Value-based action

One of my top wellness priorities these days is writing what some call a mission statement. I’m thinking of it as getting to the core of what I value and how those values can drive my actions to reach my goals and experience more positivity each day.

I’m currently reading both Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Brené Brown’s Daring GreatlyIn the last few weeks, I’ve been working on Covey’s first habit, proactivity, in which you choose your response to stimuli, rather than letting circumstances control your emotions. It’s taking initiative for your own feelings and actions rather than being strictly reactive. So far, this practice has been wildly successful. Yes, it is absolutely a practice because I’ve basically only ever lived a life in which I reacted to events and people in my environment, but I can’t even begin to explain the positive effect working to choose my own emotional response is having on my day-to-day wellness. So worth it.

Covey’s second habit is beginning with the end in mind. It’s the ongoing practice of allowing your values to guide you and aligning everything in your life with those values. Covey suggests imagining what various people in your life will say about you at your funeral, and it’s funny because back in August when I first decided I wanted to get well, I did a version of that exercise. I can pinpoint that exercise as the moment that pushed me to do this work in the first place. I imagined myself at the end of my life, looking back, as I was realizing just how fast the years are flying by seemingly without my participation, and I knew I would be disappointed to look back on a life spent the way I was spending mine. I was constantly stressed out, angry, sad, never feeling good enough, always afraid to take risks…this was no way to live.

So anyway, part of Covey’s second habit is to live from a principled center to lend yourself security, guidance, wisdom, and power. I identified the centers I had been living from as partner, work/achievements, and a weird combination of possessions/pleasure. Because I derived all my security, guidance, wisdom, and power from these centers, my emotions were in a constant state of flux. If my partner had a bad day, I felt somehow personally indicted and got into a bad mood myself. If I wasn’t super productive or didn’t make an amazing comment in class or didn’t write the paper of my dreams, I felt like a failure. And then I used shopping and possessions as anesthetics, to avoid feeling the pain I was deriving from these other situations.

You can see how my realization that I have values buried deep underneath all of that, and that I can use those to drive my life instead of the constantly fluctuating circumstances of my life, was just mindblowingly awesome and exciting. Yes, sign me up immediately, please. Thanks.

So, enter Daring Greatly, in which Brown explains the concept of scarcity in our culture. It’s any time when we feel “never _____  enough.” She suggests words like never good enough, never perfect enough, never thin enough, powerful enough, successful enough, certain enough, extraordinary enough…you get the idea. Welcome to my old brain. Literally. To combat scarcity, Brown offers “wholeheartedness,” or feeling that we are enough. She writes, “there are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough” (29).

Guys. This is totally the next step on my wellness journey. It’s how I will live from my values and feel courageous. Because once I decided to get well, and live from my intuition, my fearful ego immediately started chattering away, saying things like, “How can you face the uncertainty of a future in which you leave the path you’ve set for yourself?” “What will people say?” “How will your fragile heart handle the emotional risk that comes from changing your mind and not knowing exactly what the next step looks like?”

And I’m sitting there like, yeah, I know, dear ego, how? But it’s precisely this wholeheartedness that equips me to live from my values and trust myself and lean into uncertainty and risk and exposure and STILL BE OKAY.

So I’m going to keep leaning on Brown a little bit, as well as a Character Strengths assessment I did yesterday. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown lays out some guideposts from wholehearted living, and I think her guideposts align really well with my values. They are:

  • Authenticity, or letting go of what others think
  • Self-compassion, or letting go of perfectionism
  • Resiliency, or letting go of numbing and powerlessness
  • Gratitude and joy, or letting go of scarcity and fear of the unknown
  • Intuition and trust, or letting go of the need for certainty
  • Creativity, or letting go of comparison
  • Play and rest, or letting go of productivity and exhaustion as self-worth
  • Calm and stillness, or letting go of anxiety and stress as a lifestyle
  • Meaningful work, or letting go of “supposed to”
  • Laughter, song, and dance, or letting go of “being cool” or always in control

My top three characters strengths from the VIA Institute on Character were:

  • Love of learning  (Mastering new skills, topics, and bodies of knowledge, whether on one’s own or formally; related to the strength of curiosity but goes beyond it to describe the tendency to add systematically to what one knows.)
  • Forgiveness (Forgiving those who have done wrong; accepting others’ shortcomings; giving people a second chance; not being vengeful.)
  • Curiosity (Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering.)

Let’s just talk for a minute about how unbelievably light I feel just thinking about living from these values and strengths, and how the fact that I wasn’t before was so obviously contributing to my feelings of heaviness and failure. Then I want to give a short anecdote about how I practiced process over perfection with my final paper writing and grading this week in comparison to last April.

