Most of us find that we have strayed in one way or another from leading the life we want to live. This can mean a lot of different things, from spending too much time watching TV, finding we are in a career that is not fulfilling, not being the sister/husband/parent we want to be, etc. There are lots of forces that can derail us from moving toward what we value. Whatever the reason, if when you survey the landscape of your life as it is now and you find something missing, clarifying your values may be the first step in the getting on the right track.
Values can be thought of as directions to move toward, rather than concrete goals. For instance, if you have the value of being a more loving spouse, there are lots of goals you can attain along the way, such as spending less time at work each week, not multitasking while spending time with your partner, and engaging in acts of kindness more frequently. Goals are important in that they can give us feedback as to whether we are moving toward values. But unlike goals, values can never be attained. We can always find new ways to move us toward doing what matters.
There is an exercise that comes out of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, in which you imagine the eulogies you might hear at your own funeral (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). This exercise is designed to help you cut through the clutter of all of the forces that serve as reasons for you to not engage in valued action, and to identify what really matters to you. Give this exercise a try and see what comes up:
Imagine you’re able to watch your own funeral. Different friends and family members are eulogizing you, talking about the path you chose. Take a moment to write out a few of the things you’re afraid might be said about you if during your life you had backed off from what you wanted to stand for. Try this now.
Now, imagine what these people would have said had you lived your life true to your innermost values. Spending your life doing what matters, rather than what was safe or easy. Take a few minutes to do this now.
This task is designed to make clear, after all is said and done, what you want to be about. How you want to live. Thinking about the way you want to be remembered is one way of identifying what you want to be doing now. Are you making choices that are helping you be the person described in the second eulogy, or more like the person in the first one? Regardless of which eulogy is a closer fit to how you are acting in your life now, you probably have a better sense of what parts of your life are serving as obstacles to the life you want, and what steps, even if they are small steps, you could take to jump into the life you want.
To make this exercise even more useful, identify one step you could take in the service of your values, and take that step today.
Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K.D., & Wilson, K.G. (1999). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavioral Change. New York: Guilford.
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