When we are faced with challenging situations, distressing feelings, emotions and even pain and fatigue it is important to continue living a life which is as close to our values as possible. This can allow us to gain meaning, achievement and enjoyment from life despite these obstacles.
Values can be imagined as a direction, not a goal; for example, a marriage is a value or a direction but a wedding is simply a goal. Values are ongoing guides for life which do not disappear once we have achieved a goal.
To discover your value, first pick an action, that you can do (such as raise a family). When doing it, ask yourself, how do you want to do it?, what qualities or strengths do you want to display during it?; these are qualities that would apply even if you were paralysed, or changed your action. Examples of values can be generosity, hard work, fun etc.
Remember that values don’t need justification because they are universal and your choice.
To help us understand the idea of values, imagine two children in the back of the car on their way to Disneyland.
Kid One: are we there yet?
The Other Kid: takes his time to begin noticing, exploring, learning about the world outside the car
The other kid is living alongside his values, because despite the wait for the exciting goal of Disneyland, he is able to be in the moment and apply his values to the journey on the way to the goal.
When you’re trying to identify your values but a difficult situation (X) keeps distracting you or getting in the way:
- Notice your thoughts, then feelings and sensations
- Try to open up around each of them, breathe, think about the things around that thought, feeling or sensation
- Tune in to what X (for example, cancer) means to you (for example it means I can’t look after my kids)
- What sort of role (for example, mother) do you want to be playing in life?
- What does a good role (mother) look like? (For example, caring, fun)
- So if you were being a good role (mother) what would you be doing with regards to X? (For example, using my waking hours to talk with my kids)
- So if you were not being pushed around by your negative thoughts and attached to those emotions, what would you be doing with regards to X? (For example, spending less time thinking about cancer and more time with my kids)
- Can you make room for the bad thoughts and feelings to do the kind of things that it takes to be the good (role)?
With values, take it slow and really dig beyond them. Also check that it’s your values not society’s values, so ask, “if I waved a magic wand and everyone approved of everything I did no matter what, what would I choose to do?”
However it is worth mentioning that values are best held lightly, because at times we need to sacrifice one value in order to service another. Values need to be prioritised because if one value is, for example, ‘caring for others’, but our parents are abusive to us, then we have to prioritise a different value of ‘self protection’. It’s like holding a dice; the values are different sides of the dice and we can’t always see them all, but as life changes, so we realise different values and bring different values to the forefront.
Committed Action / Do What It Takes
After we have uncovered our values we need to translate values into activities which are flexible enough to allow for our own difficulties.
- Choose a domain to change
- Choose values
- Develop goals guided by values
- Take action mindfully
Step 1: Domain (choose 1):
- Personal growth
Step 2: Complete this sentence: Values underlying my goals in this domain are:
Step 3: Create SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timebased) goals:
- Immediate (24 hours)
- Short term (next few days and weeks)
- Medium term (next few weeks and months)
- Long term (next few months and years)
- Public commitment – tell someone you’ll do it
- Ask yourself: What’s the tiniest step you can make towards that goal in the next 24 hours?
What if though, after trying these actions that we discover that they are unrealistic goals? If we are upset that we are not able to reach a goal, then remind ourselves that when we notice a gap between reality and our desire, it is of course pain that follows. But we have an option of following the pain and inaction or making room around the pain for action. Ask ourselves:
- In the next 24 hours is this possible?
- So what can we do in the next 24 hours that means we can live by these values on our way to our longer term goal?
Reason for inaction
Our mind always gives us reasons not to do things and waiting for it to decide that we can do something is fruitless. We decide not to do things because:
- F: Fusion to Negative thoughts
- E: excessive goals where resources are not sufficient
- A: avoidance of discomfort
- R: remoteness from values
Solution to inaction:
- D: Defusion
- A: Acceptance
- R: Realistic
- E: Embracing values
Remember that we can take action even though our mind tells us not to.
Imagine that the person you most love in the world has been kidnapped. If you do what you’ve said you’ll do they’ll be set free. Would you do it even though your mind is telling you not to? Of course you would.
So your rich and meaningful life has been kidnapped, it has happened over time, you haven’t realised it, you missed the ransom note, you’ll never get to see this life again unless you take action. Are you going to do it?
When stuck for motivation:
Ask yourself, where are you on a scale of 1-10 in terms of leading a rich and fulfilling life? If it’s low, then ask yourself what’s getting in the way of that? Then problem solve how to overcome that barrier. If high, then maybe it’s time to stop using this therapy.
Edinburgh Bike Metaphor
If you discover that you actually like your unhelpful behaviours which might be getting in the way of living your values or reaching your goals then think about how you might get to Edinburgh if you were riding a rickety bike. Yes, you’d get there but what state would you be in when you get there?
www.happii.uk is a website providing information about mental health and wellbeing. Happii.uk is provided by Anna Batho, a therapist working in High Wycombe and providing therapy in Amersham and the wider Buckinghamshire (Bucks) region.You can contact her here.