“At the end of life, our questions are very simple: Did I live fully? Did I love well?” ~ Jack Kornfield.
When was the last time you thought about what is most important to you? Are you so stressed by all the demands on your time, energy, and financial resources that you don’t even know what matters deeply to you any more?
Many people I talk to feel like there’s always too much to do, too little time, and not enough money.
I’m also convinced that ever-increasing acts of violence and natural disasters around the world are adding a certain unease to the mix by wearing away our sense of safety.
Whenever our stress levels are high it doesn’t take much to tip us over the edge into that unwelcome state called “overwhelm.”
It’s what we feel when there are lots of things we need to do or problems to solve, we don’t know what to start on first, and we fear that we will never be able to get it all done or restore balance and peace to our lives.
Sadness over senseless violence or natural disasters can also leave us feeling weighed down.
Overwhelm has strong emotional overtones which may include stress, confusion, fear, and/or anxiety. Look in any thesaurus and the synonyms for the word are, well, overwhelming: “inundate, swamp, bury, overload, overburden, snow under, crush, devastate.”
To anyone who’s experienced overwhelm, and I suspect that’s plenty of us, those words may be all too familiar. Whether it’s sudden or cumulative, the feeling is one of drowning, immobility and powerlessness.
“There are good reasons for feeling this way,” says M.J. Ryan, author of Trusting Yourself: How to Stop Feeling Overwhelmed and Live More Happily with Less Effort. “Daily life is more demanding and less spacious than it once was. We are flooded with information and choices. We are all doing too much and have fewer options than we might like. When I ask people about feeling overwhelmed, the words I most often hear are ‘inadequate’ and ‘helpless.’”
So What Can We Do About It?
Part of the problem is our cultural belief system that overrates doing, achievement and acquisition, and underrates quality of experience and connection with values.
In our cultural mindset, it’s not uncommon for a family member, friend or even a magazine article, with all good intention, to suggest the “Nike solution.” Just do it. There’s plenty of advice out there about how to get things done and be more productive.
But dealing with overwhelm isn’t about measuring accomplishment. It’s about connecting with what has meaning for us, with what nourishes and enlivens us.
Do you know what brings you joy? Have you defined what you value most in life?
Philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich called values our “ultimate concerns… which form the core of what we care passionately about. An ultimate concern is not an interest that is merely a fashion or a whim, but one that is a centering point for our lives.”
Your core values are what you are naturally inclined to do, are drawn toward or are eager for, without effort or even goal setting.
For example, I am naturally empathetic. It’s always been easy for me to respond compassionately toward people, animals, and the natural world. I don’t have to make myself feel or act with compassion – I just do. And I find it really painful to witness unkindness or cruelty. So empathy is a core value for me.
Some people are natural explorers – they were adventurous when they were little and as adults they still like to take off on adventure trips. They don’t have to make themselves go explore – they just do.
Others are natural inventors. They enjoy using their imagination to conceive and build an original design to meet a perceived need. They don’t force themselves to do this – it’s a natural inclination. Creativity might be one of their core values.
So your values are ideals that are personally important and meaningful to you. They are those interests and qualities to which you have always been attracted.
How To Start Designing Your Life Around Your Core Values
One of the best ways I know to stop being stressed and overwhelmed is to spend time defining and refining your most important core values.
And then design your life around them.
You do this by training yourself to always measure all your choices and actions against your core values.
Aligning with your values simplifies everything and leads to genuine integrity. You find the inner strength and spaciousness needed to lead life with calm and confidence, no matter what is sent your way.
Life becomes richer and more fulfilling because you’re living in your own true nature.
You can start by thinking about past experiences that have consistently brought you a sense of meaning, fulfillment, and joy. Reflect on the choices, actions, and relationships that have made you feel like you were living fully as your true self.
When we look back at the end of our lives, we all want to feel sure that we lived fully and loved well.
Here are some questions to help you get started:
- What’s something you did or were attracted to when you were 8 years old that still attracts you today?
- What is it about the state of the world that causes you real pain or heartache?
- If you had the chance to make a huge difference, what would you do to make the world a better place?
- What’s one thing you dream about doing that you’ve never told anyone?
- Where have you invested the best of your time, money and energy? Why?
- What do you take the most pride in, and why?
- What makes you feel fully alive when you are doing it, and why?
- What has been the most satisfying thing you’ve ever done, and what made it so fulfilling?
- At the end of your life, what would you most regret not having done?
I once heard someone say that the biggest challenge with values is getting hold of them, and that it can be like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. So if you’d like more help with this, I have a complimentary and more comprehensive exercise I could send you.
Just leave a comment or shoot me an email, and I’ll be happy to pass it on.
In these fast-paced, challenging times it’s more important than ever to discover, and design your life around, what truly matters to you.
“When we know what matters deeply to us, life isn’t so overwhelming,” says M.J. Ryan. “We don’t get bogged down as easily in the minutiae of our daily lives because what is most important is front and center.”
Please share your thoughts on overwhelm or values by leaving a comment.
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