Changing Value Systems; Re-tuning moral compass
October 18, 2015 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever decided that your current value system isn't working for you, and you'd like to switch it for another set of moral values? I've noticed I've been doing things that, whilst they aren't uncommon for a woman in her early 20s, aren't making me feel too good in hindsight. Whether that's getting drunk and dirty dancing, or taking a little too sexy photo, or other slightly crazy risky behavior...I don't want to keep having weird emotional hangovers over situations from the nights before.

A lot of this does have to do with drinking/partying, so that's obviously something I'd like to cut out and reduce. I have other 'triggers' as well, such as spending too much time around negative people, or not living a healthy lifestyle.

But my question is, how do I consciously and intentionally change my values system, so that I stop having guilt and shame over these things? Clearly, it's not suited to my current value system to behave in this manner.

Have you ever had a moment/time in your life where you rejected values that weren't serving you and adopted better ones? How did you do this, and how did you make these changes stick? Anecdotes would be tremendously appreciated here.

posted by rhythm_queen to Human Relations (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think at some level you just need to stop or cut down on doing those things that make you feel ill at ease. Easier said than done, but next time you catch yourself thinking "ugh, I didn't feel good the last time I sexted someone" right before you sext someone, don't do it (substitute whatever for "sext"), and if you don't catch yourself, don't beat yourself up over it--just resolve to catch it next time. I think the idea of people having some rigid value system is silly: our values are flexible and come and go all the time, so all you have to do is move slowly but steadily toward doing things that make you feel good, and that you like, rather than doing things that make you feel bad and don't want to do.

Based on other questions, you're really young, and I know it's a cliche but seriously: this will come with age. You'll get older and just get better at making decisions, understanding your behaviors and ethics, and living the life you want. If you ask just about anyone of any age, they'll tell you about some cringeworthy thing they did last year, let alone five or ten or twenty years ago.

One of the biggest components, and here's my most specific advice for you, is that FOMO is bullshit. Doing things because you think your friends ("friends", if they're negative people you don't really like) are gonna have like OMG the best time ever is just about the worst idea. Do things that YOU want to do, that make you feel good about yourself, and if the people around you can't handle that, find better people to be around. It's not easy, but your life will be an order of magnitude more awesome when you're true to yourself and surround yourself with people who support that.
posted by The Michael The at 4:02 PM on October 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

At one time, when I was undertaking a serious commitment that would require me to curtail much of my social life for a couple of years, I was encouraged to view it as a zen practice period. Of course the two year experience radically changed much about my life including my value structure, but using the practice period metaphor helped me to see it as something positive I was taking on rather than something I was giving up, as well as underscoring the fact that, when the commitment period ended, I could still return to old ways if I wanted.

Kind of a riff on the AA "one day at a time" but with a longer view.
posted by janey47 at 4:08 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Clearly, it's not suited to my current value system to behave in this manner.

I'm confused - do you mean you want to change your values so that you're OK with doing crazy risky things that don't seem like a good idea in the cold sober light of morning, so that you feel good about doing them?

Because if it's just that you feel a conflict between how you behave and the things you feel are right and comfortable for you, then maybe the answer is that you want to change your behavior, not your value system.

so that I stop having guilt and shame over these things?

Guilt and shame are not always necessarily bad emotions. I mean, yes, they're not pleasant to feel, and lots of people feel guilt and shame over things they shouldn't, but they're not always bad for you to feel. Just like physical pain can be a sign that something is physically wrong with your body, emotional pain can be a sign that something is wrong with your mental or emotional state. I can still feel guilt and shame over times when I treated someone badly (literally) decades ago. I'm not in constant anguish over this or anything, but it does serve as a reminder than I can and should do better now and in the future.

Have you ever had a moment/time in your life where you rejected values that weren't serving you and adopted better ones? How did you do this, and how did you make these changes stick?

Honestly, lots of alone time and lots of hard thinking about why the rejected values weren't working for me, and what kind of values I should replace them with. Lots of non-fiction reading about different value systems, lots of thinking about how the value systems expressed by fictional characters matched (or didn't match) with my own, or with where I though I wanted to be.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:28 PM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm confused.

If you want to stop behaving this way, then those are your values--you do not wish to be this person. So cut down on the drinking and the negative people and live your life on your terms.

