Why is it so hard to make choices to change our lives—even changes we know are good ones? Why do we stay in bad relationships, hang onto bad eating habits, or stay at jobs where our energy is being sucked out from under us? Why do we keep saying “yes” to too many things, taking care of others at the expense of ourselves?
Why are we still putting off that business idea, or that book idea we’ve been harboring for years, or ignoring that nagging feeling?
Why don’t we pick up the phone and say hello, call that friend and apologize, text that family member to say we love them, finally share our opinion in a group of friends, or stand up for ourselves to that bully at work?
If you ask me it’s because life, if we’re going to live without regret, takes a huge dose of courage.
A life of love, not of fear.
A few years ago my husband and I were trying to make a big decision. The place we had been living and working for the past year wasn’t working for us anymore and we were seriously thinking about leaving. But as with anytime you’re about to make a major turn in your life, we were worried about taking the leap.
What would people think of the choice we were about to make? Would we disappoint people?
And mostly: was this the “right” decision?
Looking back, it’s hard to explain why we were so scared to pivot. I could list all the reasons to you, but they wouldn’t make sense. Fear is powerful but it isn’t logical. The fear doesn’t even make sense to us looking back. What I can explain is the deep, guttural feeling we had like we were supposed to leap.
We knew exactly what we were supposed to do. We were just terrified to do it.
We asked dozens of people for their advice and the responses we got back were mixed. Then we talked to a friend who finally had the guts to say to us what no one else would. He said: you can ignore that gut feeling gnawing inside you, but if you do, you’ll cut yourself from your very life force.
Your spiritual insight and energy, your creativity, and your joy will dissipate. You’ll die a slow painful, spiritual death.
Right as all of this was happening, my dad suffered a massive heart attack.
In fact, heart “attack” doesn’t really do justice to what happened. It was more like a massive heart failure. In an instant, his heart just stopped beating. They revived him six times before he even made it to the hospital and the doctors called my mom and told her to get the whole family there.
We all came to grips with the fact that he might not make it.
Wondering if my dad would survive long enough for me to even say goodbye brought up all kinds of feelings of regret for me. Should I have been more available? Should I have called more often? Should I have worked less? Should I have said, “I love you” more?
It also lit a fire under me. Life was so short and could not be wasted with frivolous fears and worries. The only thing that mattered was love: radical love for myself and those around me, love of life and all the gifts it brings. It was time to live without regret.
Miraculously, my dad survived.
And once we were all sure he was going to be okay, I asked him to tell me what it was like—nearly dying. He said something to me I’ll never forget. He said: you know, I’m sure it was so scary for you guys to have my life hanging in the balance, but it really wasn’t scary for me at all. I didn’t feel any fear. All I felt, he said, was total surrender.
In the moments when the ambulance crew was trying to revive him, when the whole family was scrambling to get to the where he was, when the doctors and nurses were struggling to keep him alive, while we were all terrified and distressed… he wasn’t distressed at all.
“It was so peaceful, nearly dying.” he said. “It’s living that’s the hard part.”
We all laughed because we knew what he meant. Now that he had the gift of life again, it was time to get on with all those dreams he had been deferring, all the ideas he’d been putting off, all the places he wanted to go and things he wanted to say… now was the time.
Life, if we’re going to live without regret, takes a huge freaking dose of courage.
And at the same time, maybe there was something he could learn about living from nearly dying. Maybe there is something we can all learn. Part of living with courage is learning to surrender to the flow of life, to let go of our ideas about how things are “supposed” to go and to embrace what comes.
Perhaps our version of “the perfect life” isn’t so perfect after all.
My 23-year-old sister in law was recently diagnosed with cancer.
And let me tell you, watching her receive her diagnoses, go through treatment, encounter obstacles with courage and conviction and keep a positive attitude the whole way has been both heart-wrenching and also beautiful. Heart-wrenching because of the pain she’s enduring and beautiful because, well, talk about freaking changing how you thought things were going to go.
A year ago, she and her husband (my husband’s brother) decided to make a move of their own, not so different from the move my husband and I made all those years ago. Their intuition was ramping up and telling them to go, so they did it.
They quit jobs and said goodbyes and packed their things.
They came to Nashville. They got a great deal on a house that needed some love, so they started gutting it for a total remodel. They knew this wasn’t going to be the most comfortable year of their life, and there was a lot of risk involved in this decision, but they did it, with courage and grace and conviction and beauty and no regrets.
That’s when the diagnosis came in.
I’ll be honest, if I were her, it would be so easy to throw my hands up in the air and say, “forget it! I give up! Life is out to get me. There is no way to win.” And yet she doesn’t seem to feel that way at all. Instead she told me: sometimes the suffering, more than the healing, is the greatest catalyst for our transformation.
Talk about courage and surrender to the way we thought things “should” be. Talk about the very embodiment of how we are so much stronger than we think.
