We’ve all experienced it.
It’s like being tied to two horses pulling in opposite directions. That feeling of having an equally compelling argument both for and against a decision, leaving you trapped in a frozen purgatory of indecision.
Look, we all want to do the “right” thing, right? For the most part, a majority of us are trying to be good, helpful folk. It’s just that sometimes doing the “right” thing isn’t clear-cut. And sometimes, the confusion is so intense that we end up doing nothing at all.
For those of us trying to live by our core values – trying to learn what it means to have integrity and be authentic – there’s a constant battle with decision-making. Most of the time it’s clearly a choice between fear-based neediness and value-based integrity. Even when we succumb to fear, we know deep down what the “right” thing to do was in that situation. But, sometimes, it’s not so obvious.
Today I want to talk about the times when values seem to conflict with each other. Those times when you feel like you have to choose between two or more values.
Do I be honest and say what I think, even if it will hurt someone’s feelings? Seems like a conflict between honesty and compassion.
Do I take a bold risk, even though it means breaking my previous commitment? Seems like a conflict between courage and loyalty.
Do I take care of my own needs, even if it means saying No to someone who needs my help? Seems like the value of caring is in conflict with itself.
You’ll will face these conflicts regularly in your never-ending battle for confidence and integrity. The good news is, these conflicts will build your character far more than any easy decision ever could.
For in these conflicts that we see the masks that fear wears.
What I’ve discovered is that there is no such thing as a conflict between core values (based on the definition of values that I use). For those of you who have read my latest book Nothing to Lose, you’ll know that by definition there is nothing that can prevent you from living by your values. This includes another value! Values complement each other; they do not compete.
A helpful way to look at these decision-making freezes is to start with the basic assumption that values are never in conflict. This means, by default, that one of the so-called values in this conflict is an imposter.
When these conflicts happen to me, I start by reminding myself: “One of the values in this conflict is Fear pretending to be a value.” This allows me to open myself to the possibility that I’m simply afraid of losing in some way, and I don’t want to admit it to myself.
Why would fear lie to us? Because the truth can be painful. I’d rather believe I have a values conflict than face the truth: That sometimes I need to let go of someone or something in my life, if I want to have integrity.
So, with that overly-long intro out of the way, here are the 5 reasons fear makes you freeze when you’re trying to choose the right thing to do (and what you can do about it);
1) YOU HAVE EMOTIONAL SHAME
Your emotions are there to give you information about your values, and guidance on how to live by them. Unfortunately, for most of us, we’ve been misguided during our upbringing to distrust our emotional reactions. Or even worse, the opposite: To think your emotions are sources of rational reasoning. Neither of these beliefs are helpful, in most cases.
Your emotions are like lights on a car dashboard. They tell you what to focus on and which values are required for a situation, so you need to be listening to them. However, emotions don’t tell you the most helpful way to express yourself; that’s where your rational mind can help.
If you believe it’s “wrong” or “weak” to experience certain emotions – usually these are sadness, fear, anger, confusion, depression and anxiety – then you have emotional shame. To cure this, you need to start listening to how your emotions are trying to help you live by your values.
Here’s a starter-pack guide. Use this as a decision-making guidance template to build on until you have defined your own understanding of what your emotions are trying to tell you:
Sadness = It’s time to connect with yourself or others through empathy, compassion and understanding.
Fear = Be careful, pay attention to risks and move forward with caution.
Anger = You need to be more assertive, passionate (focused engagement), or respecting of your boundaries.
Confusion = Your beliefs are being challenged by new evidence in some way, so be open-minded, curious and humble.
Depression = You are not prioritizing your well-being, OR you are too self-focused. Either way, you need to live more the values of giving and respect, and take time to reflect on and acknowledge what is happening in reality.
Anxiety = You are being alerted to what is important to you, and fictional future outcomes you’ve become irrationally attached to achieving. It’s time to act with courage, and get curious to become more presently grounded in reality.
2) YOU CONFUSE SOCIAL PRESSURE (VIRTUES) WITH VALUES
When your values ask you to do something that will be met with disappointment, disgust or offended outrage, your rational mind will start to fuck with your certainty.
Your whole life you’ve been influenced to believe what other people agree upon. This has been served to you as a valuable way to live, often through story-telling (e.g. movies), house rules and laws, definitions of “polite” or what it means to be a “good person”, religious commandments, and company policy.
None of these things have any reliable relevance to your values. The greatest revolutionary leaders of history simply realized their values contradicted society’s expectations and virtues. Often, you’ll be faced with this conflict yourself; an opportunity to lead.
