by Suzanne Manser, PhD
Choosing to give a public talk. Letting go of a grudge. Stating your needs. Taking a salsa class alone. Returning to college.
What do these have in common? They are hard things. They are hard because they come with the possibility of pain. Naturally then, our instinct is to avoid them at all costs.
And yet, sometimes we do them. Sometimes we choose to risk pain. Why do we do hard things?
A concept that I really came to understand through my work with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is that what you value and what causes you pain are two sides of the same coin. In other words, if I know what is causing you pain, I know what you value. If something is important to you, it has the capacity to cause you pain. This is an unavoidable truth of life.
It is common practice to cope with this truth by deciding to avoid pain. Avoid rejection by not giving the talk. Avoid vulnerability by holding the grudge. Stay quiet. Stay home. Don’t do the hard thing. This strategy does kind of work, in that you may not feel those particular pains. But it comes at a cost. You can’t avoid the pain without avoiding the value. If I don’t give the talk, I don’t get the career advancement. If I hold the grudge, I don’t get to cultivate intimacy. Pain and value are an unbreakable matched set.
We do hard things because we significantly value what we get from doing the hard thing. It has to be worth it. Public speaking makes me very anxious, yet I have done a decent amount of it at this point in my career. What has made it worth the anxiety? There have been two values that I prioritized at different times: career advancement and wanting to help people (by giving them useful information). At different moments in my career, one or the other was more important to me than avoiding the pain of being told that my talk was useless and my imperfections were obvious.
I was aware of the value of giving those talks for me. That’s what gave me the push to do something that was, at times, extremely uncomfortable and hard. If you aren’t clear about what you value, you won’t be clear about what is worth risking pain for. You will be much less likely to do the hard things.
To identify what you value, think about what you want to stand for as a person. Love? Health? Adventure? Security? Knowledge? Contribution? Non-conformity? What are the must-haves of your life?
Here are two common questions used in ACT to identify some of the values that are closest to your heart. Give yourself at least 5 minutes to ponder each answer. Focus on how you truly feel, rather than what you think the “right” answer should be. Notice how you feel when you identify a value that you feel connected to.
- What do you want people to say about you at your funeral? What do you want people to think of when they think of you and how you lived your life?
- If you were given $250,000, what would you do with it? Portion out every cent of that money as if no one will ever know what you did with it.
Your answers to these questions point to some of the things that make your life meaningful. Once you know what makes your life feel meaningful, you have a general guidance system for living life. You will have fuel for motivation to do hard things. Each time you choose to be in line with your values, you increase the feeling of meaning in your life. Each time you avoid doing something hard that is in line with your values, you are choosing “avoiding potential pain” over “connecting to meaning.”
I assume there are very few people in this world who always make choices that are in line with their values. It goes against our grain as a species who evolved in a dangerous environment. The fight-or-flight response is still very much alive and well in us. Our brains tend to interpret the risk of emotional pain as a threat to our actual physical survival. So, when faced with the possibility of emotional pain, our internal threat system steps in and gets us to avoid the hard thing (thus ensuring survival, as far as it is concerned).
We can manually override this default system by keeping our values firmly in mind, reminding ourselves why the risk of pain is worth it. When default systems are at play, it is helpful to talk to your brain the way you would talk to a 2-year-old. Directly and using simple words. “Brain, thank you for trying to protect me, but I am ok. I am not in danger. I am choosing to do this because it is meaningful to me.” I’m not kidding. Say those words to your brain when you feel like you are losing the battle of doing the hard thing.
The more often you connect to your values, the more front-and-center they will become in your mind and the less of a battle it will be to choose them when faced with a hard thing. Find some way to think about your values every day: write about them (e.g., write about the steps you took (or plan to take) today that are in line with a value); have a few values as the lock screen or wallpaper on your phone or computer; use a value as a password that you have to type daily; incorporate a value into your daily meditation or prayer; or write some values on sticky notes, post them somewhere that makes sense for you (car, computer, bathroom mirror), and change them every few days. The more you remember to pay attention to your values, the more opportunities you will find to live in line with them and the more likely you will be to take those opportunities.
When faced with a hard thing, ask yourself, “What would make it worth it for me to do this?”