My entire adult life, I lived from a place of fearing what others thought about me. All of the “letting go’s” in the list above? Those were me. Fear of what other people thought, thinking perfect was the only option but also understanding it was not attainable and thus beating myself up, always numbing and denying and feeling powerless to change, feeling “not enough” and deeply afraid of not knowing, needing to feel certain about outcomes and completely ignoring the joy of process, CONSTANTLY comparing, using productivity and total exhaustion as markers of self-worth, using anxiety and stress as markers of success, doing all the things I thought I was “supposed” to do because they would make people like me or think I was smart, and trying to always look in control. OH MY GOD. Just writing that list was exhausting and demoralizing.

The mere thought of cultivating a life in which I practice authenticity, self-compassion, resiliency, gratitude and joy, intuition and trust, creativity, play and rest, calm and stillness, meaningful work, and laughter, song, and dance FEELS amazing. Just imagining it! And the ways I’ve been trying to practice those things already feel great and are producing results not only in my mind but also in my everyday life. I’ve especially been able to practice during this busy end-of-semester time, and I am seeing concrete results.

As for my character strengths, the love of learning was not a surprise. I like attaining and cataloguing knowledge. It explains how I was capable of doing grad school even while feeling so crappy. I just like mastering bodies of knowledge, like the descriptor says. What I’ve learned recently is that these bodies of knowledge don’t necessarily need to be academic or “official.” The one I am working to master right now is myself through wellness practices.

Forgiveness is a given. I don’t know where it comes from, but I have always been quick to forgive. I feel deep empathy with everyone I come into contact with, and I’ve always been able to see other people as just as human as I am, so forgiving their missteps is easy. (I should say it’s easy if I can see that someone is acting from a place of good intentions or fear. It is not easy to forgive really bad people.) It’s funny that even in the midst of always forgiving others, accepting their shortcomings, and not being vengeful, I was refusing to forgive myself for my humanity, not accepting my own shortcomings, and punishing myself for failing to live up to impossible standards.

And finally, this curiosity thing has come up a lot for me in the past few months, like in Big Magic or learning to live with uncertainty. I love and treasure the idea of curiosity now. I was a curious kid, but somewhere along the line, my sense of wonder got stamped out. Knowing that I can explore anything I want to, taking an interest in ongoing experience for its own sake–these sound like such delightful pursuits and so helpful for dealing with the unknown.

And that leads me to my paper-writing and grading experiences this week. I decided to approach each from a place of curiosity and process, rather than a need for certainty and outcome. For the paper, instead of focusing on the fact that it was very much a draft, and I didn’t always know where my argument was headed, and it was taking longer than I wanted it to take, and it didn’t end up as perfect as I had hoped, I sat down at my laptop each day with a sense of wonder at where I might end up, what the text of the story would tell me, and how all the research connected together. I allowed new and surprising avenues of inquiry to open up. I delighted in the ever-winding process of writing, knowing that writing is a form of thinking and thus it can be spontaneous and exciting. I congratulated myself for each day’s work, no matter how much I wrote. Some days I wrote 2,000 words, other days 500, and some days, I didn’t even make it to the laptop. But I FORGAVE myself. I nurtured myself, and said, you’re doing great, keep plugging along.

What I produced is not perfect. I’m not even sure it’s good. But I enjoyed the process so much; I let myself be carried along by it, knowing I would finish, but not knowing when or what exactly the final product would look like and being okay with that. This was a completely different experience from last semester, when I let all the fear and doubt and need for perfection and certainty and extraordinariness drive my writing process. It’s no wonder I felt completely paralyzed and ended up turning in a glorified plot summary. I wasn’t even giving my brain a chance. I was just telling it, “no.” This time, I said, “let’s see what happens.”

I also approached the mountain of student projects I needed to grade in this positive way, and while it may have led to some slight grade inflation, the whole process of grading was so much more enjoyable. Rather than saying, “okay, let’s see where you went wrong, how can I take points off for what you failed to do,” I said, “how can I reward you for this creation you worked hard on?” Instead of seeing all the things they failed to master in one short semester, I saw all the ways they strived so hard to meet my expectations, based on what I was able to imperfectly teach them. Man. What a different grading experience that was. I feel like both student and teacher get rewarded; students feel their work is valued and I value the work they did to meet me in the middle.

Anyway, this is a long post, but it gets at some of the fundamental thought shifts I’ve been practicing, and I hope the paper-writing example and the grading example illustrate how just changing perspective can lead to a much more positive lived experience. Maybe in a future post, I will be able to translate these values to an actual mission statement, and we can see what that looks like.

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