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What are values and why should you care?

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

For context, my interest in values originates in my role as a clinical psychologist, providing therapy to those who may benefit from it. Therapies have more recently been moving away from perceptions of ameliorating illness, dysfunction and disorder, to what might be described as positive psychology; looking at strengths, opportunities and growth and how we develop to be the best versions of ourselves.

What are values?

Values play an important role in several therapies. Most importantly in my work, values are instrumental in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), used in many settings across the world. Values are developed, or refined, to help provide a compass point from which to direct an individual’s energy. They are about our own behaviour, not what we want from others. Values are about establishing what sort of person we want to be, the personal qualities we want to cultivate, how we want to live our lives, and what is most important to us. Values give our lives meaning.

Values can’t be completed, so they never form a tick list of things to be done. However, we can establish relevant goals, stemming from these values, to help us maintain our direction and motivation. Now that probably sounds vague, abstract, and quite typical of what you think a psychologist might say. Personally, I think it can be a difficult premise to get your head around. For lots of people this work might feel like too much effort to be worth the trouble. This is perhaps where some personal reflection may be helpful.

Values – an example from my life

In thinking about the development and identification of my own values, one that encapsulates a great deal of my efforts is compassion. This isn’t just about being kind… or something vaguely fluffy and nice. For me, compassion embodies warmth, a positive regard, an unconditionally supportive belief, a strength in standing up for others and myself, as well as care and affection. Sometimes it’s about having hard conversations in order to get to a better place.

Some of this I can practice well, particularly when I’m able to demonstrate it towards others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I found a route into psychology. I find it less easy to offer compassion to myself, even though I sometimes know I need it. I’ll never finish being compassionate and I’ll never get a medal or trophy for it. I don’t expect to be able to do this all the time because I’m not perfect, but that’s ok because I am an ever-evolving work in progress.

I work on this value and when I notice I’m struggling with it, I can reflect and redirect my energies into offering it where I can. Sometimes it can be difficult, but that makes me feel like I’m growing when I can recognise that I’ve been able to demonstrate it.

How goalsetting can help you keep on track with your values

For some people, not being able to complete or tick off a value, such as compassion, might feel uncomfortable. There’s a little more uncertainty about whether we are keeping on track, but we can establish smaller goals to act as markers to help us proceed in the right direction. If I come into contact with someone whom I find irritating or difficult, I can set being compassionate as a goal for my interactions with them. I can invest energy in expressing it, even when I find it tricky to do. If I know there are behaviours that will trigger my own self-criticism, it is in these occasions that I can work towards offering compassion to myself.

These are small markers to allow me to reflect and demonstrate progress and growth. If I notice that I have been less than compassionate or am witness to it in others, I can take a position of curiosity, challenging it where I feel appropriate. In being able to enact these minor behaviours, I feel closer to acting in keeping to one of my values, bringing satisfaction and a sense of development. I have many values and try my best to think of these often, setting smaller goals to keep me heading in the right direction. Integrating values into goal setting develops the ‘why’ behind your behaviour.

Why do you really want to lose ten pounds, run a marathon, buy that house?

This isn’t about labelling or judging your motivation for doing something. This is simply about understanding and linking your goals and actions with that which you hold as truly important to you. If we can invest our energy into behaviour which is in keeping with our values, there’s an opportunity to lead a more satisfying, contented, and rich life. The earlier we can start that practice the better.

You can find out more about values and goal setting on our podcast.

Written by Dr Alastair Bailie

Edited by Jon Ford & Sophie Bass

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