by Gemima Fitzgerald, Clinical Psychologist & Bereavement Lead at Rowans Hospice
Lent came to an end over the weekend, and for many of us, so too did several weeks without a favourite food or drink. If you tried this, did you last the whole time without giving in?
A friend of mine who had pledged to give up chocolate only lasted ten days. I asked her why she set this goal in the first place.
“I don’t really know… I thought I might lose a bit of weight? I just know I want to be healthier, and encourage a healthy lifestyle for my daughter but it didn’t work!”
As she hadn’t achieved her goal she was left feeling as though she was a failure. She told me she felt guilty, weak and downhearted. This wasn’t a great outcome of her very good intentions during Lent! I’ll come back to her later, but first of all, I want to have a think about goals and how they can and can’t be helpful.
So much of our life is built around making plans for the future and setting goals: booking a dream holiday, losing weight, buying a home, building a career, thinking about a course you would like to attend one day…the list goes on. When health isn’t an issue for us, we just get on with being busy and being consumed with goals.
How can I make the most of my time left when life has lost all meaning?
But what if someone is told that their life is now going to be shortened by a life-limiting illness? Priorities shift, and for many, those long-term goals and ambitions we had now seem pointless for a future that’s no longer guaranteed.
Living with, or loving someone with, a life-limiting illness can take over your whole life, to the point where life may not even feel worth living anymore. We ask ourselves: How can I make the most of my time left when life has lost all meaning?
Many people decide to not have goals and just ‘live for today’.
As a Clinical Psychologist working in the Rowans Hospice Psychology & Bereavement services, I meet many people facing the dilemma of finding a new sense of purpose and meaning in life. Many people decide to not have goals and just ‘live for today’. I love that philosophy and certainly being able to engage with the ‘here and now’ so that you are fully present in your life, rather than on auto-pilot so much of the time, is a really good way to live your life.
However, if you have always enjoyed being goal-focused, or are simply adjusting to the fact that your longer term goals may no longer be achievable, shifting to simply living for today can feel uncomfortable and unfulfilling. But there is a way we can think differently about these goals that may help us find new meaning in life, and that is to shift our focus away from having goals, to fulfilling our values.
Our values represent what matters most to us in life.
Perhaps it’s about how we would like to be thought of and remembered by others. Our values are personal and will be different for each and every one of us. Some examples of values are: being emotionally close to the people we love, being fun-loving, having self-control, being honest, setting ourselves challenges or having time for your loved ones. If you are finding it difficult to identify what your values are, have a think about what you most enjoy doing and question: Why are these things so important to you? It’s likely that your values are hidden in there. Also, consider what hurts you the most. Things that don’t matter very much don’t tend to hurt us. Inside your pain you’ll find your values.
Even if through illness you can no longer physically do the things you used to enjoy, your values can still be expressed in other ways that have the same sense of importance and achievement for you.
For example, if one of your goals that is no longer achievable was taking your grandchild out regularly to the park to teach them to ride a bike, it can be very disheartening and easy to use words like ‘failure’ when this is no longer possible. So, decide what the value was that made this goal important to you. Maybe the value was simply ‘helping my grandchild to feel confident and learn new skills’. So perhaps another goal that could be set that’s achievable and just as fulfilling could be helping them learn to read their favourite story book.
Going back to my friend who tried to give up chocolate for Lent, I asked her why she had found it so hard. “I hate worrying about what I can or can’t eat” she said. “I just want to enjoy food and have fun with my family while leading a generally healthy lifestyle. If I just make sure we’re more active in general, then I can eat what I want.”
She made a new goal that was more in line with her values
And in that she had found her answer! It’s important to her to enjoy food guilt free, yet be healthy and pass on this attitude to her daughter – these are values she holds. Therefore, she realised her goal should never have been to deprive herself of something that actually gives her immense enjoyment. So she made a new goal that was more in line with her values: to plan regular days out at the weekend, and to be active with her family. Then she will still be healthy, encourage her daughter to be healthy, and be able to tuck in to chocolate now and again, guilt free!
By fulfilling our values, we can once again feel we are living as the person we want to be
Working at the Hospice, I learn so much from people who are at their most vulnerable about what it means to be human. I learn how to think about what is important in life. The ripples from our life will continue to affect others for many years after our death; even small actions and words can have a powerful effect on others. By ensuring that in our actions and in what we say we are fulfilling our values, we can once again feel we are living as the person we want to be.
We can spend so much time trying to achieve one goal or another, moving ever forwards and sometimes not considering whether these goals are giving us any true sense of fulfilment in life, beyond simply the achievement of the goal itself. Conversely, we are often very harsh with ourselves when we feel we have ‘failed’, just like my friend.
So, perhaps we should all take some time to shift from being simply goal focused, and instead consider what our personal values are, and try to live our lives in a way that aligns itself with these as much as possible to give our life that renewed sense of meaning and fulfilment.
Where can I go for support?
If you are living with a life-limiting illness, or have a friend or family member who is, and want to find out more about the support available to you, your family and carers, please visit our new Rowans Living Well Centre, which runs a number of drop in support services and classes for people across the local community.
If you are under the care of Rowans Hospice, find out more about the support we give via our Psychology services, from our Spiritual Care Chaplain Carol, who can talk about any element of spirituality regardless of faith, and for those who need bereavement support, please see more here.