Competing values and conflicting desires

Many years ago, I trained to work on a crisis hotline for women in domestic violence situations. One night of our training, we did an exercise that has really stuck with me over the years.

We were given a sheet a paper with about a hundred different personal values written on it. We then took scissors and cut from the list the fifteen values on it that mattered most to us. Then we took those fifteen little slips of paper, each with an individual value on it, and whittled them down to the ten values that mattered most to us. And then five. And finally, three.

The instructor asked us, “How does it feel to let go of the things you value? To not be able to hold onto them? What do you notice about what matters most to you?”

The most surprising thing that came out of this exercise for me was realizing that one of my top three values was predictability. I’d had no idea predictability was so important to me. It didn’t sound very “exciting” to my young self at all. But I knew in my bones that this value of predictability was a true one for me.

What also came out of this exercise, though, was that another very important value for me was “a sense of possibility.” I had a hard time, back then, reconciling this with the deeply held value of predictability. But as I worked on the crisis hotline and talked to women in dire situations, I could see that most of them had a strong desire for predictability and a strong desire for possibility, both of which often felt cut off from them.

We humans are complex. Years later, both predictability and possibility are still deeply defining values for me. What I’ve discovered is that, for me, the risk of the possible often springs from the safety and stability created by the predictable — and vice versa. They are not as much at odds with each other as I’d once thought, and in fact I want to have the feeling of both, regularly, in my life.

I’ll admit, though, that when I learned “predictability” was a strongly held value for me, it felt at odds with my sense of who I was. Owning that value has been a challenge for me. But owning it made so much intuitive sense to me — I had for years at that point involved myself in relationships that were highly unpredictable, and I never felt safe or cherished in them.

One of the most frequent challenges I see coming up for coaching clients is exactly this: values that seem to “compete”, and along with them, desires that seem (on the surface, anyway) to conflict. On the one hand, we want this. And on the other, we want that. Sometimes the different things we value and desire may seem about as in sync as oil and water.

Here are some more examples from my own life of how this can look:

  • I value routine, but I also value flexibility and variety
  • I value solitude, but I also value lots of connection with others
  • I consider myself a homebody, but I also value exploring new places
  • I value a feeling of privacy, but I also value being seen and known

I used to think I was alone in having so much contrast in what I valued and wanted. But having spent nearly eight years connecting with people in my life coach role, I now know that it is extremely common to have values and desires that seem to conflict and compete all over the place. I’d say it’s just part of being human.

Our minds love to grab onto the all-or-nothing, the black and white. The part of the brain that wants to ensure our physical survival particularly gets caught up in this, because it is always trying to simplify. This is great with things that actually are simple: if I’m crossing the street and a car is zooming toward me without slowing, I’d better get out of the way.

With the complexities in our lives, though, it’s much more helpful to honor that they are complex. That things are not as all-or-nothing as they may seem. Or that, as Byron Katie says, our minds often get things “backwards”. (The Work of Byron Katie is a fantastic way to question what your mind believes. Katie says it is “meditation”.)

If you take my list above, for example, how does it feel different for you if we simply replace the word “but” in each sentence with the word “and”? That would look like this:

  • I value routine, and I also value flexibility and variety
  • I value solitude, and I also value lots of connection with others
  • I consider myself a homebody, and I also value exploring new places
  • I value a feeling of privacy, and I also value being seen and known

Wow! Just rewriting that list, I felt this amazing sense of spaciousness and possibility (one of my core values!) that I didn’t feel much of at all when I wrote the list with the word “but”. (As Martha Beck likes to say, watch out for your big buts!)

So when I work with clients who have competing values or conflicting desires (or both!), we first invite that sense of spaciousness to the table. How does it feel different if this is welcome, and that is also welcome?

What often happens from this place of spaciousness is one of two things: it turns out that one value or desire actually is more important than the other (so they are not truly competing or conflicting — it’s just that one takes more of a “supporting role”); or, there is very much a way that the energies of these seemingly competing or conflicting values or desires can co-exist.