Watching her journey has been yet another a wake-up call for me in my life—to stop worrying and being afraid of “bad” things that might happen to me and start paying attention to how powerful I am to face any number of obstacles that may come into my life. I say to myself, over and over again, “every experience in my life is an opportunity to learn.”
There are no guarantees in life. You have today.
What are you going to do with it?
Too many of us are tiptoeing around our own lives, trying not to piss too many people off or make too many waves. And I wonder if, when we get to the end of our lives—no matter when that happens—if that will be the very thing we regret most. I wonder how many of us will say, “I wish I would have spoken up sooner. I wish I would have made that move. I wish I would have… I wish I would have…”
And how few of us will say, “Wow, I really regret speaking up for myself or doing what was right for me or loving people radically and completely, or loving myself…”
What are we so afraid of?
I want to linger on this question for a minute because I think a lot of people ask it rhetorically but very few of us actually answer it. Obviously we’re afraid of something or we wouldn’t hesitate when it comes to taking steps toward things that matter to us.
- What keeps us from saying, “I don’t like how I felt when you said that…”
- What keeps us from quitting the job that no longer suits us?
- What keeps us from adopting that baby we’ve been dying to adopt?
- What keeps us from leaving that abusive relationship?
The answer, if you ask me, is this: we don’t trust ourselves enough.
We don’t trust our intuition to lead us in the direction we are designed to go.
When intuition speaks, when that internal engine starts to rev itself inside of us, we feel that gut-check or red flag that something should be different, when we get the sense it’s time move or time to change or time to speak up, we don’t act because we don’t trust ourselves. And we don’t trust ourselves because we break promises to ourselves every day.
Every time you say you’re going to do something and then do something different; each time you act outside of your conviction; every time you take care of other people at the expense of yourself; each time you say “yes” when you mean “no”; all those times you’ve let resentment build and strangle you, you’re chipping away at the trust you feel for yourself.
We are terrible friends to ourselves, terrible protectors of our own hearts. We’ve broken promises to ourselves again and again and again.
No wonder we don’t trust ourselves.
And I can hardly imagine how things might change if we realized how powerful we truly are. If we knew how the love and grace we desire to feel for ourselves has been with us all along, how the resources we need are at our fingertips, how every experience that comes across our path can be for our good if we will accept it.
I wonder what would change if we knew how much agency we have been given to overcome even the most challenging obstacles. Maybe we could trust ourselves more.
Maybe we would take that step of faith we’ve been dying to take.
Maybe we would stop worrying about regretting it.
Regret is just a feeling.
At the end of the day, regret is just a feeling. You’ll meet some people who will say, “I don’t believe in regret” or “regret is a waste of time and energy” but for one reason or another, this advice has always bothered me. Feelings of regret are something we all deal with and I’m not a big fan of denying feelings.
Also, regret can be a positive force in our lives if we let it.
First, let’s take some of the power out of the word by defining it. Regret is simply this: wishing you would have done things differently.
You will get to the end of your life and wish you had done things differently. That is a given. You might say, “I did everything I could with what I had, but with what I know now, this is what I would have done differently. I can have love and grace for myself, but if I had it to do again, here’s how I would have done that.”
We don’t have to fear regret or resist it or deny it.
But there are some things we need to know about regret.
- Regret is a tool, not a weapon. Think about this: a hammer is really effective for pounding nails into the wall but it is not meant for pounding your finger. Should we say, “hammers are dangerous and no one should ever be allowed to use them!” No. We just need to know what hammers are used for and exercise caution with them. The same is true with regret.
- Don’t allow yourself to ruminate. Thinking about situations you regret once or twice and saying, “wow, I wish I would have handled that differently” can be effective in curbing future behavior and avoiding additional regret. But obsessing over past mistakes again and again and again will keep you stuck. Learn to trust yourself and trust your process. We all make mistakes and are a work in progress.
- If you can correct course, do so. If you can’t, let go. There are some things we regret that we simply cannot change. If you’re a parent who wasn’t there for your kids, who are now grown, you can’t go back. What you have is now. And in order to live in the “now” you must let go of the past. If you feel regret and can use it (as a tool, not a weapon) to correct course, great. Apologize. Adjust. Change. Otherwise, forgive yourself and everyone else for not being perfect and choose to move forward with grace.
A few months ago I met a girl who was about to make a big decision.
She told me all about the positives and negatives and everything that was holding her back. She used words I would have used so many years ago when I was trying to make a choice for our next right step. I could hear the fear in her voice and I felt like this was a window, looking into the past of my very own life.
And what I told that girl—who was really me, if I could admit it—was this:
You are so deeply loved and more powerful than you can possibly imagine. You are protected in this world and so completely safe. Everything you feel you lack, you have access to in abundance. You can trust yourself. You will learn along the way, and that’s a blessing not a curse. It’s okay to be imperfect.
The world is opening it’s arms wide to you. There is no way you can mess this up. You are brave and beautiful and a work of art.
I just wish I could gift you the courage to see it.