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What are Values, Anyway?

Exercise more. Eat less salt. Spend more time with your family. Work harder.

We are flooded with messages about changes we could or should make. If you’ve ever found yourself with a list of changes you promised yourself you would stick to this time, only to find little has changed months later, you’re not alone. We can have every good intention of making a change, and still find it hard to initiate or maintain it. 

There are all kinds of behavioral techniques for sticking to change – make a schedule; reward yourself, share your change with an accountability partner. All of these can help, but there’s an often-overlooked first step: linking change to your personal core values.

Track athlete with performance anxiety preparing to run at the starting line

What are values anyway?

Values are not morals, ethics, personality traits, or goals. Rather, they are individually chosen principles rooted in what is important to us. It can be helpful to think of values as a compass, or even a personal mission. If we lose our way or get turned around, the compass can get us back on track!

Let’s consider the example of Tim, who is working on losing weight. Every year in January Tim joins a gym and promises himself he will work out several times per week. He starts off strong and then tapers off, struggling by mid-February to get to the gym once a week. By summer, every time he passes the gym he feels guilty and angry at himself, but ultimately the guilt and anger do nothing to change his behavior.

In therapy Tim began to explore this pattern, seeking strategies to maintain this change longer-term. His therapist encouraged him to consider what values were behind this goal of losing weight. 

Tim described how having children later in life prompted him to consider his own health, especially because his father died when Tim was in his early 20s. Tim identified his relationship with his children as a high priority, noting that he would like to be a present, supportive, and loving father as his children age into adulthood. He is worried that if he neglects his health he will miss this opportunity.

Track athlete with performance anxiety preparing to run at the starting line

Using the fatherhood value as a compass direction allowed Tim to further refine his goals and the options available to him. He began to think more broadly about how he could prioritize his health so he could be a loving and supportive father now and for the duration of his relationship with his children. He realized that he hadn’t maintained the goal of losing weight because it felt boring, monotonous, and lonely; whereas, imagining ways in which he could maintain his health in the interest of his relationship with his children felt energizing and important. He began to consider what behaviors were available to him each day to prioritize his health. Some days that meant going to the gym, other days it meant walking to work, and other days it meant playing outside with his children.

How can I determine my values?

There is no right or wrong way to start when it comes to clarifying your values. It may be helpful to list important areas in your life, such as “relationships”, “career”, “leisure”, “spirituality”, “parenting”, “personal health”, etc., but feel free to create your own domains. Within each domain or area of life, you can consider what is meaningful and important to you. Remember, values are our compass directions, so these values should not take the form of a list of goals. Tim would never wake up one day and say, “I’ve accomplished my goal of being a loving and supportive father”. Values are active, important directions that do not have an end point. As such, it can be more helpful to consider your intentions for each of the domains you choose to focus on (i.e., how you would ideally like things to be and what you want to work toward in each valued area of your life).The specific behaviors that Tim will utilize to express his values likely will change as his children age, but the values themselves will always remain.

Another option for clarifying values involves a mental exercise: Bring to mind a memory of a time when you felt very engaged, excited, and energized by an activity. This could be a memory from any time in your life, including childhood. Spend a moment exploring this memory, asking yourself who was present; what was fun or exciting about the activity; how did you feel before, during and after the activity; and what resonates for you about it now. Often these memories can point us in the direction of our values because they speak to what feels important in our lives. Did you enjoy that activity because you were collaborating with others? Did you appreciate connecting with someone or something important?

Track athlete with performance anxiety preparing to run at the starting line

Even if you believe you have a good sense of your values, it can help to do a check-in every few months to see if you’re still on track. It’s normal to drift from goals, and that’s when the compass can get us back on track. If you feel bored, sluggish, or unmotivated in various domains, a quick check to see if you’ve drifted away from meaningful values-consistent behaviors can help bring vitality and energy back to your life.

It may seem a simple thing to link a change to a value, but doing this can have many benefits, including increasing our self-awareness, tracking our progress toward goals, and ultimately contributing to a meaningful life. Every moment of every day we have an opportunity to move closer to or farther from our values. What can you do today to get closer?

Dr. Anya Moon

Dr. Anya Moon

Director of Clinical Training

Please note: this article is for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for therapy or advice from a qualified professional.