If what you want is to continue behaving this way guilt/shame-free, it's probably worth investigating why it is you are feeling what you are feeling, and getting to the nub of the cause. From there you'll likely be able to accept your behaviour and move on.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:30 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

these things are easier to change when other things change too. like, when you get a new job, or move to a new place.

one of the cool things about living in a completely new / different country / culture is the feeling that you get to choose who you are again. it's quite empowering (also scary, and exhausting).

otherwise, incrementally, taking opportunities as they come. one thing i've learned from living in chile is the art of letting things slide. just don't follow up on the things you're not so interested in. no need to be rude, or confrontational, just let it go, while remaining friendly.
posted by andrewcooke at 4:40 PM on October 18, 2015

See how long you can go without drinking. Buy a calendar, hang it on the wall, and mark off the days. Reward yourself with something you really like - a massage, a book, tickets to an event, a mani/pedi, something yummy, an experience - as the reward for not drinking for a month. Don't reward yourself with a drink. Then, go for another month. See if you don't start feeling like you're living more in accordance with your value system.

Drinking may not be for you. It's cool. It might be that you're totally normal and figuring out how to live as an adult on your own in the world, and that you're going to need to fall flat on your face for awhile before you get your act together with regard to alcohol, by which I mean you can go out and have a drink or two, have fun, maintain control, and wake up the next day feeling okay about yourself and your life. But it also might be that you just don't want to spend so much of your time drinking because you can't do it without feeling like shit about yourself afterward.

If you find that you cannot quit drinking for even a couple of days without feeling like your world's in a shambles, then you should probably consider that it's not that you're young and a flailing like most young people do for a while, but that you might have a problem with alcohol.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 4:45 PM on October 18, 2015

Response by poster: I'm confused - do you mean you want to change your values so that you're OK with doing crazy risky things that don't seem like a good idea in the cold sober light of morning, so that you feel good about doing them?

Hope this makes sense, but I want to do good things and change my actual acted-upon values system. The values system I ACT by is different than the one I think are deeply ingrained in me... that I more deeply agree with. I don't even think I've ever articulated these deep values, or if I know what they are.
posted by rhythm_queen at 5:26 PM on October 18, 2015

What you seem to be experiencing is called akrasia, when your values and your actions don't line up. Make a list of what you value, and then make a list of the underlying values that those support (what do you think is Good about, for example, waking up with a clear head?) Once you've done that, you have a much clearer idea of the virtues you care about.

Finally, think about which of these virtues you're actually capable of consistently performing--for example, I value honesty but will lie to not hurt someone's feelings. I am simply not capable of being honest 100% of the time, because I have higher order values! Knowing what you think is good and why, as well as seeing where your actions are a failure of will versus an inability to be perfect (we are humans!) helps immensely in living the life you want to, because you can actually articulate to yourself why you want what you want.

Caveat: I'm an ethics professor. This comment has been brought to you by Virtue Ethics, and if you're interested in the history of akrasia, Aristotle's ethics are a lovely place to start.
posted by zinful at 5:44 PM on October 18, 2015 [20 favorites]

if it's any consolation, i think it's quite normal to learn through mistakes. zinful's advice sounds interesting, but it's also ok to just wake up and think "i really shouldn't do that" and then not do it any more.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:46 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Personal anecdote:

When I was 24 or so I made a conscious decision to gradually re-commit myself to my faith after years and years of “rebelling.” I read the Bible for the first time cover to cover. It was one line in the New Testament which described the proper use of freedom that I found deeply inspirational—“You should live in accord with the spirit and not yield to the cravings of the flesh. The two are directly opposed.” I adopted that as the crux of my new value system. It has helped me immensely—in striving to do what’s right instead of what “feels” right, in letting love for neighbor and self-respect guide my every action/decision—though I still stumble from time to time. I made it “stick” mostly by setting aside time each day to reflect on my progress, and by seeking out people with similar values so we can support one another.

Of course, this is only one path towards a whole new value system. I wish you well in your search for yours.
posted by tackypink at 6:07 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is it even at the level of values, though? Do you think you want to no longer value being sociable, or enjoying dancing or music? Is there anything really wrong with parties? Partying too much, for you, that makes sense. I think (based on past questions) the issue is a high need for validation that gets amplified by certain situations (e.g. perceived rejection by high status people), which prompts acting-out type behaviour. I think it would help to pause before doing something risky and thinking "how am I going to feel about this tomorrow?" or maybe "how would a person I regard as a role model behave in this situation?". Do you have that kind of role model, someone you can easily imagine and model? You can't model them exactly, nor should you, but it might help to think of them.

