I am going to explore this theme in two different ways. This time, I am going to look at the way we so often don’t live to our own values, and what we can do about it.
‘This above all, to thine own self be true; thou can’st not then be false to any man.’ Shakespeare said it in Laertes’ speech in Hamlet, and the words resonate with us. But what does it really mean in practice?
I used to have this quote on my living room wall many years ago, and the reason I took it down was not because it had become embedded in my psyche – it was because every time I looked at it, I was reminded of how often I failed to live up to it. I betrayed myself over and over again, in big and small ways: pretending to like something because someone else thought it was good; keeping quiet when my boss was being unnecessarily unpleasant with another member of staff; driving myself to put effort into something that I couldn’t really see any purpose to. I had learnt how to behave how I was expected to, and to keep my discomfort to myself.
Nonetheless, the quote did its work – it kept nagging away at the back of my mind. It is after all talking about our fundamental human values: being fair; behaving ethically; treating others with respect. We all know in our hearts when these values are not being met, yet we often condone with our silence, or with our acceptance that the behaviour is ‘allowed’ by our culture. This is how we come to accept bullying at work, tax avoidance, discrimination of all sorts, and corruption in politics. We may not agree but we see it as inevitable.
Given how complex being true to yourself can be, it can seem like just a grand aspiration. We have to stand up and be counted if we genuinely hold to our fundamental values. Yet every time we don’t, we are betraying ourselves and there is a personal cost to this.
When our hearts and minds contradict each other, it has a detrimental physical effect on us. It is a pervasive form of stress that goes largely unrecognised, and it wears us down, making us world-weary and cynical. And of course, it makes us less pleasant to be around for others, because we all sense when someone is ‘living a lie’, when they are pretending, when they are incongruent.
SO HOW DO WE BECOME BETTER AT BEING TRUE TO OUR OWN VALUES?
The first step to take is the fascinating exploration of what being true to yourself means.
What are your fundamental values?
In an ideal world how would we be treated by others, how would we treat others, how would we treat animals, the natural world? You may not have ready-made answers to these questions, but by asking them of yourself, you begin to realise what really matters to you.
Once we have begun to recognise what being true to our values really means to us, we can begin to gently apply it more often in our lives. It is important for most of us to approach this gently: learn from my mistakes! As a young teacher, I argued with colleagues and the head over the categorising of our pupils as ‘thick’ and got myself forced out of the school system – that didn’t help to change things for those kids! I was clumsy in my initial attempts to stand up for my values.
Treat others as you wish to be treated.
Begin by being the one who is kind and fair and respectful. Use your everyday encounters – at work, in the supermarket, in the car park – as opportunities to practise being with others how you wish they were with you. This makes you feel good, and trains the ‘muscle’, so that it is easier to respond to poor treatment from others without betraying your fundamental values by sinking to their level, or taking it personally when they attempt to make you feel bad in some way.
When I argued with my colleagues, I ended up criticising them for their attitudes and even accused them of being poor teachers. I was as unpleasant to them as they were being to some of the pupils. I showed no understanding of their frustrations and didn’t listen to any of their points of view. They weren’t bad people, and nowadays I would make it clear that I was not going to play judge and jury with them.
Work out what you could say or do, without losing your job or a friendship, when someone behaves in a way that offends your values.
We have wisdom with hindsight, use it! Reflect on situations that you have experienced, and identify how you could have reacted differently, and in a way that made a positive difference.
I would now use a different tack with my colleagues in the school. I would still say that I didn’t agree with them, but it would be clear that it was their opinion I was objecting to, not them as people. I would also think through my argument more: how might it benefit them to treat the kids more positively, rather than just saying it was wrong. What argument might work from their point of view?
Make a conscious choice
Sometimes we may feel that there is nothing we can do or say. We then have to make a conscious choice: do I stay and condone by my silence? Do I walk away? Do I avoid similar situations in the future? It’s OK to not always get it right – we are all learning how to be true to ourselves and our values. Just notice, if you choose to stay with it, the effect it has on your body, mind and heart. That is how we remind ourselves that it is not good for us to betray ourselves.
It can be scary to practise living to your values – we don’t live in a value-driven world. I just think it is scarier to continually put myself under a sneaky stress that wears down my spirit, and has no good effects. And you may be surprised by how much support you get when you do dare to express your values – it just needs someone to start, and others join in. most of us have very similar values – we need to start admitting it.