When you’re worried about disapproval or disagreement, ask yourself, “Does their potential disagreement align with what I truly believe in?” You need to figure out if their point of view aligns with your version of the truth.
If the answer is No, then go ahead and upset them. You’ll be glad of it in the long run.
3) YOUR VALUES CONFLICT WITH SOCIAL APPROVAL
This one comes up a lot with the debate of Honesty vs Protecting Someone’s Feelings. We often believe that white lies, or deception through hiding how we feel, are justifiable if we predict someone will be upset.
Firstly, acknowledge that it’s not about protecting other people’s feelings. How someone else feels is not your responsibility – they have to manage themselves. The truth can only hurt someone if they don’t accept reality.
Yes, you can deliberately set out to harm someone, but living by your values usually means the opposite intention. Remember, there is a big difference between trying to hurt someone and trying to be honest. It’s not your fault if they are hurt by reality – they need to develop resilience.
Check in with yourself; what is your intention? If it is simply to live with integrity, then go for it. Make sure you aren’t trying to deliberately inflict harm, even when you know being true to yourself will upset someone.
Holding back your truth just to avoid hurting others is the foundation for a lifetime of regret.
4) YOUR VALUES ARE ASKING YOU TO TAKE RISKS
Fear will pretend it’s trying to keep you safe. You may even come to realize that perhaps it’s trying to keep you comfortable. But it goes even deeper than that…
Fear only wants the familiar.
You may hate things the way they are, but fear doesn’t. Even if you’re being abused by a shit boss, or suffering from your unhealthy diet, or dissatisfied with your mediocre lifestyle, fear doesn’t care. Fear is reptilian; it just wants everything to stay the same.
When living by your values seems dangerous, note that most of the time this simply means it’s unfamiliar. These are not inherently the same thing.
Going up to a stranger to live by the value of courage might seem risky, but statistically it’s not. It’s more dangerous to get in your car, but you don’t hesitate to do that, do you?
Standing up for what you believe in seems like something that will get you killed, but you only believe that due to a bias called heuristic availability. Namely, you saw evidence of someone getting harmed on the news once and remember that more strongly than the fact that millions of people stand up for themselves every day without getting seriously hurt.
When the conflict seems to be about safety, ask yourself, “Where’s the objective evidence that I’m genuinely at risk here? How is this different to the made-up predictions my mind is creating? What scientifically conducted study proves that this is dangerously unmanageable?”
You’ll quickly notice that things like trying new hobbies, asking for a promotion, and standing up for yourself have no factual basis for feeling endangered. It’s just fear pretending to be safety because it hates change.
Plan for what you’ll do if it all goes to shit, and then just do it. Embrace change.
5) NEITHER OPTION IS ALIGNED WITH YOUR VALUES
So often, in the battle for authenticity, you’ll feel you must choose between two extreme options at either end of a spectrum. Do I be submissively nice to everyone, or a totally selfish jerk? Do I brutally speak my mind, or keep everything I think to myself? Do I chuck it all in to chase my dream, or stick with my shitty day-job?
My first coach called this “catastrophizing.” I used to look at a difficult situation and swing like a pendulum from one terrible outcome to its opposite – and equally terrible – counterpart. It took me a while to learn that I had a tendency toward black and white thinking, an inability to consider shades of grey, when I was feeling distressed.
If neither option seems appealing or aligned with your values, ask yourself, “What third option am I unable to see?”
It’s times like these that going to another person for their perspective is most helpful. Often, our needy desire for self-pity – to maintain a victim identity – creates a compulsion toward painful outcomes. We want to believe that every choice is doomed, to confirm our “poor me” position in life. We want to see proof that our life is comparatively more painful and difficult than our peers. We want it so bad that our confirmation bias actively seeks to create evidence to support it.
Other people, particularly trusted sources with your best interest at heart, won’t have this attachment distracting them. Simply tell them what you value, explain the compromising situation you’re in, and ask them to identify the alternative third option you’re not seeing.
LIVING BY VALUES IS SIMPLE BUT NOT EASY
Building confidence is simple but requires hard, painful work. Your values are generally straight-forward in any given situation. But your fearful desire for an “easy” life complicates things.
There is no such thing as an easy life. Never, in the documented history of humankind, has a single person ever experienced a pain-free, suffering-free existence. It simply can’t be done. Living by values is a choice of pain, usually, but at least it comes with the great rewards of confidence and integrity.
In the end, when faced with what appears to be a values conflict, ask yourself, “Which option would I choose if all fear of pain was removed?”