The Values-Driven Life: Let Go of Your Rules and Live with Purpose

Person in gold dress with long hair stretches arms out, spinning under blue skyWhat drives your decision-making—your rules or your values? Imagine a good friend asks you for a loan and you know, despite your friend’s best intentions, you will likely never get your money back. Do you agree to loan the money because that’s what friends are supposed to do or because you value this friendship more than the money? Do you decline to loan the money because friends and money don’t mix or because you value maintaining boundaries in all your relationships?

The distinction between rule-based and value-based living can be nuanced, and often both approaches lead to the same outcome. But under the surface, they point to vastly different modes of operation and perception. Clinging to excessive rules about who you are and how you should behave can be unfulfilling and ultimately self-sabotaging. Exploring and identifying your values may provide a needed wake-up call and generate a more multifaceted way of thinking and behaving.

What’s the difference between rules and values and how do you know which one is influencing your behavior? At the most general level, rules are imposed by external forces and values are the product of internal introspection. Rules by their very nature are designed to dictate specific behaviors, to provide structure and predictability, and utilize consequences or the fear of consequences to achieve adherence. Whatever the institution, the overarching goal of almost all rules is to provide order.

Values are the things, ideas, experiences, and people we find to have great importance and deep meaning in our lives. Values take time to flesh out, honesty to acknowledge, and commitment to put into practice. Thus, unlike rules, values are the refined essence of what intrinsically motivates us—spending time with family, cultivating spirituality, committing to a healthy lifestyle. Values-guided behavior is purposeful and mindful, without the expectation of receiving immediate gratification for the effort put forth.

Values give sacrifice meaning and purpose, and rules often lack this substantive quality.

While rule-dominated thinking can produce order from the chaos, it comes with a cost—the tendency to encourage a rigid self-concept. One quick way to check if thinking is predominantly rule-based is to notice how often you find yourself thinking you “should,” “shouldn’t,” “must,” or “can’t” do something. Also be mindful of global language like “always” and “never,” as in “I always finish something I start” or “I’d never be able to do something like that.” And then there are labels such as “I’m so type-A” or “I am a bad friend/parent/student.”

When we become fused with and buy into these rigid narratives, our responses are on autopilot with a predetermined course of action. The remedy for inflexible thinking is not to suppress it altogether or to replace negatively perceived thoughts with positive ones. Rather, it is to redirect your focus to what really matters in that moment and to become mindful of your available choices.

Here are some questions to help you tap into a more values-based mode of thinking:

  • Instead of asking what should I do, what value(s) do I wish to embody in this situation?
  • What is this action in the service of?
  • If I knew I would receive unconditional acceptance from everyone I know, what would I be doing with my life?
  • What would I like my obituary to say about me and my life?
  • What might happen if I could let go of being right about who I am?

Realizing what’s in your heart and being able to separate that from the content of your mind is a powerful combination that can be transformative. However, becoming intimately aware of your values and being able to act on them does not mean life suddenly becomes less challenging. In fact, sometimes it becomes more of a challenge because consciously committing yourself to anything for the long haul is hard work. Values give sacrifice meaning and purpose, and rules often lack this substantive quality.

If you are struggling to find meaning or purpose in your life, please consider reaching out to a mental health professional. We all struggle with self-limiting beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities. These beliefs, or “rules,” we build our lives around can leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled if left unchecked. Values can be difficult to pinpoint on your own, especially if perceptions have been clouded by too many rules. At the heart of any quality therapeutic experience is assisting you with clarifying what matters most to you and helping you move toward whatever that may be.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Janice R

    June 26th, 2017 at 9:06 AM

    Your purpose has to be you first then look to others. There is no way that you can ever make your life beneficial and fruitful if you don’t somehow learn to make your own priorities first.

