Why Knowing the Difference Between Values & Goals Can Help Gay Men Live More Meaningful Lives
Peace. Harmony. Family. Community. Honesty. Creativity. These are all “things” that I’ll often hear people say they value during counselling. But are these goals or values? And what’s the difference?
Let’s start with a definition of values
I like to keep it simple: values are those “things” in life that are most important to you. But we need to take this one step further. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), values are verbs. This means that values come with an action or behaviour–it’s something that we actively do. So really, it’s about valuing rather than values.
I’ll give an example. If you say you value family, does that mean you want to spend every weekend on a Zoom call with your partner and every member of their extended family for a whole afternoon? Or could it mean you want to live alone and see your chosen family once every 3 months? Both people may value family, but what that actually looks like in the real world might be vastly different.
Part of the work I do with clients is getting into the specifics. What are those behaviours and actions that are really important to you, and how do they play out in your life? The answer to that question can help you define what you value.
Some people come to counselling because they’re dissatisfied with life and aren’t doing the things that truly matter to them. Whereas other people might feel unclear about their values, or feel like life is meaningless.
Add on things like anxiety, depression or trauma, and there can be a lot of things getting in the way of living the life you truly want.
Thankfully, by working on values in counselling you can create more meaning and value in your life all while addressing underlying issues like anxiety, depression or trauma.
Values are not goals
Before we talk about how you can get more familiar with your values, let me make one very important distinction. Values are NOT goals.
Goals are things that can be accomplished and then (often) are done and over with. Finding a partner, going to school, buying a pet, learning a new language, quitting smoking. Sure, goals can be linked with your values, but they’re different because they can be ticked off your “to-do” list.
The unintentional effects of fixating on goals
When you become fixated on goals, or only use goals as ways to guide your life, you can find yourself in a crisis of meaning once the goal is accomplished.
One common example is when people retire. Some retirees become so fixated on saving enough money to quit their jobs that they forget to really plan what they’ll do with their time in their post-retirement lives.
I see this phenomenon play out in other areas of life transition as well: high school or university graduation, moving to a new area, getting a new job, finding a partner, and buying a house.
Your focus becomes so narrow on the goal, that you forget that you have a life to live after the goal is accomplished.
Obsession with goals can lead to behaviour that actually undermines your goals
The other issue with goals is that you can become obsessed with them. You might focus all your energy on losing weight, you work overtime everyday to save for that financial goal, or you spend hours and hours on the dating apps trying to find that “perfect” partner.
The issue is that obsession with goals can lead to extreme behaviour which can cause significant distress. Very few people can sustain extreme behaviour over the longterm.
So then a fallout happens: the extreme diet fails and you eat something you “shouldn’t” eat, you become burnt out from your job due to exhaustion and overworking, or you end up inadvertently pushing people away in a desperate attempt to find a partner. It’s exhausting!
On one hand you’re racing to achieve that goal, so it can feel good in the moment, but on the other hand, your mental health can suffer significantly in the process. This is especially true when things like sleep, social connection, self-care and rest are ignored.
Why gay men can be prone to goal obsession
Many gay men become obsessed with achieving goals and living the “perfect life.” That’s probably not news to you. But why does this happen?
One theory is that some gay men obsesses about achieving goals because they were given the message growing up that being “different” meant they weren’t good enough. As a result, they may have learned to base their worth on achieving rather than having a sense of their inherent self-worth.
Does this resonate with you at all? If it does, this dynamic isn’t anything to be ashamed of. But it is something for gay men to be aware of because it’s often an important part of understanding what might be getting in the way for you.
The good news is that values can act as an antidote to goal obsession.
Values can balance your focus on goals
Engaging with values can help when you become obsessed about goals. It allows you to step back and ask the big questions, like “what is the purpose of all of this?” Now that can be a scary question, but hear me out.
When you become obsessed with goals, you become hyper-focused. A common thought that comes up is once I achieve X, Y and Z, then I will be happy. Or some of the common ones I hear with gay men: once I find a boyfriend, once I buy a house, once I lose weight, then I will be happy.
The issue is that your happiness becomes dependent on a specific outcome. What happens if you don’t achieve your goal? Does that mean you’re a “failure” who never deserves to be happy? Absolutely not!
Many goals involve factors beyond our individual control that make it challenging to achieve them (take for example, the runaway Canadian housing market).
Engage with your values to combat goal obsession
What else makes values different than goals? Values are an ongoing, continuous processes. And most importantly, values can be subtle. For example, appreciating nature, connecting with yourself or others, slowing down to be mindful, or savouring a warm beverage. All of these are acts of valuing.
Ideally, you’re engaging in actions that are important to you on a regular basis, for the rest of your life. What you value may change over time, but the act of living your life according to what’s most important to you never wanes.
Perhaps at one point in your life you value going on thrilling adventures with a large group of close friends. And then at another phase in your life, you switch to valuing alone time and sitting quietly with a book in your living room. The action changes, but the desire to do things that are important to you does not.
So let’s return to the question: “what is the purpose of all of this?” This allows us to go big picture. Is the purpose of life to achieve every task you feel you “should” accomplish? And should you strive to achieve all of those goals, despite how much you may suffer? And is life really about the specific outcomes you achieve?
Or might life actually be about the process of living, rather than any specific outcome?
The process of living can be whatever is important to you. Perhaps being curious, having fun, seeking pleasure, connecting with people, exploring the world, being playful, creating art or giving back to your community. When you use the above values to guide your life it takes the outcome-focus completely out of the equation. You no longer have to either “make it” or “fail.” What a relief!
When you make living a valued life your primary focus, and achieving goals as a secondary focus, it lets your life be about the process of living. It lets you guide your days and actions by what is truly important to you. And most importantly, it keeps things in the present. It’s about living a valued day today–not about suffering in a “once I achieve… then I’ll be happy” scenario.
Why is it important to live your life according to your values?
Living your life according to your values is one of the best forms of self-care there is.
It’s listening to that voice deep inside of you, doing what you truly want to do, and feeling a sweet moment of bliss.
Most people can bring to mind a moment that felt as if they were truly “living” life: maybe being in awe at the viewpoint on a big hike, or standing in the crowd of a huge concert feeling in tune with the beat of the music, or having your house full of guests with everyone laughing and enjoying themselves.
When you live life according to your values you can feel a deep sense of satisfaction, and really enjoy the fulfilling life you deserve.
If you’d like some help living in alignment with your values, I’d love to chat with you about how I can help. Just click the button below to book a free call. 🙂
RCC, MSW, RSW
As a counsellor at The Centre for Gay Counselling, Victor excels at helping gay men find freedom from anxiety, stress and overwhelm so that they can start living life to the fullest again. Interested in working with Victor? Click the button below to get started.