“Have you ever had to make a tough decision? How did you do it? With the deluge of information we find ourselves in day to day and seemingly infinite opportunities and choices to be made, how do you evaluate all the data the world now offers? Incessantly bombarded with an endless stream of schemas, strategies, and solutions around the clock, we literally have within our finger tips anything we want. It’s no longer a question of finding the answers; it’s a question of choosing the answers that best serve us.” (JohnPress, 2014)
The quote above begins a brief list-style article entitled The Value of Values written by Timothy JohnPress. I am grateful to have read it as part of the curriculum for Leadership Austin Emerge 2014. Being a psychotherapist, my work life as well as my personal life is interwoven with the beautiful threads of values. So, I enjoy being a part of a larger discussion on the topic. JohnPress goes on to list the Top Ten Values of Values. I read through the whole list and overall found myself nodding in agreement with the points he makes. I still can’t really disagree with anything he writes in the article.
However, immediately after reading JohnPress’s article I found myself questioning it’s implications. I could not pinpoint exactly why. I searched through the Ten Values of Values trying to trigger that uneasy feeling again. Scanning them in reverse order I landed on Number Six:
“6. Having clear values allow (sic) you to work and live from a more resourceful state. If you reflect on past situations which seemed uncomfortable or times where you may have reacted defensively, it’s a fair guess you may have perceived yourself being untrue to your values. Why else would you get upset?”
There it was again: This whispered nagging I hear so often when seeking truth and wisdom saying, “There is something not quite right here – not with the words that are written but what they imply.” My clients often come in to my office sharing their experiences of discomfort and defensiveness. One person might feel guilty for doing something they perceive as wrong or bad. Other folks internalize what happens on a much deeper level. They are convinced of their ever-decreasing self worth.
Let’s assume for a second that any one of these people recognized that (s)he acted outside of his or her value system. Was this, as JohnPress implies, because (s)he failed to clearly define these values? Clear values would make this individual more resourceful. In that case, there would absolutely be no need to be untrue to one’s own values, right? Except that time and again my client’s aren’t presenting as negligent of their operational beliefs. In fact, they adhere to them firmly and can articulate them in detail. The trouble is that these patterns of belief, these values, have stopped working for them.
We can all feel shame or guilt when we do not act in alignment with our values. But the answer isn’t always to cling to our old belief systems and punish our selves for deviating from them. Sometimes growth means suspending our beliefs and being willing to bear the burden of extreme discomfort. There is a musician named Sara Groves who illustrates this point with the following lyrics:
“When everything in me is tightening
Curling in around this ache
I will lay my heart wide open
Like the surface of a lake
Wide open like a lake.”
Now, maybe this is what JohnPress means by “resourceful”: Opening one’s self up to new ideas and beliefs – an ever-evolving value system. But, all too often I see defensive people resorting to their old values and beating themselves up emotionally to fit back in the box those values have built around them. That is how I read The Value of Values #6. It communicates to me that someone with clear values does not need to renegotiate when life pushes them to operate outside of what they perceive to be true. Operational beliefs become a defense mechanism against the pain of growth.
I am gay. And, I have a gay sister. My mother told me recently that her process of fully accepting us began by first suspending her beliefs. She spent years uncomfortable and defensive. Her family was acting outside of her clear values. It wasn’t by clinging to those values that my mother found peace. She felt a profound reflex to curl everything in around her pain. Instead, she chose to open her whole self, pain included, to the possibilities that lie outside of her values. She had the humility to admit that she didn’t have all of the answers.
I redirect you to an excerpt from the quote by JohnPress above: “It’s no longer a question of finding the answers; it’s a question of choosing the answers that best serve us.” One of the most freeing truths in my life was learning that I do not always know what is best for me. I have received more healing and wisdom from steps that felt agonizingly counterintuitive than those choices that seemed to best serve me. Having done many years of work to align myself with my values, I will be the first to tell you that most of my struggle comes with my inability to let go of old patterns of belief that have long ago stopped working for me.
The next time you feel uncomfortable or defensive and realize you are operating outside of your value system, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions: “Am I absolutely sure that the solution here is to realign myself with my values? Could this pain (or fear) be an indication of growth, in other words, an opportunity to develop new values? Does the decision I have to make serve what I believe is best for me? Or, does it serve my greater spiritual purpose?” I am willing to bet that nine times out of ten the answer is to lean in to the discomfort, open your heart wide open like a lake, and let life shape you.