“This above all: to thine own self be true” William Shakespeare
Whilst working in an NHS adult mental health service as a clinical psychologist I was once referred a man with depression. Let’s call him Peter.
Peter and his wife had chosen not to have children and instead had pursued high-flying careers in finance. He worked in the private banking part of a major high street bank and, until recently, had been doing extremely well in his career.
But in the months prior to his referral Peter had become increasingly anxious and depressed. After some investigation it turned out that at the root of his depression was a crisis of meaning. It seemed this had been triggered by issues at work which had caused him to compromise on his values.
He felt he was under increasing pressure at work to sell financial products that he didn’t believe in to people who he felt weren’t always appropriate.
For this reason, Peter felt he was trapped doing a job for which he had made many sacrifices but in which he no longer felt fulfilled. He felt he was being forced, by his managers, to live and work in a way that compromised things that he believed were right and proper and good – his values.
This ultimately led Peter to question everything – the point of his job, the point of his life, the point of life in general. His depression became all encompassing and ended up affecting every area of his life. He became incredibly isolated and lost all his confidence. His recovery was slow and involved him completely reevaluating his goals in life.
We began our work together in the early summer of 2008, a few months before the global recession, economic downturn, credit crunch – call it what you will – that would soon come crashing onto the world stage.
It was only after our work had finished that I noticed the irony of him presenting with these concerns when he did and the way it had foreshadowed the global recession.
His values in the long term turned out to be incredibly important – not just for him as an individual but for society as a whole. The transgression of this value on a global scale had possibly played a significant role in triggering one of the worst financial crises of the last century.
What working with Peter also illustrated to me was how incredibly important our values are to us and the amount of frustration and distress that can be caused when we are forced to live in a way that compromises them.
So if values are so important, why is it that so many of us have no idea of what our own values really are? Why does this concept of values feel so woolly and so alien?
I don’t think many people can reel off the ‘top 10 values’ by which they live their life. Most people, myself included, aren’t that conscious of what they actually are. Bizarrely it seems that it’s only when they are contravened that we become aware of them – as happened to Peter.
Your values are what matters to you, what’s important, what you care about.
Values are connected to meaning in that we as humans need to know, not just ‘why do I live?’ The other side of that same dilemma is ‘how shall I live?’
Nowadays we are freer to work out what our values are. In our increasingly liberalised societies, the church, the state and our educational institutions have less power over how they think we should live our lives.
For that reason, now, more than ever, we need to develop our own set of guidelines or principles that tell us how to live, and that help us work out what’s important to us.
We need to do this because these principles help us to organize our lives. Without them we would live in chaos. They enable us to prioritise what is important.
And prioritising is necessary because time is limited – it is our most precious resource. If life continued forever then perhaps we wouldn’t need to. We’d get round to doing it all – one day. But it doesn’t. Our mortal lives are finite. And so it makes sense to invest the time that we have as best we can, in the things we truly believe in and that matter to us.
So we should make efforts to uncover and clarify our values. Research suggests that people who do live their lives according to their values are more likely to be fulfilled and contented. They know themselves and feel they are true to themselves.
If Peter had been more keenly attuned to the fact that his work situation was causing him to compromise on values that were so important to him, then perhaps he would have had more confidence to speak up about it with his managers at an earlier stage, thereby possibly preventing his downward slide into depression.
Having laid out the case for why we should make a conscious effort to uncover our values, in my next article on values we will discuss how one might go about doing so.