When Values Cause Pain

Some of my fondest memories growing up include Sunday afternoon lunches with the family. My parents, four brothers, numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents would all get together to have a home cooked meal and enjoy each other’s company. I don’t have that in Dallas. My future children won’t experience the weekly love, safety and joy my extended family brought to me as a child. I won’t be the aunt that is actively involved in my nieces’ and nephews’ lives and I will continue to miss the birthdays, new babies, basketball games and everything that brought fullness to my life before.

And it is painful. The choices I have made in life have made it impossible for me to be regularly active in my extended family’s day to day lives. This core value, close family ties, a thing that I hold so dear to my heart, is simply not an option for me.

Values are usually thought of in a positive way. We simply need to identify our values, live by them, and then we will be fulfilled and happy. Case closed, end of story.

It simply is not that easy. Identifying our values is important (read more), but what happens when we can't live those values?

This is when values can cause pain. Families who desperately want children and struggle with the deep pain of infertility know this firsthand. Or the parents whose deep desire to spend time with their adult children and grandchildren is met with a lack of interest.

This is the case many times in finances as well. Maybe your goal to explore the world or retire early is hindered by the fact that you liquidated your investments in the 2008 stock market crash and haven’t regained what you lost. The retirement you envisioned continues to be postponed, even though you saved your entire life for this ideal and did everything “right.”

How do we naturally respond to a dichotomy of values, especially when we have no control over them?

Overcompensating for our values

We try to ease the pain from the void in our lives by promoting other values. I know a woman whose family moved for her husband’s job. She had to leave behind the home, town and life she dearly loved. Her consolation was choosing the perfect house and throwing herself into decorating to create a stylish new place to call home. This is how she responded to her pain, whether she acknowledged it at the time or not, by compensating for her loss with an aspiration to create a fabulous new home. She replaced her value of living in a place she loved with the value of being surrounded by beauty.

We not only compensate with new values, we compensate financially. It is all too often that I see parents lavishing gifts on their children or grandchildren, wanting to make up for not being able to spend more time with their family.

Avoidance of grieving our values

Instead of facing these hard value issues, we avoid them at all costs. We don’t talk about it. We don’t acknowledge what we really want in life because we know we can’t have it. We hold true to the mantra “out of sight, out of mind.” We pretend that it really isn’t that important or that other things in our lives make up for this loss. We have so much to be thankful for, why would we dwell on what we don’t have?

For financial losses, this is further complicated by our aversion to talking about monetary losses. Psychotherapist Bobbi Emel says this is because of a “lack of social ritual for this kind of grief: We have many rituals for the death of a person: funerals, memorials, sitting shiva, wakes, etc. These customs help us with closure and adjusting to the world without our loved one. But there are no rituals around the loss of finances and the dreams that went with them. We are left feeling unfinished and lost.”

Inability to let go of unmet values

With the constant changes of life, sometimes we want to hold on to a time when our values were fully realized or when we had the options we wish we had now.

We don’t want to accept that our lives are naturally changing over time. We may treat people the way we wish they were instead of who they are, or cling to outgrown, but familiar roles, like doting mother or dutiful child.

“If I can just get back to where my investments were in 2007, then I’ll be okay/happy.” We use the past as a measuring stick against our current situation rather than fully realizing where we are today.

What should we do with the values that cause pain?

Grieve the loss

When we desire something and are unable to have it, there is a sense of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a relationship, loss of a dream or loss of an ideal, it deserves to be grieved.

For me, I have to grieve the fact that my life in Dallas will not include the close family ties I cherish and the fact that I will miss seeing my nieces and nephews grow up. Yes, we can argue that there are positives that should outweigh this loss, but when it comes to loss, the positives are not the point. I have a lot to be thankful for, and I am, but I also have a lot of losses that are real, that deserve to be recognized, owned and grieved.

Financially speaking, people need to grieve investment losses as well, even if they’re eventually recovered. It’s more than just a “paper loss”; it can be the loss of a sense of safety, or a sense of control, or confidence in their financial future. These are real losses that need to be addressed, even if the account values have recovered and everything is back to “normal.”

Find ways to creatively incorporate your values into your life

You can experience fulfillment by finding creative ways to incorporate your values into your current life. However, this can be difficult if acknowledging and grieving the loss has not happened first.

If you value spending time with your family, but their busy lives preclude it, explore mentoring or otherwise seek out someone who would welcome you into their life.

If your value is exploration, but you can’t afford to travel, try to connect with people from different backgrounds and countries in your community or visit local groups that offer that diversity and feed your curiosity.

Don’t fall into the “all or nothing” trap. When it comes to values and what really fulfills us, many times there are various degrees in which we can find that fulfillment.

Why bother?

Why not just leave good enough alone? Is it really worth unearthing painful reminders of unrealized values?

Yes, I believe it is. Pain is part of the healing process. It’s worth it, because whether we admit it or not, those painful values can continue to affect our lives, sometimes leading us to difficult situations.

In my own life, if I don’t grieve and acknowledge the losses that have come from my decision to live in Dallas, away from my family, it will affect my relationships with the people I find myself surrounded with now. I may expect my friends to become what my family was to me, subconsciously expecting them to fill that void in my life. It could lead to unrealistic expectations, sabotaging the unique and special relationships I have with them. Instead of trying to re-create an ideal in my mind and plug people into roles that aren’t theirs to fill, I need to be open to a new reality and appreciate the beauty of what I have now.

I see the lingering effects of change or loss in people’s finances as well. People who sold their investments when the stock market crashed and never recouped their losses often make financial decisions out of fear or the same sense of desperation they experienced before. Whether they realize it or not, those feelings become central in their decision making.

Many times financial decisions are made that don’t quite make sense to anyone involved, including the person making the decisions. These unexplained decisions can often be traced back to unmet values or losses that they are trying to compensate for without realizing it.

Reconciling with your new reality

The goal here is simple: don’t ignore or forget unrealized values. Reflect on the impact of the events that led to those broken values and allow them to inform your future decisions without dictating them. Don’t let events that compromised your values defeat you. Learn from them and look for the good. Reexamine what is really important to you and what is realistic in your current situation. While they might be refashioned, you can reclaim values that are central to who you are.