If you are working with a counselor who uses mindfulness & acceptance-based approaches like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), or doing your own self-help work along these lines, you will probably come across values clarification exercises at some point in the process. Values work can take a variety of forms, from thought experiments (e.g., “picture the eulogy you’d like to see written about your life after you’re gone”) to card sorts and journaling exercises, but in all cases it involves stepping back from your life and looking at it in “big-picture” sort of way in order to clarify what really matters to you.
Values are helpful because they provide a sense of direction in life. They provide you with meaningful reasons to push forward in the face of adversity and to do the things that are important (but not always easy) to do. When you lack clarity about what you value, actions can seem arbitrary and life can come to feel aimless.
Values clarification can be tricky and there are a number of paths that lead to dead ends. In this post I’m going to create some sign posts for these so you can spot them when they show up. I will also share some simple techniques you can use to get yourself back on track.
Mistake 1: Confusing Goals with Values
Examples: “My life is about becoming a published author” or “My life is about having a family”
Values and goals are not identical but they can be easily confused. A value can be thought of as a freely chosen way of living that you realize through the various goals you set for yourself. For example, if being creative is an important value to you, you might do things like “write a short story” or “take a course in graphic design” or “renovate my bedroom.” Each of these activities would be considered a goal in service of the overarching value of “creativity.” You could imagine this in terms of a hierarchy:
Notice something else important here: goals are discrete events that can be checked off a list when finished, whereas values are ongoing possibilities of action that are never exhausted. Because of this, a values-orientation provides tremendous flexibility. Take a value like “mindfulness,” for example. It is always available to you as a potential way of being because mindfulness is about the way in which something is done, whether that something is running a business meeting, or divvying up household tasks with your partner, or taking a neighborhood walk.
Why this is a problem
Operating exclusively at the level of goals can limit your flexibility and undermine resilience. For example, suppose you are focused on the goal of “running in the Boston Marathon” and you break your leg a month before the race. At the goal level, you are basically out of options at this point. But if you focus instead on the higher-level value of “challenging myself physically,” there are still a variety of ways that you can realize this value through alternative actions (for example, expressing it through how you tackle the rehabilitation process). Values allow for the regeneration of goals, enabling you to continue moving forward in a chosen life direction despite obstacles.
So what do you do if what you thought was a value is actually a goal? Try asking yourself some questions to draw out the implied value. Take “having a family” for example:
“What would ‘having a family’ enable me to do that I care about in life?”
“What is ‘having a family’ in service of?”
Generally speaking, you can move up the hierarchy from goals to values by asking “why” questions (e.g., “Why is [this goal] important to me?”) and down the hierarchy from values to goals by asking “how” questions (e.g., “How can I put [this value] into play?”). I tend to convert “why” to “what” questions (as I did above) to encourage a process of description rather than speculation.
Mistake 2: Picking Values based on “Shoulds”
Example: “Well I guess I should care about being ‘compassionate,’ right?”
We all get ideas from our family and the culture at large about how to act and what to care about. Growing up we tend to be positively reinforced for acting in ways that conform to these rules and punished, in more or less overt ways, when we don’t. Depending on the social environment we grow up in, we may learn that it’s good to be “polite” or “confident” or “funny” or “disciplined.” Over time, we can internalize these directives as a kind of punitive inner voice that criticizes us when we stray from them. A preponderance of “shoulds” in our speech is a tip off to the influence of introjected regulation in our lives.
Why this is a problem
“Avoiding disapproval” can become a primary project in life, and after doing this for many years it can become a default setting. We lose touch with what we want our lives to be about and this confusion tends to show up during values clarification work. The goal of values work is not to identify what your parents thought you should care about in life, or what you would care about if you were a “good person.” The goal is to discriminate what actually brings vitality to your life. The presence of liveliness is often a clue that a core value is being contacted and this quality tends to fade when we’re talking about the things we should do.
If you are living on the basis of “shoulds,” (e.g., I should exercise more, I should read more, I should be more compassionate, etc.) reinforcement for these actions is likely coming from the (real or imagined) social environment rather than from the activity itself. One way to bypass this is to do a thought experiment in which you imagine that you already have the approval you are seeking and then ask yourself: would I still care about doing this anyway? For example:
“Suppose your parents would approve of you no matter what field you went into. Would you still choose to go into medicine?”
“You indicated that “kindness” was a value. Suppose you could do something kind, but nobody would know that you were the one doing that kind thing. Would you still want to do it?”
Mistake 3: Confusing Avoiding with Valuing
Example: “I want my life to be stress-free.”
Values are about moving toward what’s important to you in life, not about escaping what you don’t want to experience. In fact, living a values-congruent life will draw you into personally challenging situations again and again. What values provide is a why in these situations; they transform the facing of adversity into something meaningful, which ends up making a huge difference. As Nietzsche put it: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Why this is a problem
When we avoid difficult situations, we often feel an initial sense of relief. Psychologists call this “negative reinforcement”; it’s that “phew!” feeling you get when some source of anxiety is temporarily removed. For some of us, this feeling of relief can become an end pursued for its own sake. This is a problem over the long haul because a life built on avoiding discomfort tends to become smaller and smaller over time. Imagine a life lived according to the rule: “if it makes me uncomfortable, I’m not going to do it.” What would have to be given up to pull this off? Are intimate relationships possible? Or the pursuit of career dreams? When we continue to lop off parts of our life in order to reduce anxiety, we end up with a truncated existence that leaves us feeling bored and aimless.
Values, on the other hand, are about increasing our engagement with the world. They make an anxiety-arousing situation about something more than just feeling anxious. Values are the creative contribution you are making to the world through how you choose to live, and they make the difficult things worth doing. They aren’t about what I want to get (like happiness, or peace of mind, or relaxation), they are about what I how I want to be.
A simple way to convert an avoidance goal to a value is to imagine you’ve already attained whatever state the avoidance goal promises and then ask yourself: what would I want to do then? Here’s an example of what this process might look like:
Client: “I want to live a more stress-free life.” [This is an avoidance goal because the focus is on moving away from something]
Counselor: “Suppose all the stress was somehow, miraculously, eliminated from your life. What would you want to do with your time then?”
Client: “I would go back to school.” [This is an approach goal. Now we’re moving toward something]
Counselor: “And what would ‘going back to school’ be in service of for you?”
Client: “It would enable me to get a promotion” [This is still a goal, but a longer-term one. To get to a value, we need to keep moving up the hierarchy]
Counselor: “And what would ‘getting a promotion’ be in service of for you?”
Client: “If I were in a higher-level position I could be more creative in my work.” [Now we’ve arrived at the value which endows the subordinate goals of “going back to school” and “getting a promotion” with meaning]
With these questions we’ve moved from an avoidance-based goal to an approach-based goal and finally on to a core value.
By asking yourself these simple questions you can keep yourself on course when clarifying values. As you sustain focus on your values, you may notice a strengthening of resolve and motivation due to the sense of purpose they offer. This purpose infuses each step you take on the path towards goal achievement, pulling, rather than pushing, you in the direction you want to go. If you’re doing this work on your own and feel like you could use some help clarifying your own values, contact me to set up an appointment today.