Living According to Your Values

What is motivating you to make changes in 2020?

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If you’re reading this, congratulations—you made it through 2019! Perhaps the past year tested your resolve, challenged you personally or professionally, or forced you into the discomfort of change and growth. Or maybe the year was marked by stagnation, you struggled to break old patterns, or you felt a nagging sense that more forward movement is needed in your life. Or the year could have been your best yet, crowned by successes that you’d always dreamed of, and that you  hope will continue.

Regardless of what 2019 brought, as 2020 stretches boldly before us it’s natural to feel self-reflective, hopeful, and even cautious about what the new year will bring.

New Year’s resolutions represent one way of acknowledging this milestone passage of time with promises to ourselves to think, do, and be better. From losing weight to gaining financial stability, it’s common to contemplate shedding all of the things that didn’t work for us last year so we can step into the possibility and promise of the new year.

Making Change that Sticks

Surveys suggest that approximately half of Americans will create some kind of New Year’s resolution. The most common resolutions include changing health habits like smoking or diet and exercise, saving money, or getting organized. Unfortunately, less than 10 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions are able to keep them for the entire year. In fact, some studies suggest that most people ignore their resolutions by the second week of January. Not only are people unsuccessful in achieving their desired goal, they also begin the year by dragging the same old guilt and shame along for the ride.

Rather than creating resolutions to change multiple areas of your life, it may be more helpful to simply commit to living in a manner that is consistent with one’s values.

What Do I Value?

Begin by asking yourself, “What are the things in life that are truly most important to me?” These are your values.

Some values might immediately spring to mind. For example, some people prioritize having a positive, healthy relationship with their family. For others, creating and maintaining a feeling of safety and security is of utmost importance. Still others say they
value friendships and time spent with others. When medical illness has been a part of one’s life, either personally or as a caregiver, it’s common to value health in both body
and mind.

Values can change over time, and the relative importance of a particular value can go up or down based upon where you are in your life. Values also differ from person to person, so it’s important to not judge the value system of others since we don’t know everything about their history or experience—factors that greatly influence our perception of ourselves and the world.

Where Can I Make Changes?

The secret to making lasting change lies in our ability to first identify those things which are most important to us. From there, we can begin to identify goals which are in line with our own personal value system.

Ask yourself, “In what area(s) can I work toward living in a manner that’s more consistent with my values?”

It’s often easiest to identify those places where change is needed by noticing where we experience the most discomfort. Perhaps you have been seeking more connection with others, but you find it difficult to make time or you worry about being misunderstood or disappointed. Maybe you would like to finally get involved in that organization you’ve been meaning to join, or you plan on spending less time on social-media or hookup apps. Or you might like to consume less alcohol, stop smoking, or stop using drugs.

While these are certainly reasonable goals to set, focusing solely on the outcome prevents you from examining the motivating factors behind your desire for change.

For example, when you identify that your primary value is spending time with friends and family, and acknowledge that using social media cuts into that time, you reinforce the reasoning behind your desire to put down your smartphone. Also, rather than just giving up social-media time, which is enjoyable and rewarding in its own right, you can give yourself the gift of spending time with others and living according to your values.

Creating Achievable Goals

Goal-setting can be challenging. Say you value financial security, but are feeling far from secure. While the goal of “saving money” is certainly reasonable, the lack of a specific plan makes it difficult to know how to proceed. How much should you save, and over what amount of time? Do you pay down debt or create a savings cushion? What should you do about credit cards? Frankly, setting goals like this can take the wind out of our sails before we even get started.

Rather than picking multiple goals (or goals within larger goals), focus on a single area where you can make gradual change. Abrupt, cold-turkey methods can sometimes work, but the vast majority of us respond best to altering one aspect of a particular behavior, gaining some mastery, and then adding to it. As with most things in life, we build on past successes.

With this in mind, perhaps your journey toward financial stability means you start with paying down one credit card, or saving a set $50 per month. Depending on how this goes, you can adjust your original goal to account for new knowledge. If it’s not working, you regroup and begin saving only $25 per month. If you’ve met your goal, then you might start paying down two credit cards at a time, or save more money. Each successful experience should reveal additional changes you can make that might be helpful in the future. Regardless of the outcome (whether it’s $5 or $500 saved), you’re living according to your values, and that is the definition of success.

While it may be tempting to count calories and track weight loss in pounds, you could be kinder to yourself by paying attention to the feeling you have after exercising, or the boost in vitality you feel after making healthier dietary decisions.

You’re Not Alone

Identify people and resources that can support you in making change. If you’re focused on fiscal responsibility, consider working with someone with a knowledge of finances. If your goals are health-related, reach out to someone with expertise in nutrition or fitness. If you would like to reduce alcohol or drug use, consider working with a health professional, counselor, therapist, or mutual-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. If your value of being connected with others is being hijacked by your time spent on apps and social media, consider trying one of the many apps that track and limit smartphone use. You may even decide to log off of those accounts, delete your social-media or hookup apps, and replace those activities with face-to-face encounters.

Finally, if you slip up on your plan or find yourself returning to old habits, there’s no need to wait until the next New Year’s Day to do something about it. Gently remind yourself of your values, and know that change is always possible.

This article appears in the January 2020 edition of OutSmart magazine.


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Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]

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