A common, yet rarely spoken of, characteristic of struggling with your mental health is behaving in ways you are not proud of. Acting like a person you do not even like. Ironically, this then provides your brain with terrible pieces of evidence to prove to you why you are in fact a dickhead. Examples could include: lying about how you really feel to get a group of people to like you. Or giving into an impulse to get blind drunk to escape a feeling that you hate. Or obsessing about whether that feeling in your stomach is cancer so much so that you ruin every social event you go to. I did all of these things when I struggled with my mental health. It becomes a vicious cycle. You feel guilty for acting like a person you do not like. You feel shame and self-loathing. So, you do more unhealthy actions to cover up those feelings.
These unhealthy actions are compulsions. We do them to manage our fears and to avoid inner experiences we don’t like. However, if we want to start to build lives we care about, we really need to cut out these actions and replace them with healthy behaviours. This is where knowing your values is so helpful. Values are what make you feel alive. They give you energy and they are aligned with who you want to be. Think about bursting into celebration with the people you love when England beat Columbia in a penalty shootout at the world cup. In that moment you could experience joy, connection and community – these would therefore be some of your values. Another example could be working on a major project in your job with colleagues and creating something that improves the service in a lasting way. Here the values which drove you could have been leadership, teamwork and hard work. Or, your values could be most clear in the simplest of scenarios, such as having a conversation with someone where you felt completely understood. The things which matter to you in this instance being connection, friendship and empathy.
So how do we discover our values? How do we know what makes us tick? One exercise I learnt in CBT involved a seemingly morbid exercise. Creating your own gravestone. On it you write down how you would have liked to have spent your time during your life. What you would want your life to have been about ideally. On mine I wrote things like “he was kind”, “he knew how to enjoy himself”, “he seized each moment”. This reinforced to me in black and white what I cared about. What I valued. I was also asked to write what my gravestone would say at that moment if I was being honest with myself. How I was really spending my time. I had to write things such as “he worried too much”, “he spent a lot of time in his head” and “he gave into compulsions”. Looking at the two gravestones made me realise where I was at and where I wanted to be. And therefore, how I could start living consistently if I wanted to start to build good mental health and genuine happiness.
This is an important point about values. They really offer the opportunity to live a life that is deeper than the usual surface level definition of happiness. When we think about being happy, I think many of us generally think about that fleeting feeling of joy and contentment that we experience sometimes. Unfortunately, like any emotion, this feeling does not last long. But we try to hold onto it and control it and this causes all sorts of problems. However, if we define happiness as living a life that we value, one of meaning, then we always have the option to live this way, whatever emotion we may happen to be experiencing at that time. The bonus by-product of this turns out to be more feelings of joy, contentment and peacefulness because you are living a life you are proud of. You are creating a world around you that you want to live in. Benefiting others around you due to the value that you are also adding to their lives.
Once you have identified some of your values they can guide you in everyday practical situations. You may have a relative who is not well and who would benefit from a call from you. But this evening you have other commitments and things planned…what would the ideal you do in that situation? Or you could be involved in a debate at work which is important to you about and your boss says something you disagree with. How would you proceed knowing that courage is a value you hold dear? Or you’ve had a long stressful day with work and family issues, you get home and there are ingredients in the fridge for an awesome healthy salad. There is also the leaflet for a pizza takeaway on the fridge. Knowing you that you value your health could help you to reach a decision of what to eat that night. However, also knowing that you value living in the moment at times and that you have a deep love for pizza could also help guide you. Especially if you know you can rely on your value for living in moderation.
An important point to recognise here is that values are not necessarily doing the “right” thing or the “moral” thing. They are personal to what you value. I used to have an overpowering sense of guilt whenever I was hungover that I had done something terribly wrong. Not now. I know that I value having a good time. That I like to have fun. But with that comes a responsibility too. If I am going to own drinking alcohol and staying up late I also need to own how that affects the rest of my life. Because I also value my future, my health, my community and friends and family. So, I need to own those values too and make sure having a good time does not impact on any of these other values. Otherwise I will start to feel not so good about myself. Naturally.
Looking at the world today, I believe it could be a much healthier place if people were more in touch with their values. Society and politics could maybe be less based on being right, on being red or blue, on them and us. People could be more connected to what they care about. I imagine then people would start to realise that they have more in common with each other than they currently think they do. There actually appears to be some universal human values that may have the potential to transcend the more extreme forms of tribalism. Maybe getting in touch with your values could have an even greater impact than simply improving your own life. Not taking away how awesome that process is of course! Thanks for reading. And please feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.
Here is a helpful little video by Dr Russ Harris which further explains the notion of living a rich and meaningful life: