Too many demands, not enough time, and lo and behold, not much happiness….
So let’s paint an all too familiar picture: there’s 24 hours in a day, work wants a big chunk of those hours, then there’s keeping the admin of your life afloat (home, car, bills, finances), your relationships alive (family, partner, kids, friends), yourself alive (diet, exercise)…and then maybe there’s a few minutes left to think about whether there’s any time left to enjoy yourself! And, unfortunately, what can start to happen is that the things that dominate this precious 24 hours a day that you have, might not be the things that mean the most to you – the things that you want to be high up in your list of life priorities. And then you are left to wonder, how come I’m unhappy, stressed, anxious and miserable? Don’t get me wrong, we all have to make space for doing the things in life that need to be done, but how often do we sit down and examine what we are prioritising, why, and whether this is the way we want things to be (well, that would take precious time, so probably not often).
Within a psychological approach called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), there is a focus on ‘values’ – which are defined by Dr Russ Harris as ‘your heart’s deepest desires for the sort of person you want to be and the things you want to do in your time on this planet; in other words, what you want to stand for in life’. Taking a look at your own personal values can provide motivation, inspiration, and guidance for your choices. They can focus us in terms of how we spend those precious 24 hours in a day, 168 hours in a week. Values give our lives meaning. They are not our goals, they are the core from which our goals are derived. Goals, you can tick off a list and say ‘ahhhhh, that’s done’. Values are like a compass or a direction for life, they can never be ticked off a list. So, getting married might be a goal, but being in a fulfilling relationship might be a value. Modern day life means that we are generally busy, busy, busy – focusing on what people around us seem to endlessly want from us, and trying to create a foothold, get ahead, get financal stability, and all the other things that we believe we need for a happy future. As time passes us by we become more and more stressed and anxious, and perhaps further away from that dream life.
A focus on values can help us to get back on track to creating that life that we used to think was possible, when we had the time to think about it!
It’s to do with considering what you really want out of life; what’s important and meaningful to you, deep in your heart. And then, using that information as a guide to set goals and change your behaviour to take your life in the direction you want to go. Oh, that’s all I need to do? Why didn’t someone just say so earlier? Simple, right? No, if it was that easy we would all be doing it. There are a number of barriers to valued living that people oftem find extremely hard to overcome. The first and most important one is not knowing what our own personal values are. We inherit so many values from society, what our parents told us and what other people around us seem to think is important, and we are so busy trying to make enough money, get promoted, achieve, achieve, achieve, that what’s actually important to us, deep down, becomes murky and unclear. And then, it becomes a bit scary to look at… What if looking at what matters to me deep down, and then looking at how I live my actual days don’t match up all that well? Better just work longer hours, distract myself with TV, social media, booze, and just strive, strive, strive… and hope the anxiety and stress somehow get chased away and happiness lands in my lap….
And here enters the biggest foe of values-based living – experiential avoidance, which is the attempt to run away from our own internal states of anxiety, fear, worry, stress and all those other difficult thoughts and feelings that often come about when we are trying desperately just to live our lives. Experiential avoidance is simply a (unsuccessful) form of problem solving. The essence of problem solving is: Problem (something we don’t want), Solution (figure out how to change it, get rid of it, or avoid it). Experiential avoidance is normal, because humans have been taught a wide variety of strategies for avoiding unpleasant events in the external world – i.e. if a hot stove burns, don’t touch it, pain avoided, all is well. The problem is that when it comes to internal pain (i.e. anxiety), we may be sticking our head in the sand about what’s really important to us, just to avoid potential pain. For example, avoiding presenting at a meeting because we are terrified we will stuff it up may reduce fears of failure in the short-term, but in the long-term we might be moving away from the life we want to create. Higher experiential avoidance is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression, poorer work performance, reduced ability to learn, substance abuse, lower quality of life, and high risk sexual behaviour.
The problem is that even once you have worked out what your values actually are, moving your life in that direction can be an extremely painful and difficult thing to do. Healthy change often produces painful experiences, thus, change is frightening. We are often avoiding moving towards what we value because it might bring up pain, stress, and anxiety. If you want to ask that person on a date (because having a fulfilling relationship is a value), you may have to experience fear, potential rejection, loss or sadness. If you want to go for that promotion or new job (because you value career progression), you may have to face fears of failure and negative or scary thoughts about your own incompetence. Doing what is important to us often means facing thoughts and feelings that we may prefer to avoid.
