How falling into a ravine led to a value-aligned life

Making only safe choices doesn’t always save you from disaster

How falling into a ravine led to a value-aligned life
Hiker in a gorge. Photo by Alexander Milo on Unsplash

I was frantically trying to find something, anything to hold on to. As I slid down the mountainside I felt my stomach drop and fill with fear. The trail I had been on disappeared from view and the bottom of the ravine was now fast coming closer. As I crashed down the last metres I felt deep despair and had only one thought, “What will become of me?”

That’s what it felt like when — while lying in bed — I had to face the fact that my body and mind had finally given up on me. They were letting me know in no uncertain terms they couldn’t go on the way I had been working them.

So how did I get myself into this mess?

Keeping up with the Joneses

For pretty much all of my life, I had made ‘safe choices’.

After studying a safe major I landed my first real job, thinking I’d stick with it for a year or two while I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life.

Two years became three. Then four! Five! 10! 15! 20!

As those years went by, I steadily climbed the career ladder. Not because I necessarily wanted to, but because it seemed the right, safe and expected thing to do. Besides, it felt good to be appreciated and the money coming with it wasn’t bad either.

Had you known me back then you’d have been forgiven if you thought me pretty successful in a great career.

I had bought a house, drove a nice car, went on long holidays and could afford anything I wanted. I was keeping up with the Joneses. I was also growing increasingly unhappy!

I didn’t really like my job or my life but I didn’t know what changes to make or, if I did, how to make them. Besides, I was too scared to do anything that would put the comfortable life I had created in danger… until I found myself completely burned out and feeling as though I was lying at the ‘bottom of a ravine’ — my ‘comfortable life’ no longer comfortable.

Climbing out of the ravine

Before I could discover how to climb out though, I needed to figure out how I got there in the first place. Because there was one thing I was very sure of: I was not going to repeat the behaviours and mistakes that caused me to ‘crash to the bottom of the ravine’ if I could help it.

It took me almost 18 months, hard work of a different kind and therapy to find out …

  • Why my life had been all work and no play
  • Why my brain always felt tired
  • Why I constantly felt trapped — caged — with no escape
  • Why I let myself be pushed and shoved in every direction
  • Why I often felt angry and resentful towards others

The answer was as simple as it was life-changing: I had been living my life in alignment with other people’s values instead of my own.

Never had I asked myself what my values were. And because I didn’t know them — at least not consciously — I had taken on the values of people around me and the culture I grew up in. I had created a life according to what I thought was expected of me. I had given up any and all of my dreams for life ‘when I was grown up’.

Now here I was, 40+ years old and lying at the bottom of a proverbial ravine. If I was to climb out of it, I had to (re)connect with my values and in the process maybe even salvage some of those dreams.

Living a value-aligned life

Discovering my values (leadership, adventure and Nature) was the easy part (here’s how). Living in alignment with them turned out to be a much bigger challenge.

Taking tentative steps I first made small changes:

  • Cutting back on the number of hours I worked, making time for a life outside of work
  • Speaking up (and sometimes saying ‘No’) when others put too many or too big demands on me and my time
  • Making conscious life decisions in alignment with my values ever more often instead of letting life simply happen to me
  • Slowly but gradually learning to live and work as I wanted to
  • Getting better at listening to my Inner Self and its messenger, my body
  • Getting better at ignoring my Inner Voice that is often my harshest critic

As I increasingly made decisions and took actions in alignment with my values, I slowly developed my self-leadership. Along the way, I discovered some of those decisions and actions would be life-changing.

Lessons from the climb out of the proverbial ravine

Crashing to the bottom of that ravine was in many ways horrible, but… it was also one of the best things that ever happened to me! Had I not gone through the experience I might still be living my life in alignment with other people’s values instead of my own.

It doesn’t mean I wish the experience on anybody else; I’d rather have people discover their own value-aligned life in a much gentler way. So let me share some lessons I learned as I climbed out of that ravine:

  • Safe choices are not always the right choices. Sometimes choices we fear are the very choices we have to make
  • Other people (especially family and friends) have the best intentions, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know what’s best for us. Only we do
  • Knowing our values is necessary to set and maintain boundaries around ourselves and our lives
  • We often feel angry and upset with others because we allow them to ignore our boundaries (even when we don’t know we have boundaries that can be ignored)
  • Living in alignment with our values can be challenging and sometimes (very) uncomfortable — not just for us but for those around us too. It is in those very moments we need to honour our values
  • Our Inner Self (instincts, intuition, wisdom, …. ) and its messenger, our body, will tell us when we act and live out of alignment with our values. Learn to listen to them!
  • When we live and work in alignment with our values, trust in ourselves grows as does our self-respect. We experience more satisfaction, a greater sense of happiness and more fulfilment
  • We honour and care for ourselves when we live in alignment with our values. We become self-leaders first and it is as such that we can grow into good leaders of others

From the proverbial ravine to real mountains

When I found myself at the bottom of that proverbial ravine I didn’t know the fall down there set me on a path that eventually would lead me into real mountains.

Choosing to live in alignment with my values also meant choosing to honour myself before caring for and about others. It started with a seemingly small step: I fulfilled a life-long dream and got a dog.

Having a dog helped me set and maintain boundaries. It helped me create a different equilibrium in my life — instead of only work I made space for a lot of play too.

Because of that dog, I didn’t get on a plane to a different continent when I went on holiday in 2005. Instead, I went hiking in the Austrian Alps. There I had the visceral experience of being deeply connected with Nature and coming Home!

A Home I might never have found and wouldn’t now be living and working in were it not for that slide to the bottom of the ravine.

Further resources

Read more about 2 fun exercises to discover your core values at — click here

Listen to the Daring Self-Leadership & The Nature Connection podcast with Gerdi Verwoert — click here

Listen to the How To Safely Hike Mountains podcast with Gerdi Verwoert — click here

Connect with me on Linkedin — click here

This post was first published on valuesalliance.net as part of the celebration of World Values Day 2021