When we see this possibility, we know that we are in the highly creative zone of our brains (as opposed to the “lizard brain” that is concerned only with our physical survival).

Where do you notice competing values and conflicting desires in your life? How do you work with them? I’d love to hear from you.

P. S. My Stellar Self-Care (In an Overwhelming World) one-on-one coaching program will begin enrolling at the end of this month. Want to learn more? You can contact me through my Ways We Can Work Together page.

Above images © Daniel Janusauskas | Dreamstime Stock Photos, and © Thorsten | Dreamstime Stock Photos, respectively

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6 thoughts on “Competing values and conflicting desires

  1. This has been so true for me. When I started using ‘yes, AND’ rather than ‘but’, everything opened out. It feels like a relief to know that both are ok and also possible, that you’re not just awkward and stuck, and relief for me is always an indicator of right direction. It’s comforting to see your list of ‘conflicts’ as well – much the same as mine {and everyone’s?!}. I’ve noticed that my highest value of freedom has to be paradoxically rooted in its ‘opposite’; if I don’t feel safe at some level I can’t be fully free. I learned it in relationships too; if we’re not allowed to say no, our yeses don’t come easily and have less value. When I have the safety of being able to say yes OR no, I find I’m more likely to say yes. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tara, what a fantastic comment! I so agree that both/and rather than either/or thinking really frees us up, and that the feeling of relief is an excellent indicator of our best direction. I’m with you as well on safety and freedom — without a true feeling of safety, it’s challenging to really feel free. So agree on the yeses and no’s, too! Your comment is reminding me of the importance of “shadow work” — the qualities we don’t “allow” in ourselves are usually needed in order to help us feel more whole, and give us more true options. 🙂

      Always great to hear from you!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes – I talk about it a lot in my work as an artist/teacher too. In my own experience, and as I see so often in others, we label all sorts of things as negatives when they always have a message or can be useful or supportive in some way if we look a little more closely {and start using that yes and!}. Things like procrastination and being interested in lots of different things are not the ‘bad’ things we seem to have all been taught. And they can always be reframed into something that supports us. I don’t read as many blogs as I used to, but I always enjoy your posts. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • So true, Tara. That reframing is enormously helpful. And the more we label something “bad”, the more we tend to push it away and miss out on the opportunity to integrate it and learn from it.

          I’m so glad you enjoy my posts — I love getting your take on them! It’s always insightful and gives me more food for thought. 🙂


  2. Jill, this resonates so much with my experience. I actually just hosted a webinar today talking about how much of our anxiety comes when we have two beliefs (or values) that appear at odds with one another, so perfect timing!

    As ever, I love your mindful, gentle, and thoughtful approach to working with these seeming contradictions and dualities.

    This post also made me curious – have you ever explored the Enneagram at all? I only ask because I’ve been reading about it recently, and identifying my “type” has helped me clarify some of my struggle with either/or thinking, and embracing dualities rather than getting stuck in them. To no one’s surprise, my type is called “The Perfectionist.” 😉

    Anyway, thank you again for all that you do and all that you are. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Caroline! I’m so glad this resonated — and what cool timing with you exploring these issues in your webinar as well!

      As to the Enneagram, yes — I first discovered it way back in the early 90s (yikes!) and it seems I revisit it every few years. I’m by no means an expert on it, but I find it fascinating and helpful. I guess it does make a kind of brilliant sense that you would be a type 1 (I think that’s the perfectionist Enneagram type?). I always test as an Enneagram 4 (which struggles with perfectionism in slightly different way!). There’s a guy on Youtube named Joshua French who does these hilarious impressions of each Enneagram type. You might want to check them out, I died laughing at his type 4 (it was so me, especially in my 20s!).

      Thanks so much for chiming in — it’s always a joy to hear from you! 🙂


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