Are You Ever Paralyzed Because Two of Your Values Are in Conflict?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

I spend a lot of time thinking about questions such as, “How do we change?” “Why is it so hard to make ourselves do things that we want to do?” ( for instance, why is it so hard to make myself go to bed?) and “How can we stick to our resolutions?

I realize now that a big challenge is clarity. Often, if there’s something that I want to do, but somehow can’t get myself to do, it’s because I don’t have clarity. This lack of clarity often arises from a feeling of ambivalence–I want to do something, but I don’t want to do it; or I want one thing, but I also want something else that conflicts with it.

Here’s a conflict: It’s nice when my older daughter is around while she does her homework; on the other hand, it’s good for her to be in her room without the distractions of family noise. So do I nudge her to go to her room, or do I let her stay in the kitchen? I can never decide.

These days, when I’m trying to get myself to pursue some course of action, I work hard to make sure I know exactly what I expect from myself, and why, and what value I’m choosing to serve.

I don’t think I’m the only one who struggles with this problem. Lack of clarity, and the paralysis that ensues, seems to be common. Here’s a list of aims in conflict that I’ve heard. Do any ring a bell for you?

I want to eat healthfully. It’s wrong to waste any food.

I want to give 110% to work. I want to give 110% to my family.

I want to work on my novel. I want to exercise.

I want to get more sleep. I want some time each day to talk to my sweetheart, watch TV, and goof around.

I want to spend less time in the car. I want my children to participate in many after-school activities.

Making money is not important. Making money is important.

I want to be very accessible to other people. I want time alone to think and work.

I want to be a polite guest. I want to avoid sugar.

I want to be frugal. I want to join a gym.

I want leisure time when I come home from work. I want to live in a house that’s clean and well-run.

I want to meet new people and see my friends. I want more solitude.

I want to stop nagging you. I want you to help me.

Have you experienced this–a paralysis that comes from conflicting values?

  • Kate

    I was going to add, but then saw you pretty much had it covered, that my values conflict is between wanting more time to be alone and ‘recover’ from life and also wanting more time with friends and family to nurture my relationships. I often feel torn about that.

    • Sadye

      Same here. One trick I’ve been trying is accepting invitations but reminding myself that I can leave at any time (i.e., I don’t have to stay out until 2 a.m. every single time).

  • Kim

    I definitely related to the struggle between wanting leisure time after work, while also wanting a clean and organized house.

  • Raimie Harrison

    Dear Gretchen,
    Yes, clarity and a healthy dose of balance. It’s is that whole “for each action–” bit. We have to choose which line of thinking is ultimately bringing us more joy, is right for us, and is feasible in our life. We choose which price we pay. Some things we can have a little of both, some it is all or nothing.

    The one I struggle with the most is go to bed and have a better morning or enjoy my most productive part of the day when everything is quiet and asleep but me…

    Clarified Butter in NE

  • Carla

    This is exactly me. And the worst part is that no matter which side I choose at any given moment, I will then always feel guilty for not doing the other. For example, I will goof off and read a book, then feel guilty I didn’t do laundry. Or I will do chores all evening, and then feel guilty that I didn’t do something fun with my husband.

  • Julie-Ann Baumer


    What an interesting thought exercise. I pondered the dilemma on my way home from work and then concluded that the problem lies in thinking we can do it all. It’s not possible. It’s fun to consider the possibilities, though!

  • C.elizabeth.25

    I struggle with this as well. If I am unclear in a task at work, I will do every BUT that confusing task. Oftentimes the anticipated frustration isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I think the same goes with fear. We fear the unknown because we don’t know what’s ahead of us. That’s scary. Sometimes we are fearful of the future because we wonder if we have “what it takes” to handle the situations. Thank you for the post!

  • Primod

    This quest for balancing life is what we all thrive quite hard to be.. but loose out on either personal happiness for responsibilities or call of duty! Sad, but true!

  • ni na

    How about this: one can not do everything in one day. But tomorrow there is another day. So, I make a decision: today I go to sleep early, tomorrow I will read (or vice versa). Saturdays I clean the house, Sundays I spend time with children. I doesn’t always work, but at least it helps feel less guilt.

  • discoveredjoys

    I suspect that it is all too easy to submit to a tyranny of your own values. Values which start “I must…” But if you have a set of ‘ethical preferences’ or ‘life-style preferences’ you give yourself more latitude in how strongly to apply your preferences according to circumstances.

