Mental Health

Identifying & Living By Your Values During a Pandemic

This piece was originally published on Sweatpants & Coffee. It’s based on the Pick 5 piece I did a few years back.

My ritual of welcoming in each new year is taking time to identify my values. Trying to make New Year’s resolutions just… hits differently during Covid, especially as we face so many factors around us that are out of our individual control. (And yes – it’s the end of January. And I think it’s important to renew these ideas often because otherwise the resolutions seem terribly far away).

I don’t know many people who feel like they’re thriving, and I don’t see all that many people making New Year’s resolutions this year because of what a dumpster fire it all can feel like sometimes. If you’re having a different experience of the past two years, amazing – I love that for you! – and I cannot relate.

I’ve sensed a lot of fatigue and fear, rather than a sense of inspiration and eagerness, during the conversations I’ve had about my loved ones’ and my hopes for 2022. It makes sense to me, and even in a great year, my New Year’s resolutions can feel like they’re slipping away a bit by this point, though we’ve barely made a dent in the year. I can feel a good deal of shame by this point, remembering what I didn’t accomplish this past year and in response, looking toward the year with unrealistic goals (that I then may regret at the end of this one). These days, I instead feel shame about the (many) moments that I sort of throw my hands up like the “Idk” emoji and decide not to make resolutions because I likely won’t have enough energy or drive to keep them because… *gestures around me*.

Let’s find a middle ground for New Year’s resolutions right now (and maybe always going forward?) where we try to allow a sense of hope and curiosity to whisper into our souls, “What can I do, or let go of, to make this year better for myself than last year?” and yet also gentleness to whisper, “Make sure you write these in pencil.” Because the original post I made about this on my blog a few years ago has an intensity about it – with S.M.A.R.T.O. goal-setting advice and everything – that I don’t have in me right now, and I want a softer version of this set of thoughts to have in my back pocket. (If you’d prefer more concrete advice, here is the original post.)

Let’s talk about values, and why I do a values inventory assessment every December to look toward the New Year.

A values inventory assessment was perhaps the single most important activity I did while a patient at Mayo Clinic’s Pain Rehabilitation Center. The staff gave us each envelopes with the different values people often hold – health, knowledge, power, friendship, service, and so on. They asked us to sort them into three categories: Very important to me, important to me, and not important to me. (It actually pained me somewhat to put some of the values in “important” instead of “very important” because I feel things big.)

Then, they said, “Pick five that will guide your actions, even on your worst days. These will be the values that you center your lives on, the values that make you say: ‘I may value not being in pain, but I value _______ more,’ keeping you participating fully in your life.”

JUST FIVE?

They put the decision in this context because many of us at the program were canceling many of our plans due to our desire to not be in as much pain as we would be if we were out and about, doing things and living life. I think it’s applicable to everyone, though, because many people can relate to choosing not to do things they care about – not to live out their values – because they don’t feel like they have the energy to give. Picking five values to focus on is a crucial exercise in being realistic, while also being optimistic and consistently focused on what matters to us – the things that keep us from calling it a day at 11 AM.

These were the things in summer 2016 that I decided to refuse to compromise on.

I reopen the envelope every December and redo the assessment so that I can take the five values I choose (and all the other values that I sneak into words that represented more than one value) and create goals with them. That way, my resolutions are always going to be based on my values: What’s really important to me? And they reflect the reality that I’ve lived more life since the last time I paused to create goals that have my values at the core.

All of us have limitations, and none of us can create 50 goals and expect to keep them. We can’t have 50 priorities in life and expect to be reliable and consistent at more than a few of them. And again, if you want some excellent and specific goal-setting and goal-keeping advice, you can check out the first version of this article, but at least for this year, I’m just going to make my resolutions more gently.

This year, I instead will ask and answer “I hope… I will…” for each of my five values.

and breathe neon sign on tre

I may revisit this activity many times as the year changes – are we doing life mainly virtually due to a rise in cases? Are we in person again? Have I gone through anything new and major?

And I am dedicating myself to reading the room, all of the signals my body and mind are trying to send me, and trying to meet myself with compassion – exactly where I am. I’ll increase goals if I’m kicking butt. I’ll decrease them if I’m struggling. But I won’t let go of finding a way to live out each of my values every day in small ways. Even just a text message to a friend that says “Hi! I love you!” is a way to live out the value of friendship on a lower-energy day. Friendship is a North Star for me.

Take time to figure out your “why”s before your “what”s and “how”s – and do it often – because it’ll lead to you living out your values with integrity and being able to feel pride in yourself, even in the most challenging of seasons. You’ll know your North Stars. What are you hoping will guide you? If you want to do a formal activity as part of understanding more about yourself, here’s the hands-on version I got to do, which involves printing and cutting out cards and a shorter online questionnaire from The Barrett Center for Personality.

Dear ones, as one of my favorite professors used to say, “Take good care of your good self.” May you be able to start this year with joy and hope, without regrets in your heart about this past year. You are doing your best, no matter what.

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