What are Values and why should you care?

So, what are values and why should you care? To give some 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 but most notably for me in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) used in many settings across the world. Values are developed or refined to help provide a compass point to direct an individual’s energy. They are about our own behaviour, not what we want from others. Its 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. It’s what gives our lives meaning.

Values can’t be completed, so its never going to be a tick list to get done, but we can establish relevant goals to help us maintain our direction and motivation. That probably sounds vague and abstract and quite typical of what a psychologist might say.  Personally, I think it can be a difficult premise to get your head around and for lots of people it feels 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 it 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 its about having hard conversations in order to get to a better place. I think some of this I’m able to practice well, particularly when I’m able to demonstrate it towards others, and perhaps one of the reasons I found a route into psychology. I find it less easy to offer it 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 far from perfect, but that’s ok because I am an ever-evolving work in progress.

I’m working on it 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 really hard 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

Not being able to complete or tick off compassion for some people 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 head in the right direction. If I come into contact with someone I find irritating or difficult I can set this as a goal for my interactions with them and invest energy in expressing it, even when its hard to do. If I know there are behaviours that will trigger my own self-criticism and its these occasions 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 I have been less than compassionate or am witness to it in others, I can take a position of curiosity and challenge it where I feel that’s appropriate. In being able to enact these minor behaviours I feel closer to acting in keeping to one of my values and that brings satisfaction and a sense of developing. 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 why you’re doing something, its simply about understanding and linking it with what’s truly important to you. If we can invest our energy into behaviour that 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 here.

Written by Dr Alastair Bailie

Edited by Jon Ford