As far as anecdotes about consciously shifting values, I'm trying to do that now, I suppose. Looking back on my past choices, most of them were reactive and emotional. Looking at my typical first priorities, they've usually been other people. I'm now trying to do more proactive planning, and envisioning a clear picture of what I want to do and accomplish, and trying to move towards that, in little steps, which means sometimes saying "no" to my past first priorities.

How did I come to this moment, I guess, by feeling that tension zinful described, and it reaching an intolerable level. Being fed up. Another emotional decision, in other words. (But I'm not sure there really are other kinds.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:24 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Here's a script that I've created for myself, which you may find helpful. Obviously pick and choose whatever is helpful, but this is what I've used. "My true value system is that I don't enjoy the aftermath of being hungover from partying. I will change my behavior so that it will align with my actual value system making me feel good, because self-care is really important. I can discuss with my friends, or find/talk to a therapist, or listen to myself and figure out how I would like to moderate or change my behavior so it aligns with my true value system."

I like to approach it from the case of, will this behavior nourish me? Is it helping me? Is it harming me? If so, what will I do that will have me be good to myself?

This Self Care 101 Guide from Everyday Feminism is really awesome.
posted by yueliang at 6:35 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I mean: I think you do know, or have a sense of, your values, but your emotions and reactions are driving your behaviour and getting in the way of carrying out those values. You're very self-aware, that shines through question of yours that I've seen. But I think actually processing or tolerating difficult or intense emotions is a practical endeavour that takes practical learning (e.g., I guess I am compelled to suggest, therapy :/)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:35 PM on October 18, 2015

Hope this makes sense, but I want to do good things and change my actual acted-upon values system. The values system I ACT by is different than the one I think are deeply ingrained in me... that I more deeply agree with.

Ah. I think you may be over-thinking this in some ways.

The thing is, we can all ACT in ways that go against what we believe to be right - it doesn't necessarily require us to be acting according to a different value system. That sounds like what you're describing; less that you are acting according to a different values system, and more that your actions don't agree with your existing values system.

Defining the situation as a battle between two values systems may be too . . . . . remote? diffuse? complicated? Simpler, maybe, to think of the situation as one where you are acting against your values system. So you want to change your actions so they agree with your values.

Mindfulness might be a useful concept as you consider how to change your behavior. Be aware of what you are doing, and try to think ahead about what seems likely to happen given your past experience.

I don't even think I've ever articulated these deep values, or if I know what they are.

Start thinking about and defining and articulating those. Many people seem to find that it helps to write in a diary/journal for this kind of thing.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:42 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

rhythm_queen: "The values system I ACT by is different than the one I think are deeply ingrained in me... that I more deeply agree with. I don't even think I've ever articulated these deep values, or if I know what they are."

So step one is figuring out what they are. You're jumping ahead a bit — your question assumes that you'll need to change your values to match your behavior, but then your comment implies that your values are strongly held.

Whenever you feel guilt about having done something, ask yourself questions to get to the bottom of it. For instance, you might decide that your guilt after drinking/partying is because you know you should be minding your health — or you might decide that you can party as much as you want as long as you set an alcohol intake limit. You might decide that the shame about sexy photos has to do with privacy — your drunken self presenting you in a way that your sober self would never endorse. Or you might decide that you can't think of a good reason why you should be ashamed of a sexy photo.

Once you figure this stuff out, step two is figuring out how to harmonize your feelings and actions. If you keep the behavior constant and tweak your values system, you may peruse the normative ethics page on Wikipedia and decide that you like one particular theory over another. But if that happens, my guess is that the guilt/shame won't go away overnight. We typically don't reason ourselves into those emotions, so it may not be easy to reason yourself out of them. That's where therapy might eventually be useful.

On the other hand, if you decide that your values are good and right and the behavior is what needs to change, then you'd probably want to focus on how to keep yourself on the straight path. When you get into these situations — drinking and doing things you later are guilty about and/or ashamed of — is it because you manage to talk yourself into it, against your better judgment? Do you set boundaries ahead of time ("I'll just have one drink and switch to water…") and then fail to enforce them? The answer — and, again, this does not apply if you honestly decide your behavior is not a problem — could be anything from (on one side) knowing what your triggers are and recognizing them when they happen, to (on the other side) deciding you've got to stop drinking altogether.

