Finding Your Values
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) does a lot to help deconstruct our most typical habits and patterns as they relate to our thoughts and emotions – the characteristics that most often have people feeling stuck where they don’t want to be when they start therapy.
But if you take away what used to guide our actions and behaviors, what does that leave? What system is there to replace the old one?
The answer to this in ACT is the concept of Values, which are the aspects of life that we care about, that give our life purpose and meaning, and drive us forward each day.
Values represent how you want to lead your life, the sorts of qualities you want to cultivate as a person, and how you want to relate to other people, the world at large, and yourself.
Facets of Values
Values can act as a compass pointing us in the direction we want to go in life. It is helpful to understand them as they differ from goals. Whereas goals can be checked off a list (e.g., get married), values cannot be (e.g., be a supportive partner). You never wipe your hands and say, “That’s it! I’ve reached my quota of being a good friend for my lifetime, and am now done with that.”
In that sense, your values can never be taken away from you. You can be placed in difficult or restrictive circumstances in life, but you always have some choice in how you respond to those circumstances. While they can’t be taken away by others, we ourselves can certainly neglect our values, act in opposition to them, or feel a sense of uncertainty as to what they are.
Values are freely chosen, not imposed upon us by others or through social pressure. An example of this would be a child whose parents really want them to be successful at sports, but they just want to join the robotics team.
Additionally, values do not need to be justified. It’s kind of like your favorite piece of music or flavor of ice cream – you might be able to provide justifications – that is, reasons that make logical sense, but the truth is that you just have a preference. Our values are like this.
For a life full of meaning and purpose, our values become reflected in our actions, how you show up in the world, rather than remaining within the confines of the neuronal firings of your brain. For example, in the show Breaking Bad, the character of Walter White continually asserts that he loves his family and acts only in their interest, but his decisions increasingly put them all in danger for a cause that none of them have agreed to (running a meth empire). Great show – but would you say that caring for his family is a true value for Walt based on his actions? Probably not.
When we hold our values lightly, they can continue to guide us in helpful ways. However, when they become commandments we feel we have to follow or rigid rules we have to obey, they stop functionally operating as values. This is because values operate in the observation mode of mind, and when we begin to focus on value-related goals and outcomes, this stops being observation mode and transitions into problem-solving mode.
Values and Motivation
Values draw out our intrinsic motivation (doing something for its own sake), as opposed to our extrinsic motivation (doing something for an external reward):
A classic study in Psychology compared differences in children’s enjoyment of drawing based on the reward they were expecting for doing the activity (all children in the study were selected on the basis of enjoying drawing). There were three groups in the study: children who were promised a reward for drawing, children who were given a reward at the end without being told about it, and children for whom there was no outside reward.
They found that the children who were not expecting an external reward for drawing (both the spontaneous reward and no reward groups) spent about twice as long drawing as did the children expecting a reward. Outside judges also rated the drawings of reward-expectant children as more aesthetically pleasing (hope they didn’t rate it in front of the kids’ faces though).
This doesn’t mean that we should never rely on extrinsic motivation strategies, but they tend to be self-sustaining over time, because when the reward stops, so does the behavior. This is why being clear about and leaning into what you love about your work may feel more self-sustaining than does judging the success of each day by whether or not your boss was upset.
Uncovering and articulating our values is a process that often happens in therapy, and figuring out what matters most to us can be very beneficial for living a life we find meaningful. At the same time, it can feel daunting – like, oh jeez, I have to figure out what my life is supposed to be about like I’m a 12-year-old in the book The Giver by Lois Lowry?
The nice thing about our values is that, while they can offer our lives a sense of cohesion and consistency, they can change over time. This is helpful for lessening the pressure that we put on ourselves to find the "right" values. If the values that guide you stop working for you, you’ll get some indication of that in your life, and can always reevaluate.
Here are a few values-related exercises you can engage in to start thinking about your own values in life:
1. Attending Your Own Funeral – When we generally align our actions in life with our values, this makes it so that other people are able to see the evidence of what our values are. In a moment, I want you to close your eyes and picture that you are able to view your own funeral after your life has ended – what would you want your loved ones to say about you or what you stood for in life? This is not to be morbid, but the purpose is instead to reflect upon what you’d like your life to be about.
2. Values Card Sort – A Values Card Sort is an exercise that can be helpful when you’re unsure of where to start articulating your values. The way it works is that you sort value-related words (e.g., Humor, Knowledge, Responsibility) into two or more categories of importance as a way to determine which facets of life matter more to you relative to others. These can tend not to be as specific or personalized, but can be helpful for getting you thinking about values further. Here and Here are two online Values Cart Sorts that you can feel free to explore.
3. Journaling About Values – doing some journaling about the aspects that are important to you in different domains in life can also be helpful at further clarifying what your values are. Here are ten different domains that can be helpful for thinking about what we value and how we want to show up in each of these domains (if at all):
1. Intimate Relationships
3. Relationships with Family-Of-Origin
4. Friendships/Social Life
6. Education/Skills Development
8. Spirituality/Life Philosophy
10. Health/Physical Well-Being
Another way in which we can better understand and be guided by our values is through the process of therapy. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.