There are many factors that can undermine our ability to act in alignment with our core values. These include social pressure, inconvenience, fear of rejection, and self-doubt.
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 fascinated by him and his work.
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
In practice, living in alignment with our values is not always simple. Sometimes, we don’t defend our values when criticized. We may find that we give in to peer pressure when we are the only one in a group who holds a certain 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. Recognizing these potential obstacles allows us the opportunity to adjust our behaviors in real time.
Let’s explore how values change over the course of life. 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 realized that they’d rather teach mindfulness to kids – and who ended 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 if we don’t think the event was funny.
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 energy, 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 kilometers down a busy highway each morning and evening, especially factoring in family and other commitments.
Many people have no choice but contradict their own values in some way each day. We might care about health but work for a tobacco company. Or we value kindness yet find ourselves shouting at our kids before 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 rejection and 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 prioritize 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 toward 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.
It is estimated that 70% of us will experience imposter syndrome during our lives. This is extreme self-doubt and may result in procrastination, inaction, and loss of opportunity. In the age of influencers, where so many people seem to exude extreme self-confidence, many of us become paralyzed by taking decisive, values-aligned action.
Who has ever wrestled with a draft tweet or Instagram post and then decided never to send it? I imagine more of us than we’d like to admit.
Now that we have explored four common obstacles to values alignment, it is time to discover how you can live in alignment with your values. If you’re not sure what your values are, then start with our comprehensive list of values.
Be clear about what is important to you, and the world will open up in seemingly mysterious ways. There is, however, no mystery. When you know what you value and you know the obstacles preventing you from staying aligned, then you will remain focused on what is most important. There is a crossover here into visualization and even the pseudoscientific Law of Attraction. However, studies demonstrate that prayer — a concerted focus on what you want — improves all aspects of life.
But the starting point is knowing what you want. Good luck on the journey, fellow traveller.