This is a broad answer because it's hard for me to say that either your values or your actions are in the wrong. Neither one of them is a problem except to the extent that the discord between them is causing you angst.
posted by savetheclocktower at 7:12 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Anecdata time. I've always been stubborn and set in my ways in terms of not wanting to do things I didn't think I'd like or wasn't comfortable with - especially when it came to peer pressure. So, for example, in junior high and high school I didn't give into peer pressure to make out with boys or smoke cigarettes because I didn't want to. (Same goes for drinking, drugs, etc.) Not that I was necessarily against making out with boys, I just didn't want to with those boys at that time.

Then, in college I went through an awful breakup. I was with the dude for almost two years and really lost who I was as a person. Then, I became even more lost. I started partying and drinking and having fun and not being responsible. The responsible, clear-headed, thoughtful person was not me at the moment.

Most of those experiences were fun, some were cringe-worthy but fall under "college, ya know!" and some were truly awful and made me feel really icky the next day. Some of those really icky instances really stuck by me.

I think what you're experiencing is that icky feeling. But here's the problem, I assume - like me - you went into these situations feeling hope or impulsiveness. So for example the next day I'd feel icky cause that guy was gross, but going into it the guy didn't seem gross at the time. (Or it's even worse when they turn gross part of the way in and you feel trapped in the situation a bit. For example maybe you start sexting someone then you feel stuck in deep and don't feel like you have a way out.) They seemed like good guys or it seemed like a good idea. That's why hind-sight is 20/20. As I gained more experiences and learned what may or may not lead to icky feelings, I was able to be more selective about what I chose to do.

Eventually, I quit drinking (it was only about a 6 to 8 month partying phase) and started dating my husband. I got settled back into the person I was at heart without all the junk and impulse and alcohol.

Like I said, a lot of it was fun but there were times that I was really mistreated or with someone who was mean or gross or in a situation that became unsafe. After going through a few of those it became easier to say no to them or stay out of the situation completely.

Part of this comes with age, part comes with your surroundings (alcohol, partying), and some comes from you actively picking what you do instead of floating with an impulse. I will say for me this was a very short process of only about a year, and I'm still only in my mid-20s but it's not at all strange for it to take years for people to sort all this stuff out.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:13 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

If a lot of your actions which are giving you an emotional hangover are happening in group settings then I would strongly encourage that you look to build a different make-up to your social circle. It doesn't have to be a drastic change. You don't need to dump friends. But maybe spend more time with people you admire, make plans with someone to leave the party at 12:30 and stick to it instead of staying out until 2, etc.

It's easy to beat yourself up about mismatched actions and intentions. So, be gentle with yourself and instead of trying to do it alone, plan out the safety valves with allies ahead of time.
posted by meinvt at 8:08 PM on October 18, 2015

Guilt's job is to alert us when we're not acting within our value systems. So when people feel reasonable guilt (as opposed to irrational victim-blaming-type guilt), it's generally good for those people to listen to that guilt and use it as a guide for changing their behavior to match up with their values.
posted by jaguar at 10:00 PM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I went through something similar in my mid-20s...I think it's actually pretty common. Some things I found helpful:

Danielle LaPorte's Desire Map. You can probably find it at the library (I did). She has a TON of writing/journaling exercises in thinking about how you really want to FEEL on a day-to-day basis, which it sounds like is a lot of where your disconnect is coming (i.e. you are taking actions that make you feel shitty instead of empowered/happy/whatever).

Lent/Fasting. Obviously you don't have to do this during actual Lent, or connect it to any specific religious practice, but the point is to pick something you feel is impacting you negatively and make a commitment to cut it out of your life for some period of time (you can do 40 days or a month or whatever). I've done this both during Lent and at other times of the year with a variety of things -- meat, playing time-wasting games on my phone, alcohol, etc. In your case, it sounds like drinking might be a good one to start with. You're not saying "I will never have a cocktail again in my life," but rather -- let's see what my life would look like for a few weeks with no alcohol, and then I can reassess my practices. I have often found that after my "break" from these various things, I do still eat meat or drink alcohol or whatever, but I incorporate it into my life more intentionally and more moderately.

