By Lauren Helm, M.A.
“Values are what you want your life to be about, deep in your heart. What you want to stand for. What you want to do with your time on this planet. What ultimately matters to you in the big picture. What you would like to be remembered for by the people you love.” – Dr. Russ Harris
What guides you in deciding how to act from moment-to-moment, and day-to-day? When you come to a fork in the road, how do you decide which direction to go?
Many of us may be unaware of the processes that underlie our daily actions and the forces that shape how and why we make the decisions that we do. Often we may just go through the motions, paying little attention to what we are doing and what is happening around us. We go through the routines: get up in the morning, have breakfast, brush teeth, go to work, come home, make dinner, go to sleep…and repeat. Sometimes we may reflect on the day and wonder where our time went, feeling almost as though we were not really there. Have you ever driven somewhere, only to realize once you’ve arrived that you barely remember driving at all? It can be as though we were merely on automatic-pilot, with little attention devoted to “steering” ourselves throughout our lives.
And yet, there are times when life really DEMANDS our attention; when it quite literally forces us to focus on the issue at hand. Life is full of flux and change; there are sorrows and pain, joys and celebration. What then? How do you decide how to respond?
When we have little conscious awareness of who we are and who we want to be, we can act quite haphazardly. Automatic-pilot does not necessarily turn off. If something stressful or threatening happens, we may react reflexively. Perhaps a loved-one makes a comment that rubs us the wrong way, and we lash out. Maybe we have been assigned an important project, and the deadline looms in the near-future, but we automatically procrastinate and avoid thinking or doing anything about it until the last minute because it is anxiety-provoking.
In a sense, automatic or reflexive behaviors can be thought of as “mindless.” There is little conscious or intentional thought behind them. They are like habitual ways of responding to life. However, not only does a “mindless” approach not create the fullness of life that many people desire, it also can get us into trouble when challenging situations arise. For example, most of the time we automatically avoid uncomfortable or painful situations. It makes sense that human beings would avoid pain. Avoidance of pain or threat has allowed us to survive as a species – avoidance of tigers and bears kept us alive. However, in our modern age, we rarely, if ever, encounter predators that threaten our survival. Threat and discomfort tends to show up for us in our jobs, relationships, traffic, social activities, etc. What if “mindless” avoidance of discomfort costs you a sense of meaning in life? What if it interferes with or prevents you from engaging in activities or life experiences that are deeply rewarding to you, albeit challenging or difficult at times?
If this has been your experience, it may be time to pause and clarify your values. Your values help define who you want to be in each moment. What you value is what gives your life meaning. When we are disconnected from our values, we can go through life somewhat aimlessly and “mindlessly.” But when we take the time to learn about what is really important to us, we can give ourselves a great gift. By knowing your values, you can begin to craft your day-to-day experience in a much more conscious, intentional way. In a way, it can be a creative process. You get to decide during each metaphorical fork in the road, who you want to be and what you want your life to be about.
“What if what was at stake is a kind of self-liberation -- the liberation to be about what you most deeply would choose to be about--- not to avoid guilt, or get applause, or otherwise objectify yourself but just to be in the world how you choose to be in the world.” - Dr. Steven Hayes, co-developer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Dr. Jill Stoddard likes to ask, “What is this in the service of?” This is an exceptionally helpful question to ask yourself during the mundane activities of life, and during the momentous ones. Is what you are doing serving to avoid discomfort? Or is what you are choosing to do serving you in living a valued-life? The practical nature of identifying your values is that you can begin to create action-plans and goals that line up with your values, instead of goals that purely focus on fending off the pain that inevitably is a part of life. The fact is, pain IS a part of life, and so is joy. Life is a myriad of experiences. We can live meaningful lives when things go smoothly, and even when life feels like a bumpy ride. It is up to us, however, to decide if we want to consciously respond to life and take back the steering wheel. We can begin with our values. Who do you want to be today?
If you'd like to speak with a professional at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management about clarifying your values and living a more meaningful life, please click here.
Check out these free resources on values and related topics:
Harris, R. (2007). The happiness trap: Stop struggling, start living. Exisle Publishing.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2011). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change. Guilford Press.
Tags: acceptance and commitment therapy, ACT, Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, values, steven hayes, CSAM, meaning, fulfillment, mindful, pain, life, Russ Harris, personal values, mindless, avoidance, automatic pilot