We work with top performers – the people that are wholly dedicated and invested in their working lives. Sometimes we come across clients who struggle because of a growing sense that the world they exist in right now doesn’t speak to the values that they begin to uncover for themselves. Whether it is the hours they are required to work, or the roles they find themselves in… They end up feeling trapped, caught between the jobs that have defined the past ten years and the lives they want to lead. At times they see their only option as success through work – working harder, longer and more ruthlessly. They come to us feeling anxious, unhappy, disillusioned and confused about how they have ended up so boxed in. They’ve worked hard, but the success feels empty. We sit them down and help them to take a close look at their values and at the things they avoid in order to circumnavigate short term pain. Don’t get me wrong, looking at values doesn’t mean you suddenly have to change your whole life! People find small ways to start bringing values-based living into their daily existence. It may be a small change in the morning routine, like having a coffee with your partner before you leave for work, or creating just one hour in that 24 to do something that really makes you smile.
So, there is an exercise (below), which people often find helpful. It’s called the ‘Bull’s Eye’, and it is a values-clarification exercise designed by a Swedish ACT therapist called Tobias Lundgren.
- Work/Education: refers to your workplace and career, education and knowledge, skills development. How do you want to be towards your clients, customers, colleagues, employees, fellow workers? What personal qualities do you want to bring to your work? What skills do you want to develop?
- Relationships: refers to intimacy, closeness, friendship and bonding in your life: it includes relationships with your partner, children, parents, relatives, friends, co-workers, and other social contacts. What sort of relationships do you want to build? How do you want to be in these relationships? What personal qualities do you want to develop?
- Personal Growth/Health: refers to your ongoing development as a human being. This may include include organised religion, personal expressions of spirituality, creativity, developing life skills, meditation, getting out into nature; exercise, nutrition, and addressing health risk factors like smoking.
- Leisure: refers to how you play, relax, stimulate, or enjoy yourself; your hobbies or other activities for rest, recreation, fun and creativity.
THE BULL’S EYE: After you have listed some values in the areas above, draw a dart board and divide it into the four quarters mentioned above, with several concentric rings. Now place an X in each area of the dart board to represent where you stand today. An X in the Bull’s Eye (the centre of the board) means that you are living fully by your values in that area of life. An X far from Bull’s Eye means that you are way off the mark in terms of living by your values. Since there are four areas of valued living, you should mark four X’s on the dart board.
If you really struggled with identifying your values, don’t worry! This is normal, but avoiding looking at it more closely would be a form of that experiential avoidance I mentioned earlier, so try this exercise to see if it helps you to get in touch with your values…
The 80 Year Old Birthday Celebration, an exercise in imagination:
Close your eyes and imagine you are 80 years old, and that there is a birthday celebration in your honour. You can imagine this any way you like. Some people imagine the scene in vivid pictures, as on a TV screen. Others imagine more with words or sounds or abstract ideas. However you imagine it is ok – it will be the right way for you. Also, remember this is your imagination – so it doesn’t have to obey the rules of logic. It’s okay if your parents are there and they’re 120 years old. It’s okay if your friends are there and they look exactly the same as they do today. So close your eyes now and imagine you are 80 years old, and that there is a birthday celebration in your honour – and everybody you care about is there to honour you – friends, family, work colleagues. Now imagine one person who you really care about – friend, family member, colleague, you choose; anyone who is important to you – imagine that person gets up to make a short speech about you – about the person you are, the life you’ve lived, what you stood for in life, and what you meant to them. Imagine that they say and mean whatever it is you would most like to hear them say and mean. Notice how you feel as they say these things. Now imagine another person who you really care about – friend, family member, colleague, you choose; anyone who is important to you – imagine that person gets up to make a short speech about you – about the person you are, the life you’ve lived, what you stood for in life, and what you meant to them. Imagine that they say and mean whatever it is you would most like to hear them say and mean. Notice how you feel as they say these things. Finally imagine one last person who you really care about – friend, family member, colleague, you choose; anyone who is important to you – imagine that person gets up to make a short speech about you – about the person you are, the life you’ve lived, what you stood for in life, and what you meant to them. Imagine that they say and mean whatever it is you would most like to hear them say and mean. Notice how you feel as they say these things. Now take a moment to reflect on what you’ve heard, and to consider: what does this tell you about your values? About what really matters to you, deep in your heart?
Once you have looked at your values, and decided on some action-steps that you might like to take to lead a more values-driven life, you might find it useful to check out the blog and resources on a technique called mindfulness. Mindfulness is another main component of ACT, which assists us to more successfully manage the difficult thoughts and feelings that naturally arise when we start to make valued-life changes!
Adapted from: ACT Workshop: Dr Russ Harris, 2007, www.actmindfully.com