We are in the midst of trying times. There are so many things and people that are under attack right now: Muslims, undocumented immigrants, women’s rights, the environment, etc. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to proceed. Unsure of what to do to continue to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and communities that we care about. Now is a time when it is essential that we know what our values are; when we know what matters and we do what matters. When I talk about values in this context I’m referring to things that serve as guides for ongoing action. Values are like a compass that help you to know in which direction you would like to move forward and enable you to determine if you have gotten off track. Our values can help us achieve our goals but are separate from them. Engaging in our values may feel uncomfortable at times and is certainly not always easy but when our behavior is consistently aligned with what matters to us, our lives are enriched.
Here’s a common metaphor for distinguishing between values and goals: You could have the goal of getting married and achieve that goal regardless of how you act as a partner. However, if you have the value of being loving this will guide how you are as a partner and person and will likely lead to more successful and healthy relationships. In this time of chaos and turmoil it is essential for us to not only have goals but to also be clear about our values. To be clear about how we want to engage in the process of working towards those goals.
Values are intended to be freely chosen and held lightly. There are no right or wrong values and they should not be imposed by other people. Further, it is unhelpful to beat ourselves up when we get off track. If you realize that you have not been living your values I encourage you to be compassionate and firm with yourself as you get back on track. In order to identify your values I encourage you to walk yourself through the following exercise (adapted from an unknown author):
Imagine that you are at your 80th birthday party and everyone you love (friends, family, colleagues) is present; if some people would technically be too old to be present remember that this is your imagination so you can allow them to be there. Imagine you are at the point during the party where people are starting to give speeches. They are taking turns standing up and speaking about what you have meant to them. They are speaking about what you have stood for as a person, and the impact you have had. Imagine what you would most want them to say. Now take a few moments to reflect on and write down what you heard them say. Listen for words that reflect ongoing action. For example, my values include persevering, supporting others, acting with integrity, and being loving.
Once you’ve identified your values, I encourage you to use them as guides for your life by determining specific actions to take that reflect your values. For example, you could donate money to a cause you care about, you could join a protest, you could share your knowledge about a particular topic. Values can help us move out of our comfort zones to do things that we might want to do but typically shy away from. In order to live full lives it is essential that we know what matters and we do what matters. When I am working with clients on their values, we often discuss the fact that engaging in our values can sometimes be uncomfortable and anxiety provoking. However, pushing through this discomfort for the sake of our values is ultimately fulfilling and enlivening. So as you figure out where you would like to focus your energy and attention these days, I encourage you to be willing to be uncomfortable in order to do what matters. You don’t have to work to address every issue facing our country right now but I encourage you to choose one to two issues that you would like to focus your attention on and use this as an opportunity to engage in your values and do what matters.