    You do have to think your preferences through carefully of course and that takes more effort than following a dictatorial value. Still you avoid the value/guilt ping-pong.

  • AliB

    They all ring a bell – so how do we resolve these conflicts? I guess we find a balance – a halfway compromise…

  • Oh Gretchen!

    You are human.

    We don’t always do what’s best for us.

    I think it is programmed into our genes…
    Give yourself a break!

  • Silvina

    All the time… 🙂

    Right now I feel guilty because I’m checking my emails and would have to be hanging clothes… I’ going to do it right now 🙂

  • You have a knack for hitting on the head the nail in all our sides! The difficulties seem to come in three main types. They are conflicts (1) between things that we ought, (2) between things that we want, or (3) between something we ought and something we want. #3 Is simple… do what you ought. #2 is harder, but the consequences are not usually dire even if the choice is regretted. #3 is really tough, and a wise moral mentor would be very helpful. *** For SERIOUS thought: Ever notice that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between type #3 and #2 ?

  • Jody

    Oh dear! You have stepped inside my head. So often I’ve struggled with these very opposites, or even the good, better and best choices. How about you keep thinking, studying, and writing on this thought and help us all gain clarity? We await.

  • Layla

    “I want to be a polite guest. I want to avoid sugar.” This used to be me! But now it’s “I don’t give a rats derrière if this makes someone think I’m not a polite guest or I’m somehow too picky by telling them ahead of time, I’m not going to eat sugar because I’ll spend the next week struggling with a (self-diagnosed) eating disorder. I don’t owe you to sacrifice a week of my life just so you can have 15 seconds of a slight happiness increase.”

    But in general I struggle with similar problems. My friend just asked me if I want to come to the bar on Saturday night. I want to do things with my friends – I don’t want to spend money at a bar where I know I could spend that money elsewhere and get real enjoyment out of it.

    I think I just answered my own question there!

  • KatieB

    I experience this paralysis often. In fact, people describe me a super laid back sort of person when in reality this is my greatest coping mechanism. When I am torn about what to do…I do nothing.

    Should I find a job I am passionate about doing at the expense of my free time? When I don’t, I am often bored and listless. When I do, I am often one track minded. Right now. I am in the middle which is the worst.

    Empowerment comes in making the conscious decision I think. As others have commented, you can’t have it all…so you may as well pick one.

    If we narrow down our list of core values, they will inevitably come into conflict with one another. This is why you are brilliant Gretchen with your “BIG IDEA” for the year. When in doubt, ask yourself what action most fits with the “BIG IDEA” instead of the more specific values it might mirror.

    My sister always asks herself as a mother, “Will it be fun? Will it create a great memory?” If the answers are yes…no matter what…she does it. And I know her decision to say yes is often in conflict with her values of rest and order.

  • Danielle Deskins

    I suffer from nearly every one of those conflicts! Like another comment said, I end up feeling guilty about whichever side I don’t pick. I also tend to dwell on it and continue to beat myself up. Yeah, I’m pretty hard on myself. Such is the life of a perfectionist 🙁

    • Allison

      I do the exact same thing – feel guilty or i end up thinking ‘dang, I should’ve picked the other choice’. What happens though in many cases is the paralysis sets in and I don’t do either! More than a lack of clarity, in my case it’s the perfectionist in me who doesn’t want to do the wrong thing, so then I end up doing nothing – ridiculous, I know! I have a friend who loves reading, but always found it hard to go to the library because there were way too many choices! She didn’t want to pick the wrong book so she took out twelve at a time and then would start each of them and never finished one, but it was better to her than taking out the one wrong book!

  • Kathy

    How did you become a mind reader? I’m often faced with the dilemmas you’ve listed. I know that clarity is something I do not have right now, but I’m working on it by trying to narrow down my absolute most important values at this time (which isn’t to say they’ll be the same in 6 months).

  • Caitlin

    I struggle with this too, and how I’ve partially (not completely) helped the issue is to prioritize my values. I value both family and my career, but family ranks higher… Therefore if I find myself struggling where to put the time, it goes to family. I value my health, and although I love my friends, their minor feelings (disapointment in me turning down a cookie) didn’t make my top value list so I opt out of the dessert. I find this helps keep values in perspective even when the immediate situation clouds decision making.

  • This doesn’t happen to me too often, because I have a decisive personality type (INTJ), and in fact I can hardly stand NOT to make a decision about something and get it nailed down. But others prefer to leave their options open, which is totally fine for them.

