Published Mar 30, 2017 on Lyra Blog
By Rebecca Aptekar, PsyD
In blackjack, when you have 16 and the dealer is showing 10, you have a tough choice. You can either “hit” or “stand,” but regardless of what you choose, you’re more likely to lose than win. In a situation like this, it’s helpful to have a decision-making framework based on the science of probability. When you think in terms of probability, the decision to hit or stand is less likely to be influenced by how you’re feeling or whether or not you just had a bad hand.
Having a decision-making framework in place is also helpful when you’re faced with bigger questions. Should I move to a new city? Do I want to end my relationship? Should I quit my job? Should I have a third child? These are stressful, anxiety-provoking situations. It can easily feel like everything will fall apart if we don’t choose correctly. So we make long lists of pros and cons, seek advice from everyone around us, and endlessly think it over. Before we know it, we can become stuck weighing all the options. Having a framework can help us get unstuck, and the framework I recommend is based on your values.
Your values are what you want your life to be about. They act like a compass, pointing you toward the life you want to build. For example, you may decide that your values at work are “to be dependable, creative, and a team player.” Notice that I didn’t say “to be successful” or “to be the best marketing director.” Those are goals. Values specify a direction, not specific destinations. But if you use them as a framework for decision-making, they can help you achieve your goals.
Let’s look at an example of how your values might guide you in a relationship. If you decide that your values are “to be supportive, authentic, and to connect,” you can bring that to every moment with your partner, whether you’re going for a walk, planning a vacation, or having an argument. Even if you’re angry, you can still be supportive, authentic, and connected. Values inform how you act, not how you feel. And they don’t specify actions. There is a multitude of ways to act in alignment with your values in any situation.
Let’s connect this to bigger life decisions—the kind that keep us up at night. If you’re deciding whether or not to stay in your relationship, you might ask yourself how present your values are in that relationship. Does it feel possible to be supportive, authentic, and connected with your partner in an ongoing way? Your partner might have his or her own values—are they compatible with yours? When things are tough, do you still feel like you’re both pulling in the same overall direction?
The answer might not be immediately clear. Again, values don’t tell you exactly what to do. They connect you to the big picture: who you want to be and what you want your life to be about. They also dignify the pain and discomfort that comes with making difficult decisions. If you make a choice based on your values, it may still hurt, but you will know your choice is grounded in something deeply meaningful to you.
If you approach decisions with a values-based framework, you’ll likely feel more empowered because you are acting with integrity. Some decisions won’t work out, and you’ll have to readjust. But along the way, you will grow and learn, and you’ll know that whatever you decide, your choices are based on what’s most meaningful to you.