When I think about who I want to be in the world, I have a pretty clear sense of what that looks like. I want to be helpful to those around me. I want to stand for something that is important not just to me, but to many people. I want to be a good father, husband, child and friend. I want to make others feel loved and cared for, and foster a space where I can feel loved and cared for. And I want to be that person all of the time.
Each of those statements constitute my values, those concepts that I hold dearest and that I am in a never-ending pursuit of (values can’t be achieved, rather they are something that we always have to be working towards). And if I could live them all the time, I would feel like the most successful and wonderful person in the world! Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, many of us fail to do what is necessary to keep ourselves on the path towards our own values.
Sometimes, we act in ways that are not all that consistent with our values. There have been many mornings when getting my kids ready for school where there’s pressure to get out of the house where I have not been as loving and patient with my children as I would like to be. Or when I’m stressed and overwhelmed, so I snap at a co-worker or my wife. Or maybe I am just too tired or not willing to fight for a cause that I care about one day. Any of these actions can move me away from my own values, from the person who I would like to be in the world.
And when that happens, when I do stray from the values path, all kinds of things get kicked up inside of me. It usually begins with a pit in my stomach; a heavy empty feeling that just lingers, and sometimes grows into my chest and swirls in my head. Then my brain kicks in and all kinds of stories begin to show up.
“You know, you really aren’t patient, and your kids are gonna remember this forever.”
“Your co-workers are all probably gonna hate you now and in fact, they probably always have.” .
“You’re too lazy to be someone who cares about things.”
These stories are never helpful, they just toss a little gasoline on the fire of self-loathing that can accompany moments like this. And then there are a whole other subset of stories that encourage those non-values-based behaviors. The ones that say that “you had to yell at them otherwise they would never listen!” Or the “it’s ok to be snippy at work, I’ve seen XX do it all the time!” These stories are the ones that push us towards behaviors and actions that feel easier in the moment, that relieve us from holding ourselves to a standard at all.
When I go with these stories, when I believe them to be the true indicator of where I’m “supposed” to be, I find myself moving further and further away from the person I want to be, and in doing so, I find that pit of emptiness grows. When we are living a life that doesn’t connect with the person we want to be, it’s as if we are rudderless in the sea of life. We don’t control where we are going, which is a scary proposition.
So, how do we move forward when we have strayed from our own values? This is the million dollar question in life, as it can be applied to so many things. Big concepts, like how you interact with your family, friends, and loved ones, and smaller behaviors, like how to eat better or exercise more. When you are not engaging in behaviors that move you towards those values that you hold, how do you bring yourself back?
Start with Awareness
Moving away from your values is a bit like a boat slowly drifting away from the dock. It might feel like one moment the boat was right up at the dock and the next moment it was waaaaaay out to sea, but in fact it slowly drifted away with the tide. The sooner you can notice that drift, the sooner you can try and re-tie those knots and secure the ropes that hold you to your values.
In order to notice drift, you have to be aware that drift happens! And you have to be looking at yourself for signs of drift. Maybe before you yell at your kids, you can notice that you’re coming into the morning feeling grouchy or tired or stressed. Maybe you have recently been fighting with your wife, or you’ve got big deadlines looming. Any of these can cause you to feel less capable of engaging with a difficult situation with all of your capacities and skills, and are signs that you’re drifting out to sea. You may not have even began to yell, but you’re possibly on your way.
One way to increase your awareness muscles is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is active and purposeful awareness of the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Practicing mindfulness regularly, whether by using an app such as Headspace or Calm, or finding your own practice (there are no shortage of podcasts and books dedicated to mindfulness practice these days!) can help you become more aware of behaviors/thoughts/feelings that are signs of your personal drift.
Practice Coping Skills
Once you’re aware that you’re drifting (or have already drifted and are way out at sea), coming back can feel overwhelming and difficult. When your brain has already kicked in and the stories about how terrible you are and how you might as well give in to your new non-valued life are swirling, shift course can feel like a herculean task. Coping skills can help bring you back down to solid ground and help you feel more capable of taking that first step back.
There are many different types of coping skills, for many different occasions. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and are swirling in a sea of negative self-talk, the coping skills that can be most effective are distraction skills and self-soothing skills. Distraction skills are things that can distract you from the moment your stuck in. By giving you a short break from the moment, you might be able to calm down just enough that you can then figure out how you want to get back on your valued path. Beware though, if you’re distracting for longer than the length of a movie, then you might be avoiding! For distraction skills to be effective, you need to return to the thing that you have to do.
Self-soothing skills are skills that give you that big emotional “hug” that you’re needing. These can be anything from taking a bath with oils, to eating comfort foods, to getting a massage. You’re trying to hit your five senses with things that will help calm the emotional turmoil you might be experiencing. This too can potentially trip you up; be aware of indulging too much! If you go for comfort food (my personal go-to soothing skill) for example, make sure that you’re not over-eating. Otherwise, you might actually be drifting further from your values, rather than coming closer to them.
Take a step
Finally, the return to your values means actually changing the way you’re behaving so that your acting in a way that aligns with those values. To do this, you have to actually take action! For many people, this results in you wanting to go all out … volunteering for a national organization to help create change! In reality, however, you might have to start much smaller, like donating some money, or even just looking up information on the website. If you start too big, you might overwhelm yourself and derail the process. Starting small, taking one step, is the best way to begin the process of getting yourself back on track.
Living a valued life is hard and it comes with many bumps in the road, detours and wrong turns. In the end, it is not how successful we are at making the drive, rather it is how often we bring ourselves back to our route that matters.