When we think of overcoming stress, we typically think of cutting things from our to do list, learning strategies to help us relax, or dealing with the negative thoughts that run through our heads. All of those are useful tools in the fight against feeling overwhelmed, but they’re not the only things. They are missing a key ingredient: values.
I would consider that list to be tactics that we use on the front lines. Identifying our core values provides the overall strategy. Values are the big picture. They define how we want to live our life. They are the compass heading that guides us in making small and big decisions alike. Being a parent is stressful and often focuses our attention on the minutiae so we neglect the big picture.
Considering I never explored my own values until graduate school, it’s no surprise to me that many of the people I work with need a little help figuring out wha
t I mean when I say, “values.” The good thing about that is the significant progress that often results from a few discussions and some reflective thinking!
Once we recognize our core values and begin to change our actions to fit within that context we begin to feel that our lives are meaningful again.
It might be shocking, but believing that you are contributing to a meaningful life is pretty effective at lowering perceived stress. This shift in mindset (that stress is a result of living out your values) can mean the difference between embracing stress as a force that is pushing you towards growth, or allowing stress to define you in a negative way.
VALUES: THE THINGS YOU WISH YOU WERE DOING BUT PROBABLY AREN’T RIGHT NOW
Dr. Russ Harris defines values as “desired qualities of behavior.” Vague enough?
A simple exercise can help people understand the concept of values, since it is difficult to define.
I want you to look ahead to your 80th birthday party. You are the person of honor and your family and friends have gathered to celebrate the life you’ve lived. Everybody will speak a bit about you and the ways you’ve impacted them, and the community around you.
Who do you want to speak? What do you want them to say about the way you lived… the way you treated family… your work… what you did for fun… your spiritual life?
The things you’d want them to focus on gives you a window into the values that you personally would consider contributing to a meaningful life.
When thinking about your values it’s important not to fit them into society’s vision rather than your own. For example, just because society seems to value and pressure people to work long hours to climb the corporate ladder doesn’t mean that is YOUR value. You may place more importance on family and civic involvement and have no desire to become a manager.
And that is okay! The important things is defining the things that are truly important to you in the different areas of life.
Now that you’ve defined your values, what do we do with it?
Using Values to Create Meaning and Reduce Stress
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD identified that the PERCEPTION of stress is what leads to many health-related complications (e.g., obesity, mortality rates). Viewing stress as a problem is actually what causes health issues. While viewing stress as fueling growth shows no similar negative health consequences!
And, of course, we change our perception of stress by giving it meaning through our values!
When we see our actions as contributing to a bigger plan we’re less likely to feel burdened. In fact, trivial or repetitive/boring tasks can provide a sense of pride when we feel they are one small part of a puzzle that we value.
Example time. Do you enjoy cleaning toilets? I certainly do not. I know it needs to get done because otherwise the bathroom will be nasty, but it’s not something I relish. In contrast, a housekeeper in the White House may view that boring task as one small piece of taking care of the president’s family that allows him to make big decisions.
So take a few minutes to consider everything on your to-do list. How does each item contribute to living out your values? Reflecting on the bigger picture allows you to take pride in small accomplishments or milestones along the way.
If you need a little guidance in identifying your values or figuring out what changes you need to make to live a more value-congruent life, please reach out for a free consultation. I’d love to chat about how we can get you closer to living a meaningful life.