I love doing values work with clients (especially in the Acceptance & Commitment Therapy group I lead) and it's a significant component of healing and ongoing growth, both for my clients and myself. Especially for people struggling with an eating disorder, addiction, or similar issues, often the world has gotten so small that there is simply no room to value anything beyond supporting the behaviors and trying to maintain the appearance that "everything is fine." It's exhausting. And even if there are other things that life clearly has to offer, like relationships with your spouse, children, friends, a job you used to love, etc. -- it sort of feels like none of that really exists in a meaningful way anymore.
Even for people who aren't acutely struggling with issues like these, we get so caught up in the daily grind that we're often operating on autopilot. We're not asking ourselves, "Are my actions in alignment with my values? Do I even know what those are? Did I just adopt the values of my parents, my culture, or my religion without determining what my personal values really are?" Or even if you have done values exploration work in the past, perhaps it's been quite a while and your life circumstances and priorities have changed, so you're feeling disconnected from values you previously identified.
I believe that one of the fundamental reasons people feel unhappy is that they aren't living their values. I've been there, and I guarantee you have at some point in your life, if not now. So why aren't we living by our values? The answer is different for each person, but I've summarized below some of the most important concepts and practices to keep in mind if you want to clarify your values and then bridge the gap between the values you hold and how you're living your life day-to-day.
Do some soul searching to determine what your values really are.
The first step is really determining what your values are in each major area of your life. There are different ways you can go about this; I recommend exploring this list of values (you can certainly add your own) and then completing the Valued Directions Questionnaire. Notice that on that sample list, all the values can describe qualities of actions or behavior. So, as much as I might enjoy the feeling of happiness, I wouldn't say it is a "value" because I can't do happy. (I also believe we can't just turn feelings on and off!) Rather, when I'm feeling happy, how am I being? Compassionate? Engaged?
A few examples from my own life:
In the area of my physical health, I value joyful, gentle movement and flexible nourishment. In my spirituality, I value curiosity and connecting to this part of me by slowing down. In my friendships, I value reliability, authenticity, and humor.
This step can be incredibly inspiring, because it gives you a roadmap for how you want to be living your life on a daily basis. At the same time, my clients often report feeling sad or shameful once they'e completed this step, because they see how big the gap is between their values and how they've been living. I always normalize that most of us are not always living by our values, and it's not an all-or-nothing kind of thing. Our job is to clarify our values, use them as a compass, notice when we're veering off in another direction and ask ourselves how we can take one action in the direction of that value.
And remember that values are freely chosen (not prescribed by someone else) and may shift and re-prioritize depending on the situation or changing circumstances in your life.
Recognize the difference between values and goals.
As a very goal-oriented society, we love checking things off the list (to do, to buy, to get.) But if those goals aren't in alignment with your values, you'll keep chasing the gold star but won't feel any better or more fulfilled. As the adage goes, "I worked so hard to climb the ladder, only to find the ladder leaning against the wrong wall." On the other hand, if your goals are rooted in your values, you experience a sense of meaning and purpose along the way, not just based on a positive outcome.
Goals are often not available to you in this moment (since there may be many steps in between where you are today and a goal you want to accomplish in two years), but values are always available, so they're better at motivating now, when is when we need to be motivated! As I wrote above, your values are more like a compass than a destination on a map. You can never "reach" or "complete" a value, but you can strive to move in that direction and accomplish goals as you do.
Develop goals in a way that sets you up for success.
We've all been there: you set a goal that was poorly defined, didn't achieve it, and then felt bad about yourself and decided setting goals doesn't work for you. Well of course not, if that's how you're setting goals! Don't give up on goal-setting -- just practice setting smarter goals. I like Russ Harris' adaptation of an old best-practice acronym from the business world:
S= specific (As Harris says, "Do not set a vague, fuzzy, or poorly-defined goal like, ‘I’ll be more loving’. Instead, be specific: ‘I’ll give my partner a good, long hug when I get home from work’. In other words, specify what actions you will take.") M = meaningful (Is the goal in alignment with an important value you've identified?) A = adaptive (Is this goal likely to improve your life in some way?) R = realistic (Is the goal realistic given the resources you have available? Resources could mean time, money, physical health, social support, knowledge and skills. If these resources are necessary for your goal but not available to you at this time, can you set a more realistic goal, perhaps involving obtaining the missing resources? This could look like creating a budget, networking, etc.) T = time-framed (Specify the day, date and time — as accurately as possible — that you will take the proposed actions. Especially with the immediate-term and short-term parts of your goal.)
It's also very helpful to start with the long-term goal (whether it's what you envision a year from now or ten years from now), and then work backwards to identify what the medium-term goals will be (over the next few months), the short-term goals (over the next few weeks), and the immediate-term goals -- actions you can take over the next few days.
Even if you feel like you're miles away from your goal, I believe any SMART goal can be broken down into smaller chunks that you can get started on immediately. And when you do, it feels good! Just make sure that you don't let that initial "high" of completion keep you from forging ahead with the harder parts of your goal. It will not all be sexy stuff -- in fact, a lot of it will probably be tedious and difficult. So keep looking back to the values that are guiding you toward that goal and remind yourself how you are living out those values every step of the way.
Make room for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
Moving toward your values often means taking risks, putting yourself out there, and being vulnerable to uncertain outcomes. Or you could, you know, just keep playing small and not have to mess with any of that stuff. (But don't worry, you'll still have the feelings of sadness, jealousy, and loneliness that come along with keeping yourself small.) We somehow convince ourselves that everyone we admire, people who think have "made it" or "have it all together" have gotten to where they are because they don't experience the same fears or "not good enough" gremlins that we have. We believe that if we "just had more confidence" that we, too, could do those things -- but alas, this confidence is elusive.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: NO ONE feels "good enough" 100% of the time. I let fear, comparison, and jealousy hold me down for a long, long time. I had started and abandoned numerous blogs before this one, had written songs and poems that I never shared, had gotten so jealous of women I saw who were making waves in the blogosphere or singing their hearts out onstage. I made up all kinds of reasons why I couldn't do those things... not really do them. Jealousy actually ended up being a huge motivator for me, because I was finally honest with myself that the main difference between me and these other women wasn't that they were so much more talented or confident than me, but that they were busting ass DOING THEIR THING anyway. And I decided I was going to step out of my seat in the audience and join in on the action.
If I had waited until I felt so confident in my skills and knowledge, and had no fear of failing or shame about not measuring up (especially as a newbie when I was writing for an audience of five people), I never would have started. I had to decide I was willing to feel those uncomfortable feelings if I wanted to move toward my goals of singing and blogging, which help me to live out my values in even bigger ways.
The Bottom Line
Bridging the gap between where you are and where you want to be is an ongoing journey, and one that will give you a greater sense of meaning and purpose in your life. You build the life you want by getting honest and clear on what you want to stand for, and challenging yourself to take small, daily steps toward those values and intentions. Some days, you'll celebrate big wins. Other days, you can feel good about simply putting one foot in front of the other, knowing what it is you're living and working for.