This is the first installment in a six-part series by Dr. Jeffery Baker. You can read all six parts by visiting Dr. Baker’s Rebel Storytellers page.
What might be useful to know about how ordinary people get themselves unstuck is that it’s a very different approach and orientation than what is used to treat mental illness. Psychology has been able to scientifically treat 14 different mental illnesses and cure two of them. Psychology has been able to classify mental illness and understand its causality. Psychology has also been able to invent treatments and rigorously evaluate their efficacy. However none of that is helpful to the average person. Think of your well-being on a scale from 0 to 10. The mentally ill person is suffering and living a life at a -6. The goal of the treatment interventions is to alleviate the suffering and get them to zero. At the very least, they are no longer experiencing impairing symptoms. The average person however does not wake up in the morning with the hopes of living at zero. They would like to move from +2 to +6.
Quite recently psychology is investigating the normal functioning person who simply gets stuck in life. A good deal of what has been learned on how to help the normal person regain vitality and motivation to resile against adversity has emerged from the investigation on how the brain learns. These new learning theories have helped shape our understanding of how the brain functions and how we get stuck.
If you find yourself struggling in the areas relating to your personal growth or relationships that just aren’t working, you should follow this discussion. Some of you are in a crisis with your parenting situations. Others have chronically conflicted relationships. Often I hear men say they are trapped in jobs that are unsatisfactory and have become a grind. Many also describe a dead spiritual life that has left them doubting if God exists.
There are four issues that tend to obstruct the average person from personal growth and development. They are neither hierarchical nor developmental. In no particular order they are: being disconnected from one’s values, being committed to and directed by one’s emotions and or thoughts rather than one’s values, avoiding discomfort, and being married to unrealistic goals.
I would like to address the first of four core areas that cause people to get stuck in their lives.
The first core area is our style of life is separated from what we truly value, meaning there are miles of distance between our heart and our feet. What we do day-to-day, walking through our daily routines, is far from what truly matters to us. Often the insidious path that we have chosen in life has slowly loosened our grip on what used to give us energy and direction. Many people do not feel depressed—they don’t feel anything. They simply feel lost or numb. No wonder we have such a fear of zombies. Many of us are not far from feeling like the living dead, just stumbling through life seeking sustenance to just keep on stumbling through life. Often people have been on this path so long they can’t even remember or have any working knowledge of what is important to them or what they value.
So for the normal person this must begin with exercises in self-awareness to discover or rediscover their core values. What truly matters to them, why does something work, why do some things distress us so terribly? Why do certain things get us, or hook us, or haunt us? To successfully get unstuck one must realize their passions and dreams.
It is a common experience for me to see a person struggle to articulate why something works for them or what makes it important to them. Often people will say what they think is the right thing to say which can be very different than what they actually believe or value.
An easy shortcut for most of us is to use some type of questionnaire that could help us unearth these deep feelings. I’m going to suggest a two-part process. The first would be to use a free online questionnaire to discover your signature strengths at https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu. Take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths and examine your top five signature strengths.
Part two is after you have examined your top five signature strengths, take each one and ask yourself what it is about those areas that when you act on them, it energizes you. An example of that would be if you scored in the area of Relational Intelligence. If you ask yourself what it is about relationships that are so important to you, most people identify three values. The first is connection which is enjoyed on a very deep level when they feel intimately connected with those around them. They love the ability to share their emotional life with others. Next is caring when one enjoys the intense satisfaction of acting affectionate or compassionate, or even in a kind way. Lastly is contribution, where one is excited and fulfilled by the act of giving. Now, there is one last question to ask to uncover your hidden values. Ask yourself what is it that drives you crazy, frustrates, or maddens you about relationships. Some would say disrespect, which indicates that respect is of great importance to you and is probably one of your core values within the area of Relational Intelligence.
This last part might be a bit confusing. Please take a moment and consider the idea that it is your values that stimulates the limbic system in your brain, which is your feeling center. The way the limbic system works is when you experience something that you value, the brain creates a positive feeling and the reinforcement to pursue that behavior again. Conversely, when you experience a negative emotion it is because you are not getting what you care about. The thing that you believe should happen or you want to happen isn’t happening at all. When you experience something that has no value to you one way or the other, then you have a neutral emotion because you’re not stimulating your limbic system.
At this point you should have some idea or starting point at least as to what your values are and hopefully have begun to develop what has been called a Value Compass. This is your starting point by which you can start connecting the dots between how you live and what’s important to you, and begin to close that distance. The closer your values are to your daily walk through life, the more energy, vitality, and motivation you have. The skill that needs to be mastered at this point is learning how to practice, express, and apply these values in your lifeless world. It will be the subject of my next discussion.
Photo (Flickr CC) by ajari