We all hope to pursue certain directions in life. We may not always admit how much our values affect us, but they greatly influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions.
The person who makes a mistake and loses a cherished job feels shame. The mental obsessions that surround the shame may center on what went wrong, on the boss who couldn’t tolerate errors, or on the spouse who will be disappointed. Despite these different thoughts, the shamed response is driven by the conviction that doing a good job is important. Mistakes matter because the work matters (consider a surgeon who made a dreadful error—he or she is concerned about the patient’s outcome, not just personal consequences). Performance matters because work well done brings social approval, which is painfully lost when the boss fires a failing worker. Employment matters because material support keeps family fed, clothed, and sheltered. But most of all, work matters because it is a central value in the lives of most people.
If the job is lost because of addiction, then the addict feels shame about his or her dependence on substance use. But the shame remains driven by the underlying value: useful work.
If the job is lost because of agoraphobia, the anxious person feels shame about the emotional vulnerability that makes leaving home difficult. But again, the shame is driven by the value.
This description is an oversimplification. Making mistakes, suffering addiction, and feeling controlled by fears lead to many negative self-appraisals, some of which seem independent of external consequences. The self-criticism may echo punishments from childhood or internalized societal judgments. But the primary reason we feel badly about such problems is that they undermine what we consider meaningful and valuable.
Our values make us vulnerable. If a certain valued domain has not been pursued effectively, we may resist even acknowledging its importance. For instance, after my surgical career collapsed due to neck problems, it wasn’t long before even thinking about my old work felt terribly painful. Accusations arose whenever I considered what had been lost: Why didn’t I wait longer before quitting? Could I have found ways to deal with the pain and keep operating? Why did I choose a surgical specialty in the first place, when my neck was hurting already? Although motivated by regret, these thoughts steered me away from looking squarely at how much I’d lost. Rationalization served the same end: “There were many things I didn’t like about that job;” “I didn’t have a surgical temperament;” “I should never have chosen to train in that field.”
This inner dialogue, with its accusations and justifications, kept me from simply experiencing a terrible loss. It kept me from feeling grief. My frantic mental striving to avoid the sorrow shows how much the career truly meant to me.
If feeling useful in an occupation hadn’t been so important to me, early retirement would not have stimulated such distress. If it hadn’t been for the value, there’d have been no vulnerability.
When life serves up too many setbacks, cynicism becomes a tempting response. It certainly protects us from facing our values and feeling the pain they cause. If I give up on ever succeeding at anything ever again, I don’t have to fight the fears, uncertainty, and inertia that stand in the way of my trying. If I say work no longer matters to me, I don’t have to feel badly about not working? Isn’t that right?
No, in fact such cynicism just substitutes unconvincing rationalizations and anxious avoidance for the more empowering choice of looking squarely at a value and figuring out how to pursuit it under current circumstances. Maybe I can’t work as a surgeon anymore, but I can blog. Does a blogger enjoy the same status, money, and accomplishment as an oculoplastic surgeon? Not even close. To compare the two activities on any of those dimensions would be laughable. But does blogging help me feel like I’m making a contribution? Yes. And so it furthers my value of working to help others. Taking small steps in a valued direction is better than taking no steps at all.
Blogging has helped me feel effective again. As a result, I was able to try my hand at acupuncture. Writing a book begins to seem plausible. If I had chosen cynicism and stasis, my ‘work is important’ value would have languished and I’d have made little forward progress.
While writing about the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) stance on values in the last post, I imagined the discussion might distress some readers. One person might see himself mirrored by my example of staying in bed rather than socializing. Another might feel anguish about the way her workaholism degrades relationships. Others would recognize destructive consequences of addictions. And in looking at the effects of problematic behaviors, they would feel pain.
This pain is exactly what we feel when we value a life dimension highly, but our behaviors sidetrack us from its pursuit. It is the vulnerability that comes with caring. Just as they say, “grief is the price of love,” vulnerability is the price of every value.
The natural response can be to turn away and not look at how we’ve abandoned some of our values. But there is more vitality in sitting with the pain of our choices and acknowledging that regret highlights our priorities. We can then start working toward valued directions in whatever small ways we can.
Engagement, not avoidance, is the answer.