True freedom is where an individual’s thoughts and actions are in alignment with that which is true, correct and of honour – no matter the personal price.
Bryant H McGill
Artists and creatives are known for boldly living by their own sets of values, even when it means going against the grain and being ostracised. For example, Banksy, the world-famous street artist started down an unconventional path in Bristol, England in the 1990s. He knew that in order to create works that truly embodied the spirit of rebellion, he had to be a rebel himself. Banksy hid his identity and worked outside of the system as he developed his signature stencil graffiti style. Even as his popularity grew, he continued creating on his own terms, serving up radical social commentary through his street art. Banksy still works in relative anonymity and does not sell photographs or reproductions of his art. He is staunchly against consumerism and the way that he has approached his calling reflects this.
Has it been easy for Banksy to pursue this path? Of course not. But the fact that he has always maintained his own style and stuck to his values is part of the reason that he has gained international respect and why people are so fascinated with him and his work.
In practice, living in alignment with our values is not always simple. Sometimes, we don’t defend our values when criticised. We may find that we give in to peer pressure when we are the only one in a group who holds a belief. Sometimes many of us act completely against our own values just to take a certain job or fit in with the crowd. No one is perfect, and we all act in ways that contradict our values at times. The media loves stories about celebrities and politicians who stray from their path.
There are many reasons why we fall out of alignment. Recognising them gives us the opportunity to adjust our behaviours in real-time.
As children we indulge in creative play, letting our imaginations run wild. The future is an open book and it feels like anything is possible. We dream about becoming astronauts, superheroes, rock stars and magicians. The adults in our lives may even encourage these ideas.
As we enter puberty, we start feeling the pressure to conform. Conventional education enforces a set of rules, along with a formula for academic success. Social acceptance suddenly becomes a burning desire, as we gaze into a future that seems beyond our control. We notice that people who stray outside the lines get left out or made fun of. So we either rebel and face the consequences or do our best to conform, even if it makes us unhappy.
University can be an enriching or confusing time and we’re soon out in the world, small fish in big ponds, possibly laden with debt and the prospect of a career path that is misaligned with our values. I’ve met lawyers who realised that they’d rather teach mindfulness to kids – and end up doing it beautifully.
The social pressure to conform to other people’s values can be confusing in our twenties. Work exposes us to individuals much more experienced than ourselves, all with different values and perspectives. Sometimes we change as we learn and grow, sometimes we outgrow the people we know.
If our espoused values put us in opposition to a social group or community, we often face negative consequences. In an age where one comment on social media can be misinterpreted and spread out of context in seconds, it’s easy to see why many people feel apprehensive about speaking their minds and living authentically. Sometimes it feels like life is easier if we don’t have to choose values for ourselves and rather just follow the crowd. Outrage culture exemplifies this tendency.
If we value being kind and then find ourselves gossiping, we’re directly contradicting our values, which ultimately doesn’t feel good. Equally, laughing at someone’s misfortune to fit in with a group, does us no good.
But let’s look at a more complex example that many of us deal with on a day-to-day basis, in a situation that is nearly impossible to avoid. Many people care deeply about the environment and want to live sustainably. However, countless people also have no choice but to rely on a car in order to get to work. Unless we have an electric car powered by solar panels, we’re polluting the atmosphere and contributing to global warming on a daily basis. But if we can’t walk, bike or take public transport to work, we don’t have any other option. It’s unrealistic to expect someone to walk 10 kilometres down a busy highway each morning and evening.
Many people have no choice but contradict their own values in some way each day. We might care about health but consult to a tobacco company. Or we value kindness and find ourselves shouting at our own kids at bedtime. Sometimes, it is difficult for even the most committed among us to live completely by their values.
A common scenario is that we compromise our values to avoid conflict or rejection by friends, peers, and even loved ones.
Fear of loneliness
Human beings are tribal creatures. It is for good reason that we crave approval and validation from others. Throughout our evolution being included was quite literally a matter of life or death. If the group cast us out, we had to survive alone in a dangerous environment. Although this is not generally the case anymore, our brains still prioritise social acceptance. And while it’s true that periods of loneliness aren’t life threatening, being lonely and isolated for too long have negative outcomes for our mental health.
Living by our values means that we might find ourselves standing alone at times. This feels uncomfortable because we evolved to be part of a tribe, and when we no longer have protection from the group, we panic.
Seeking validation from others is not the path to true happiness so we all need to develop the courage to contradict popular opinion and risk being disliked. But it’s also true that we’re always going to want to feel accepted and loved. Sometimes, taking the initiative to stand alone and carve our own path will lead us towards others who share our values, but there are often a lonely first few steps on that journey.
When living by our values leads us outside of the crowd, it’s only natural to experience moments of self-doubt. After all, when no one else seems to be on our side, it’s completely normal to wonder if disagreeing with the mainstream opinion means that we’re in the wrong. If we don’t feel confident and secure in our choices, we might end up going back on our principles.