  • Melissa Stringer, LMHC, NCC, DCC

    June 27th, 2017 at 8:16 AM

    I agree – valuing oneself before giving attention and focus to other priorities is a wise first step. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  • Rob

    June 26th, 2017 at 12:35 PM

    It feels strange to admit that for 30 years my life has always been driven by the pre set rules that other people laid out for me instead of the things that I hold to be near and dear to me. I don’t know why I have always chosen to go along with it. I guess because this felt like one of the rules- don’t speak up against what you are told.

    At thirty now this is beginning to feel pretty stifling to me, like I am not free to be who I want to be.

    The fear that I have is that I really don’t know how to do anything else and it sort of scares me to take that leap

  • Melissa Stringer, LMHC, NCC, DCC

    June 27th, 2017 at 8:25 AM

    Thank you for sharing this raw account of how you perceive preset rules to be a barrier in your life. The great news is that you appear to have enough insight to notice how it could be holding you back from “who I want to be”. It’s very normal to feel anxious or fearful, or even hopeless, about taking the next step – fear is often one of the primary emotions that pops up when you are moving towards something near and dear to you. It’s an indication you are taking a risk, moving out of your comfort-zone or “rule-trance”. I highly recommend reaching out to a mental health professional to assist you on this journey of discovering unworkable rules, and uncovering your innermost values as an alternate guide. Well wishes to you!

  • Tamara

    June 27th, 2017 at 1:25 PM

    So much of life is living with the uncertainty of fluidity. It can feel scary but also so liberating at the same time

  • Melissa Stringer, LMHC, NCC, DCC

    June 28th, 2017 at 9:43 AM

    Agreed! If we stay too locked inside a comfort zone, it can lead to a loss of autonomy and feeling of stuckness. We inevitably take risks when stepping outside our comfort zone that leads to success or failure, but you don’t get to experience one without the other.

  • Anonymous

    December 20th, 2018 at 5:41 PM

    Believe it or not, most rules were made for a reason, and were made to be followed regardless of how you feel about it or your values. Stealing is against the law—break that rule and you may go to jail. It’s the same reason we drive on the same side of the road and agree to wear clothes in public. Issues like public safety and hygeine are just two of the many reasons we have a lot of rules. Generally the more peoole in a space, the more rules there will be to keep things running smoothly.
    Just imagine how you would feel if people acted on their “values”, and drove on the wrong side of the road or defacated in the street?
    And rules are created because of shared values. Where do you think rules come from?

  • Christine

    November 13th, 2019 at 10:25 AM

    Subscribing to newsletter

  • The Team

    November 13th, 2019 at 10:29 AM

    Hi, Christine! Thank you for your question. You can subscribe to the GoodTherapy newsletter here.

  • Melissa Stringer, LPC, BC-TMH

    June 23rd, 2020 at 12:53 PM

    Thanks for sharing your feedback and question. The examples you provided (public safety) definitely call for rules…they function to keep us safe and sustain order/predictability. The rules I’m referring to in this article are of a different nature. Some of the rules we create for ourselves that negatively impact our behavior are indeed unhelpful. For example, someone with social anxiety might have an internal rule that states, “I must not say something stupid or uninteresting in conversations with others”. Not only is this rule unrealistic, it severely limits the the behaviors one can engage in to follow that “rule”. Reassessing rules does not equate to a free-for-all or doing whatever you want, when you want. We all have sets of helpful and unhelpful rules that are worth examining for their workability. This can be done while also respecting rules society has set forth for safety and protection purposes.

  • Felipe

    August 5th, 2020 at 4:34 AM

    This is a very well written, easy-to-read yet elegant article! Thank you Melissa for sharing this – it resonates deeply with me. You’ve put into words the conclusions that my own introspection has led me to in the last few years.

  • Melissa Stringer, LPC, BC-TMH

    August 5th, 2020 at 9:19 AM

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and sharing your feedback. I’m happy to know the article resonated with your lived experience, and perhaps provided some words to make more concrete.

  • Paula

    July 6th, 2022 at 1:16 PM

    This is a wonderful article. I am a counselor/therapist who has tripped over her own rules. I realized that so many decisions I have made are based on how I wanted society to perceive me instead of just being me! Thank you!

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