The Importance of Choosing Your Values and Why You Often Feel Stuck

Existence precedes essence, and proceeds from it.

Choosing one’s own way is the only conceivable purpose of being. Yet, through cultural, parental, and even peer expectations, we’re often thwarted. I often ask my patients to tell me about their values, exploring what’s important to them in the contexts of their personal and professional lives. I also ask about their partners’ values, inquiring about how well their values align with their own. Most of the time, my clients are surprised and somewhat shocked when they realize that they’ve never explored their values with anyone else, especially their spouses. And, most importantly, and even more disturbing is their discovery of having never felt that anyone was curious about their hopes and dreams.

So, many of us get stuck – stuck in our relationships, chronically arguing about what ought to be prioritized; and, stuck internally, wondering which sets of goals to pursue. The existentialists will tell you: Alteratives exclude. In choosing one thing, we forgo another. It’s obvious and simple. But, we still fail to choose. Many of my clients struggle with meaning and status, pleasure and discipline, sacrifice and acquisition. And the most unhappy ones tell me stories about parents who pushed them into some lucrative field or another, believing they knew what was best for them.

Philosopher Valerie Tiberius maintains that we have hidden goals, or unconscious motives in psychoanalytic parlance. They tend to be programs instilled in us in childhood. So, when I don’t allow myself to take a break, there’s a shaming voice steering me back into autopilot. Even though others sometimes tell me that I seem unhappy, I just keep carrying on. There’s always so much to do. Our parents, in helping us survive, send us the message that survival is paramount, implying that happiness is a mere byproduct of making it to another day.

In her book What Do You Want Out of Life?, Valerie wrote, “For someone like me, who is naturally inclined to care too much about what others think, there’s a real risk of looking for approval in all the wrong places. When I was in college, I dated someone who was particularly skilled at making me think that his interests were my interests. The wake-up call for me was seeing a movie together and finding myself unable to tell if I liked it or not until I heard what he thought about it.” At an early age, we learn that our opinions matter less than those of our purported superiors. Too few of my patients ask, “What do I like?” Ultimately, they resist the question because they fear the answers. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. I feel ashamed of myself for not doing more of what I love. I feel ashamed of myself for being lazy when I do. I feel ashamed of myself for being ungrateful for my innate gifts. I feel ashamed for not helping more people with them. I feel ashamed for hating my self-imposed expectations. I feel ashamed for wanting to exceed them. I feel ashamed for caring too much about what people think. And I feel ashamed for bucking social norms.

My value system feels like a complete mess.

Freud wrote, “The freeing of an individual, as he grows up, from the authority of his parents is one of the most necessary though one of the most painful results brought about by the course of his development.” And mental health is characterized by a more or less stable sense of who you are, an individual capable of choosing, reaffirming, and acting on her values. Children yearn for external approval, but adults acknowledge dignity as the bedrock of well-being. And social status is no more than an exaggerated, but ironically less significant, replica of parental approval. Based on mistruths, hidden realities, and unsustainable efforts, it’s a mere platonic shadow of self-respect. (Few of us would be able to feel good about ourselves if we operated how the wealthy do.) Life may or may not reward us. It may not care that we’re mere mortals, trying to be good. But, in the end, sanity is its own reward. Enlightenment isn’t wisdom; it’s the feeling of lightness. Or so they say.

Check out our episode with Valerie below:

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