Surround yourself with people who support you and build you up! Maybe this means joining some new activities where you are around more positive people, or maybe it means rekindling an old friendship or just intentionally choosing which of your friends you make plans with. You should be able to tell these friends "Hey, I've made a committment to a sober November - help me stick to it!"
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:42 AM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

p.s. Final suggestion, you might like Gretchen Rubin's book on habits, Better than Before. This is actually not my favorite book ever (I think she sometimes gets overly preachy and annoying in tone), but the book DOES have a lot of great tips on assessing your personality to determine the best ways to try and change habits you're not happy about (and/or create new ones).
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:44 AM on October 19, 2015

Remember when I told you about this this being such an eye opener for me? I want to go a bit deeper into this problem in my life, by way of giving you a light at the end of the tunnel and a less lonely experience of this problem.

I was a lonely young woman. I yearned so badly for love and attention that I married (the very wrong guy) when I was 20. It didn't last long and the next phase of my life was bar culture. I was in dives until 3AM and then back to work at 8AM. I neglected my home life and all obligations outside of work and partying. And I only half assed work anyway.

Many, many times, I said the wrong thing, did the humiliating, life ruining thing. I drunkenly asked a friend if I could sleep in his bed because I was so painfully lonely. Just as I was saying the "...but not about sex" part, his eyes flooded with horror and he backed away from me saying No, No, No. What I had said was vulnerable and not okay, he meant for me to understand that asking for help with loneliness was asking him to do an unwelcome obligation.

But in case that gives you the idea I was prudish, I also slept with so many guys I lost count. I don't feel bad about that per se, but there were many people who viewed me as a desperate slut. And I felt bad about that.

I made a major life change to get away from all this pain and suffering that I was causing myself without, it seemed, any power to stop. I moved to The Big City and got a Big City Job. I dressed better and was proud of myself. Until my boss hit on me at the office Christmas party. I slept with him and was devastated when he ignored me afterwards. I ended up getting way too drunk one night out with work friends. I have a clear memory of sitting on the floor of the vestibule in the boss' building, sobbing. To a group of coworkers standing in a circle around me. I had ruined my fresh start straight out of the gate.

The next day I hated myself more than I could previously imagined. I would never get it together, I would be an impulsive, unloveable object of disgust forever.

Ten years' time has passed since I felt that way. What did I do? How did I change? A lot of different little things. Learning to value myself. Learning to care less what other people think. Growing older and utterly losing interest in going out. So many little patches made up the quilt of Better.

If I had to pick one thing, it was crafting. I had already liked it, but throwing myself into it allowed me lots of sober time at home. It allowed me a still cool identity other than Party Girl: Crafty Girl!

You are going to be alright. It's going to hurt sometimes on your way to settled, but you'll be so much happier when you get there.

Please remember you're not a bad person and you shouldn't feel like you are. Try a little of not caring so much and a little of doing less of the things that leave you feeling cruddy after.

Big hugs.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 1:32 PM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I really agree with a lot of Crystalline's and The Noble Goofy Elk's experiences, if not exactly the same, but similar feelings of "oh my god what the fuck did I just do!!! I ruined my life!!"" I went through a really long series of rough patches, where it was easier to be impulsive and do silly things, than to face whatever made me feel awful in the moment. However, I remember waking up to a lot of that discomfort after.

I think what made things change, was realizing that if I don't take myself out of those areas where I am likely to be influenced by that, and really figure out what my real desires were, and who were the people I wanted to be around that will help me support my growth, then nothing will change and I will still wake up feeling regret. It took me nearly a year or two of trial and error, and having to constantly calibrate to move at a slower and more mindful pace, even when I thought I couldn't go anymore mindful or slower. It was also a lot of finding people I felt safe being vulnerable around, and sharing my regrets and what I hoped to do or learn better in the future, and feeling their love and support.

I've now reached a point where I've tuned enough to remember the initial reasons why I entered college, but also to love and forgive myself for making the decisions I did in the past. All of that was incredibly important in order to understand what my real priorities are, and you are doing a fantastic job of self awareness, so you could redirect your life. Asking yourself, "What am I doing?" and then acting on's really great. I wish i had more courage to do it even earlier, but I also did have a lot of courage to do it early enough. You can do it!
posted by yueliang at 11:16 PM on October 19, 2015

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