What 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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