Steven Topper, LCPC

For many of us, we know what we want: family, success, esteem, love — this list could go on forever. Many of us also find that when we get these things, they aren’t quite what we expected. Finally got that promotion and it’s not as glamorous as you thought? Get married and your partner still has all their issues you already know about (the audacity!)? It can be incredibly deflating to work so hard for a goal, achieve it, and then feel unfulfilled. Yet this happens to us all the time, maybe even on a daily basis. One remedy to this might be to explore values and work in line with them, pivoting from a focus on achieving goals.
Goals and values have a lot of similar characteristics: aspirational, leading to feeling competent, we may be rewarded for working toward them. They also have some key differences. For one, a goal is a destination. If I want a new job, I can get it and check it off the to-do list. Values don’t work like this. If a goal is a destination than a value is a direction. It’s not something I can ever accomplish, just continue working toward.

For many of us, we set goals and then tie in many emotional experiences with those goals:

  • I’ll be so respected when I get that promotion
  • I won’t be lonely when I find someone who loves me
  • I’ll feel confident when I lose just a few pounds

This is our brain’s natural way of working. If we can incentivize these goals for ourselves (by making them seem attractive and helpful), we will find motivation to work toward them. However, the brain is also quite arrogant and thinks it can convince us that we once we get what we want everything will be better. Not only is this inaccurate, it also sets us up for disappointment, and may even lead to us reaching for goals that aren’t important to us. When we do this repeatedly, we end up feeling stuck wanting things that don’t bring us meaning, and we may quickly become unfulfilled and unmotivated.

Pivoting towards values can help us move toward a life worth living. When we shift toward focusing on values then imperfection, discomfort, and frustration can all come with us. Yet when we orient ourselves toward directions to walk instead of destinations to arrive at, we find ourselves walking to the places that are most important. Shifting toward values-based action also helps us contact the present moment. I can always, in every moment, act in a way that aligns with the value of curiosity (meanwhile goals often orient me toward future-focus). Each moment can become more meaningful, and this is one way to turn off auto-pilot. Initially it can be uncomfortable because many of us were told what to want from a young age. Finding our values can be important and meaningful, but it’s not always easy to know where to look.

How do we start finding these values? They’re often hidden in places we rather not look. Many of us have been crushed when being broken up with. It may be that we value being accepted, we value love. We’ve been devastated at the loss of a loved-one. We may value family, connection. We feel tremendous guilt at missed opportunities. Maybe we value hard-work, curiosity, or integrity. It’s so often that our deepest values can hide within our deepest pains. This often leads to people moving away from that pain, and incidentally moving away from their values. I experience a horrible break-up, so refuse to put myself out there. This can lead to loneliness, frustration, and anger.

Another place these values can hide is in the moments we’ve felt most alive. Think of when you’ve felt most authentic, or a time when you were totally enraptured with the events in front of you. It’s likely that these moments hold values as well. It could be creativity, compassion, and the list can continue. As we continue to uncover what our deep values are, it frees us up to set goals that align with those values and do things because they are meaningful, rather than for a specific outcome. When we’re able to do that, the goals we do achieve become more rewarding, and we aren’t has crushed when goals go unmet. It’s the journey that matters.

If you’ve found yourself struggling with feeling unfulfilled, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!