critic."
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org