Values play a key role in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a psychotherapeutic approach that aims to increase psychological flexibility. ACT emphasizes acceptance rather than resistance, and the “commitment” part of the name comes from taking committed actions in service of our values.
Values as directions
We live in a very goal-oriented world. Goals serve as endpoints; we set a goal, we work towards it, and hopefully we reach it. At that point, the goal is done, and it may be time to set a new goal. Goals can serve a purpose, but whether or not we succeed at reaching a given endpoint isn’t always in our control. When we don’t meet our goals, it can be easy to label ourselves as failures. We may see ourselves as a failure at achieving a specific goal, or our inner critic may generalize that to being a failure as a person.
Values, on the other hand, serve as directions. You never arrive at your values; they continue pointing you in the direction of the life you want to live. If you veer off your chosen valued path, that’s not a failure, because you can always reorient in the direction of your values. Goals can serve as milestones along the way in valued directions, but being values-consistent doesn’t require achieving specific goals.
Values represent the things that are most important to us. They’re things that we choose, rather than something that’s imposed upon us. They tend to be relatively stable over time, although the relative importance of each value may vary.
Values serve as a solid foundation for evaluating decisions about our actions, and they make better guides than the shoulds weighing us down or whatever the inner critic might happen to be nattering on about. When we move towards our values, we move in the direction of the life we want to live. Self-sabotaging, on the other hand, can lead in the opposite direction.
Moving in valued directions isn’t always easy; it can involve vulnerability and it can feel scary. On the other hand, it’s hard to live the life you want to live when you’re running in the opposite direction of the signs pointing you in that direction.
Your inner critic probably tends to get loud when it comes to goals—specifically goals that you’re not reaching. That can get distracting, making it easy to lose sight of what really matters. I’ve written before about the ACT life compass, which is a tool to help you explore whether you’re following your values in key domains of your life.
Before we can consider where we go with our actions, though, it helps to reflect on what our key values are. Some might be immediately obvious (for me, independence has a big neon sign), while others you might have to think about for a bit.
There are various lists of values to be found around the web, including ones here from Brené Brown and ACT Mindfully author Russ Harris. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to values; your top picks can be entirely different from mine, and that’s totally okay.
Some of my values taken from that list are:
- compassion: I think this is a big part of why nursing was a good career fit for me
- curiosity, knowledge, and learning: learning more about the world makes my mind sing, and that’s a major factor in the way I approach my blog
- home: home has always been my sanctuary
- humour: being able to laugh at oneself and the world makes everything easier
- independence: I’ve always been fiercely independent; try to take that away and the claws will come out
- openness and self-expression
- reason: I’m very left-brain-dwelling, and I like it there
- simplicity: this is one of the things I love about my guinea pigs
- career and travel: these were important for many years, but depression knocked them both off the list completely
Besides ousting career and travel, I think depression has mostly contracted my values to focus on what’s most important to me. Luckily, those values are consistent with a pretty hermit-ish (at least in person) lifestyle with restricted functioning. I’m still able to engage with life in ways that are meaningful to me.
Have you given any thought to your own values? Do you find that shoulds, illness, or other influences drag you away from them?
- Drexel University Counseling Center: Bull’s eye exercise
- Meeting Point Counseling: Acceptance and commitment therapy values card sort
- The Good Project: value sort activity
- The Happiness Trap: worksheets based on the book by Russ Harris
- The Valued Living Questionnaire from Steven C. Hayes
- TherapistAid worksheets