What excuses have you made today?
Nope, I’m not getting all judgmental on you. Especially since I just paused to ask myself the same question and thought of several.
It’s easy to have an explanation for everything, isn’t it? You bought the dress because you’re going to need a nice one for Maria’s wedding anyway. I had to deviate from my food plan because the seminar was in a hotel with only one restaurant, and my choices were limited. What? Oh, sure, I could have ordered a salad, but the lettuce didn’t look fresh.
The difference between what we say we value and what we actually do sets up something called cognitive dissonance. We feel uncomfortable because we know we’re not walking our talk. Our minds naturally search for ways to close that gap so we can feel good about ourselves again. Excuses, explanations and rationalizations make convenient mortar for filling in the chinks and shoring up the walls of our self-esteem.
The problem is, all that mortaring takes energy, and the wider the gaps, the harder the job. This can easily kick off a long downward spiral of frustration, depression, and shame. You want to live in certain ways and do certain things, but you seem to have less and less energy to do them. Your talk and your walk drift further and further apart. And your walls need even more repair.
So how can you lay down the trowel and quit mortaring? Here’s one idea:
Figure out what you value.
This is tough to do because of all the socialization we undergo. Our parents and families are our first teachers, and we absorb their viewpoints and priorities automatically. Teachers, religious leaders and other authority figures dip their oars in as well. The mass media start pounding away at us as soon as we’re able to begin comprehending their messages.
And we’re not even aware that most of this is happening. Which means we’ve pretty much inherited an entire value system unconsciously.
To start repairing the gaps between your values and your actions, it helps to get some clarity on what those values are. Which ones are truly your own, and which came bundled with the software?
Are you up for a quick exercise? Grab a sheet of paper and quickly write out a list of the things you think are most important in life—the core ideals which form the bedrock of your personal value system. Aim for about 10-15 items, or whatever emerges in about three or four minutes of writing. Go ahead, do it now—I’ll wait.
(whistling some cheery on-hold music)
Okay, take a look at your list. I’ll bet it contains many items such as (in no particular order):
- Hard Work
. . . and the list goes on.
These are the types of “old standards” most of us inherit, and they seem so obvious that we rarely question them or think about them deeply. (Love? Of course! Who wouldn’t want love in their lives?) Plus—and this is key—we know at some level that it’s safe to espouse these beliefs. They’re socially acceptable because they are dictated to us by society.
Let me be clear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these values. In fact, most of us would agree they’re very important. They’re just . . . a little vague, don’t you think?
Let’s say you wrote down “courage,” for example. Sounds great—but what exactly does it mean to you? Not backing down in a physical confrontation? Getting over your fear of public speaking? Standing up for yourself and drawing healthy boundaries in a relationship? Going (oh, no!!!) to the dentist?
There is no judgment attached to any answers here. (Well, as long as you don’t value torturing living creatures or engaging in destructive hurtfulness, there’s not.) You just need to figure out what the stuff you’ve probably been parroting all your life really means to you, if anything.
Check your list. Is there anything you wrote down because you felt you should? Be honest. Maybe you don’t actually value hard work, or family. That’s okay! It doesn’t mean you’ll never work hard or spend quality time with your family—just that these are not going to be primary motivators for you. Maybe you feel you should go to church or spend time in meditation, but deep down it’s just not fulfilling to you. Again, no judgment. You’re only admitting this to yourself anyway, and I promise the world won’t end based on what you think and feel.
Speaking of feelings, the relief you feel when you accept what is true for you is immensely liberating. Maybe for the first time ever, you’re in a clear and conscious space with this stuff. And it feels wonderful.
Now add the values that you’d really like to have on your list, but were afraid wouldn’t look good. Rest and relaxation, anyone? Fun? Freedom? Travel? A different religious or spiritual perspective than you were raised with? Go ahead—this is your list, and no one else ever has to see it.
Congratulations! You’ve just taken a major step toward congruency between the things you say are important to you and the things you do. Because it’s a whole lot easier to walk your talk when you honestly believe in the things you’re saying.
(HINT: Even if you didn’t actually make a written list, I encourage you to mull this over for the next few days. Your unconscious mind can do some amazing things when you’re not looking, and you may be treated to an epiphany or two! If not, you’ll have dug a little deeper into your own motivations. That’s always a good thing.)