Most people agree that, generally, they strive for a meaningful life. But what does it actually mean to have meaning in one’s life and how does purpose relate to anxiety and depression? What makes a life purposeful and what doesn’t will be different for every individual. There is no one-size-fits-all definition, but often people focus on the following four aspects to define meaning in their lives:
- Organizing your life around core values like supporting your family, living authentically, and serving the community.
- Behaving goal-oriented and future-focused instead of impulse-driven and pleasure-guided.
- Assuming responsibility for yourself and others.
- Seeking knowledge and universal truth.
The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson puts it this way: ‘’it’s necessary to live an upstanding and noble and moral and truthful and responsible life, […] and there’s hell to pay if you don’t do that.’’
If you struggle with mental health issues, it can be difficult to find the motivation to show up for others or adapt your behaviors to your core values. Yet, it’s the commitment to a cause larger than yourself that will allow you to fight depression and anxiety. I often hear: “I am not well, so I can’t focus on others”. But only when you shift focus away from your depression, you can take on a perspective much larger than yourself.
Sitting at home thinking about the many ways in which depression and anxiety are holding you back from living the life you really want is a great example of too much thinking and not enough acting. It’s what we like to call a limiting belief – you think you can’t participate in life because you have mental health problems. And this belief provides a comfortable excuse to remain within your anxiety and depression ‘comfort’ zone. After all, when you’ve dealt with mental health issues for a long time, anxiety and depression will be all you know.
The negative feelings associated with anxiety and depression might be unpleasant but after years of wrestling with them, they have become so familiar that you might choose them over the unknown. Stepping outside of your comfort zone might seem scarier and less safe than depression. You can challenge this impulse by asking yourself what is truly scary to you in the long-term. Is it the possibility of setbacks when venturing into new territory or remaining stuck in your old ways?
A lack of motivation is one of the main reasons why people get stuck. The prospect of healing from depression and anxiety may not be motivating enough for you to face the challenges associated with overcoming self-doubt and fear. But living according to your deepest values usually drives motivation in spite of depression and anxiety. So, what are some steps you can take to bring your core values to the foreground and change your behaviors?
- Ask yourself: what do I care about? Not your partner, not your mother, neither your neighbor nor your dog, just yourself. Remember that there are no right or wrong answers (there are certainly illegal answers, but those are not the sort of norms we are referring to here).
- How are your actions reflecting your core values? Go one step further and find new ways to connect your behaviors to your beliefs. Are your values strictly tied to yourself or do you see a larger picture? Find others who share your truth and strengthen your sense of self by sharing your values with them.
- Give yourself permission to let go of values you don’t care about. Have you ever been made to believe you should behave, feel, or think in a way that feels unnatural and artificial to you? Then you probably never cared for the underlying principles to begin with. Holding on to the idea that we should live according to other peoples’ standards fuels feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety. As long as your way of life isn’t disrespecting others, pretending you care when you don’t is a disservice to yourself and others.
- Don’t just say “yes”. You might be quick to say yes when someone asks you for something. Tell people you need to think about it and allow yourself some time to explore how you really feel about the situation. Are you acting out of commitment, guilt, habit, or because you feel pressured? Unless those are your core values, the answer will have to be a respectful but clear “no”.
- Never apologize for who you are and what you believe in, and don’t expect others to apologize for who they are.
Creating a habit of unapologetically aligning your core values with your actions will motivate you to become active and take full responsibility for the many ways in which you can contribute to creating a meaningful life.