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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Self-care starts with self-connection (+ deadline to enroll in Stellar Self-Care)


Nearly two years ago, I created my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program when I noticed a particular pattern in my life coaching clients: they needed permission to take exquisite care of themselves.

I realized that many of my clients — and this had certainly been true of myself as well — confused self-care with self-indulgence. (See “The difference between self-care and self-indulgence” for more on this.)

I also worked with people who had not established what I call a “self-care bottom line” for themselves — in other words, they weren’t sure about the basics that they needed to function at their best. And these basics will not necessarily be the same from one person to the next.  (See “Your self-care bottom line” for more on this.)

And some of my clients had been really excellent with their self-care practices — but life changes had shifted their daily lives to an extent that what worked before no longer worked quite as well. (See “Radical self-care: when your normal has changed” for more on this.)

Another common theme with my clients (most of whom identify as highly sensitive and introverted) was the huge lack of permission to allow themselves the amount of downtime they actually needed to feel balanced and recharged. (See “When your downtime doesn’t happen” for more on this.)

Our world is full of constant lures to disconnect from ourselves. And escapism can be just what we need at times — but if our disconnection from our essential selves is ongoing, we’ll notice, as a client I worked with the other day pointed out, a lack of presence in our lives.

We won’t feel connected to our true selves. And that self-connection is where self-care begins. If we don’t make a commitment to connecting with ourselves regularly, we simply won’t know what we need.

What this means is that we must make the choice to be in relationship to ourselves. This is fundamental. If you notice that you frequently choose to disconnect — to not nurture a relationship with yourself — consider these two things:

Your brain is wired to seek out pleasure and comfort. This is part of the skill set of your “old brain” — your “reptilian brain” that is only concerned with whether you survive (not whether you thrive). So don’t beat yourself up when you grab your cell phone or iPad and find yourself sucked into Youtube or Facebook. Just notice, with curiosity. How does it feel? I notice that I enjoy the online world a lot more when I am already feeling filled up within myself rather than when I use it to fill me up. If it feels more like I’m distracting myself from something uncomfortable within me, it’s time to step away and reconnect with myself.

• Connecting with yourself may feel uncomfortable, especially if it is unfamiliar, or if you are in a challenging place in your life. Being able to sit in that discomfort is key if you long to feel more connected. As one of my mentors often says, the ability to sit with our own discomfort is one of the most valuable life skills we can cultivate. But if we are committed to avoiding our own discomfort, we’ll only get more of what we’re avoiding.

It is so much more powerful to move toward connection with ourselves than to move away from discomfort.

Do you need support in putting connection with YOU at the center of your life? Enrollment for my Stellar Self-Care Coaching Program ends on April 30. (This is for the one-on-one program — please note that the group version, which starts this week, is full.) Find out more, here.

Above image © creativecommonsstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Feeling Lizardy?

Image is Green Anole © David Huntley |

When I went through life coach training with Martha Beck, one of my assignments was to get in touch with my “inner lizard” and give it a name. Up until that point, I didn’t even know I had an inner lizard. But I do. And you have one too.

What Martha Beck terms the “inner lizard” is our reptilian brain. It’s the part of our brain that is purely interested in our physical survival. It’s a really helpful mechanism — when our physical survival is actually at stake. If Krusty the Klown is chasing me down an alley wielding a giant knife (because this is the world I live in), my inner lizard is a wonderful asset: it says, Run! You’re going to die! Krusty wants to kill you! And I do run, because, see, Krusty wants to kill me.

The problem is that our inner lizards react as though our survival is at stake ALL THE TIME, because that’s what they do. But most of the time, my survival is not actually at stake. If I listen to my lizard in these instances, I can quickly turn into an adrenaline-soaked, sleep-deprived sugar junkie (which is where I personally go when I listen to my lizard — you might go to a completely different place, and I hope it’s a happier place than mine. But if you’re listening to your lizard when you don’t need to, it’s probably not.)

When I got acquainted with my inner lizard, I discovered a raging, shaking, lime-green creature about the size of a squirrel. He sat on my shoulder, breathed his filmy lizard breath into my ear and and threw his little lizard arms up a lot (yes, in my world my lizard has arms). He said things like, “If you don’t return that person’s call right away, they are going to hate you, and then they are going to reject you, and then you are going to be all alone! And then you’re going to die … alone!”

He said things like: “If you don’t get a good night’s sleep tonight, you’re going to be too tired to get through the day! And then you won’t be able to get anything done! And then you’ll never make any money! And then you’ll be on the street! And then you’ll die … alone!”

I named my lizard Garcia (there was this great pizza place called Garcia’s I hung out at more than twenty years ago at Indiana University. They had an ice cream concoction with whipped cream on the top called a Lizard. I had way too many of those. So Garcia seemed like a fittingly nostalgic name for my lizard). Just naming the little guy caused me to feel much more tenderly toward him. I mean, geez, look how scared he is all the time. I’ve learned to talk very tenderly and soothingly to him. When he freaks out, I say things like, “Well, sweetie, let’s see. Is what you’re freaking out about really true? Will we really end up on the street if we don’t get a good night’s sleep tonight? Let’s take a look.”

Garcia on my shoulder

Sometimes, I say to Garcia, “Your concerns are noted, and I’m going to get back to you later. Now have a very nice nap while I go on with my day.”

And sometimes, many times, I totally buy into what Garcia is telling me. “Oh my God, Garcia, you’re right! We are going to be friendless and homeless if we aren’t extra-nice to the neighbor we don’t like!” “Oh, Garcia, you have a point! If we don’t go to that baby shower we really don’t want to go to, we are going to be shunned, and we’ll end up on the street!”

I’ve come to realize that a lot of what underlies my perfectionistic tendencies are survival fears. Garcia and my inner perfectionist have a pretty tight relationship. My inner perfectionist believes that if I’m always doing more, it means I am good, I am productive, I am needed, I am valued. And this pleases Garcia very much (though he’s never really pleased), because he translates this as “survival”. But is it really true that if I am not good, productive, needed and valued, my survival is at stake?

If I can allow Garcia and my inner perfectionist to go off and take a nap together, I can get calm enough to access the part of me that knows that, right in this moment, my survival is not being threatened. I can then go to a place of choosing. I can choose to be good, productive, needed and valued (whatever those things mean to me), if I really want to. Or I can choose not to be. Either way, I am here, breathing. Knife-wielding Krusty is nowhere in sight. If the neighbor shuns me, if my money runs low, I have choices. And I can pat Garcia on his scaly little head and listen to him snore.