    I think in the examples you mentioned, I would be likely to come up with some compromise resolution – bring your own treat to a party, take notes on your phone while you exercise, set specific hours of availability and relaxation, etc. There’s a solution to nearly any dilemma, with a little creative thinking. 🙂

  • Goldberry

    So true!… The worst internal conflict is when you know that no matter what you do, somebody is going to feel hurt, and will have good reasons to feel hurt. How do you deal with that?…

    • Lindsey

      Goldberry: Read “Codependent No More.” You aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings. Live in a way that you can live with. The rest will fall together.

  • Oh yes this is my daily struggle, actually! Great post 🙂

  • I feel the greatest conflict between wanting to work on my blog at the weekend and wanting to do all the other weekend tasks: washing/ironing, cooking for the week ahead, going to a stretch class, hairdressing appointments. The blog always seems to miss out.
    But it’s a big job that involves preparing and photographing a recipe and then writing about it. I haven’t solved this conflict of values in 2 years, but keep trying in a haphazard way. Glad to know I’m not alone!

  • Megan Gordon

    I wouldn’t say paralysis, but it does make things harder. I think the trick is to find the right balance for YOU. Balance is a big theme in my life (for the record, it’s more like a pie chart than scales for me). If I feel that I am leaning more toward one value (not wasting food, for example) than the conflicting one, I make adjustments. If I don’t want to waste food but want to eat healthfully I make sure I only buy what I know I will eat and plan on smaller portions so there is less waste.

  • lolabelle

    This happens to me all the time, but I’ve found it’s almost always when I’m really tired and what I really need to do is take a nap (inspired by another Gretchen rule “first thing’s first”:)

  • Felicity

    A little strangely, I often think about this value clash between my Romanticism and my Classicism: I want to be individual and instinctive and free; but I also want order and serenity and belonging. I want it all!

  • Yes, yes, yes! I have what she’s having!

    Seriously. This is a major problem in my life. The only answer I have that sometimes works for me is to try to avoid all or nothing thinking. In other words, I can have everything I want, just not at the same time. It’s truly a difficult thing to work through.

  • YES. I think this is when I am mostly likely to get angry – at myself or others – because I hate the choice.

  • Holly

    The book 10-10-10 by Suzie Welch is a great way to help resolve the time conflicts that you face in daily life. Ask yourself “How will this decision impact me in the next 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years from now.” So, the novel and exercise question might be answered this way. In 10 minutes, it won’t really matter. In 10 months I’ll be healthier because i invested in exercise, in 10 years, I’ll be alive because I took care of myself.

  • Sriram

    Yes, I understand this conflict. What I’ve found is not the problem is there are 2 choices or even multiple choices in a situation – it is more about not deciding on a particular choice. This indecision causes confusion. The lack of decision stems from other psychological blocks that are present – which is preventing me from acting…

  • RR

    I can relate to a lot of these. The question is, what do you do about it? How about a blog on that?

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  • Jasper

    Tomorrow is another day but tomorrow isn’t guaranteed

  • Kaveen

    Yes I struggle a lot with this feeling. I am great at anticipating people’s needs and go out of the way to help them. As an evolving human being, I do feel sad when people fail to help me when there is an obvious need. In order to not feel hurt, I stopped myself from helping and started minding my own business- but that person was not me, I was struggling to be someone else. So I am in constant conflict to help or not to help. I was at a party yesterday and there was a lady standing by herself. My old self would have invited her into the group but my new self felt no one does this for me so why do it for someone else…

  • Guest

    I struggle with this a LOT. One thing that helps me sometimes is to find and choose to apply a solution that addresses many “conflicting” concerns at once. The best example I can think of right now involves the live frugally vs. join a gym & committing time to exercising ‘vs.’ spending quality time with family; we try to find and take advantage of opportunities to enjoy free activities outdoors (when possible) to exert some energy & have fun together. There isn’t always a good catch-all solution like this immediately evident, but often enough to help relieve the guilt sometimes. =)

  • Audra

    or do I read my favorite tweets from GR or Connect with family on email or Facebook with my precious little time. this one’s a daily dilemma.

    • gretchenrubin

      Awww thanks!

  • alwalker

    One of my life truths is this: “You can be everything you want to be, but not all at the same time.” Whenever I feel paralysis, I choose a single goal/desire/path and focus on it, knowing that there will likely be another time in the future for the goals that I didn’t choose today.