“Still don't know what I was waitin' for and my time was runnin' wild; a million dead end streets and every time I thought I'd got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet.” ~lyrics from ‘Changes' by David Bowie
There are times in life when we feel lost. Something seems off, but we can't put our finger on it. These feelings can manifest as boredom, restlessness, or even depression.
When this happens, one common scenario is to push harder. You put on a great game face and tell yourself that this will pass, to just ignore it and it will go away. Sometimes it does go away briefly. You fill your life with activity and distractions, and maybe you feel better for a while. But in the quiet moments, the emptiness creeps back in.
Another reaction is despair and struggle. That lost feeling makes you claw around like a drowning man, grasping at salvation wherever you can find it. You ask friends, go to counseling, read self-help books, trying this or that method or formula for happiness, peace of mind, and for the elusive “thing” that will provide them.
The strange thing about happiness and peace of mind is that they are ephemeral. You finally think you have found them, and then after a few months or years, they float away inexplicably. And you're left stunned, because you really thought you had it right this time.
The wonderful and terrible thing about the human psyche is that it is constantly changing.
We silently (or sometimes tumultuously) drift into a new phase of life, but no one tells us to expect upheaval. Or if they do, we don't believe them, because we have our particular life under complete control.
And then it happens. You step into the shifting sands of a life transition, and you are stuck. The more your flail, the more stuck you become. This has happened to me many times during my adult life. During the first few times, all I could do was wonder, “What's happening, what's happening?” It was totally unexpected and frightening.
In more recent years, I've come to expect these upheavals. All of that early flailing about wasn't a complete waste. I did learn some things from the reading and searching. The most useful thing I learned is that it's much better to go with it than fight it.
I also learned that this is the time to reevaluate. This is the time to embrace that everything you once valued as most important may not be what you value now. (Did you notice that the word “reevaluate” has the word “value” in it?)
When you are in the midst of a life transition, or even when you're not, it is essential to regularly take stock of your values, and then do whatever you can to align your life with your most critical values. Living in harmony with those values creates the fertile environment for happiness and peace of mind. Some people call this living authentically.
When you do the exercise of assessing your values, you are helping yourself in two ways:
- First, the flailing about stops because you gain a sense of control over your destiny.
- Secondly, you discover that you always have the answers for yourself if you take the time and space to search for them. You will save yourself a lot of time and angst if you begin inside instead of outside.
Sometimes we need some cues to help us define our values. In my coaching work, I ask clients to review a list of value words to begin defining what's important to them.
If you'd like to try this exercise now, here's a good list of value words. Print out two copies now so that you can work with it as you read this article.
Here's what to do:
1. First, go through the list of words on one copy and circle every value word that feels important to you for your life in general.
2. Then, go through the second list and circle every value word that feels important for your career or work.
3. For both lists, pick your top ten values, and write them down on two separate sheets of paper. Title one sheet “Life Values” and the other “Work Values.”
4. From each list of ten, pick the top five that are absolutely non-negotiable in your life. This may be hard, as all ten might seem that way. But you have to narrow the field to create a usable compass for your life and career.
5. Now get two more sheets of paper (one for Life Values and one for Work Values), and list each of your top five values, leaving a good amount of space for writing between each value.
6. Under each value, on the left side of the page list all of the ways you are currently living in alignment with this value. On the right side, list the ways you are living out of alignment with this value.
7. Now flip the papers over and list the values again, leaving space in between each word. For each value, think about actions you could take to fix those “out of alignment” situations. Write these down for both life and work even if the actions seem impossible right now.
8. On both lists of actions, make a check mark next to the actions that are doable for you now or in the near future. Break these actions down into even smaller, easily manageable actions.
9. Pull out your calendar and plot these small actions into your schedule in a way that is easy to accomplish. You don't have to rush through this because you want to give your psyche time to catch up with your changes.
10. As you accomplish some of these smaller actions, you may want to revisit your list to see if you feel ready to tackle some of the harder ones. Use your feelings of emotional strength and self-confidence as a guide.
Even small, incremental changes that align your life with your values will create a huge shift in your feelings and attitude. You will have a sense of direction, a blueprint for your life and work that feels authentic to you, even if you can't act on it all immediately. This is incredibly empowering. You will still have times of transition and upheaval, but this gives you the tools to navigate yourself to calmer shores.