Four-ish years ago, I spontaneously sat down at my kitchen table to jot down a list of all the things that mattered to me.
At the time, I was experiencing a lot of inner turmoil — a rocky relationship, an unfulfilling and draining career, and an immense amount of stress and dissatisfaction as a result of these things.
To help recenter myself, I decided to reflect on the things that fed my soul. So, I grabbed a notepad and pen and got to work.
I was surprised to discover that the things that mattered most to me were, in fact, not “things” at all. They were more like principles, or abstract concepts that were important to me. I was also surprised at just how many I came up with in such a short amount of time — in fact, I wrote down about 20 of them in less than five minutes.
I didn’t know it then, but I was already grasping at something that would help guide me in my future therapeutic practice — well before I even started my journey as a therapist-in-training. That “something” is a little thing called “values.”
What are values?
Defining the word “values” is a little tricky for me, because it’s both a familiar yet hard-to-describe concept. In a nutshell, a value is any sort of principle that holds personal meaning and helps guide individuals toward a more fulfilling life. Put more succinctly, Dr. DJ Moran, a clinical psychologist who specializes in acceptance and commitment therapy, defines “values” as “chosen life directions.”
Values are not the same thing as objects, nor are they end goals. Rather, they are themes that we can work toward to achieve a more meaningful life.
Values are a central theme of acceptance and commitment therapy, also known as “ACT” (pronounced “act”). I find the acronym for this type of therapy to be quite fitting, as ACT aims to help people act in accordance with their values to promote change within their lives. According to Dr. Russ Harris, an ACT trainer and acclaimed author, ACT believes that “values-based living” is very much intertwined with well-being, health, and vitality.
Why values matter
What’s beautiful about values is that we all have them. Getting clear on our values can help us not only understand ourselves better, but it also helps us better understand what brings us purpose.
Essentially, values matter because they promote change. They help guide us toward an enriching and meaningful life. They can help us make decisions that are in service of our highest selves.
As a bonus, I believe that naming our values is empowering. Knowing what we stand for can help develop a sense of agency and personal responsibility for our lives.
As a therapist, working from a values-driven perspective helps me better understand each and every individual’s needs. I may hold different values from my clients based on differences in upbringing, culture, ethnicity, spiritual beliefs, gender identity, life experiences, or personality. I don’t think any value is invalid, nor do I believe that there is such a thing as a “good” or “bad” value. The beauty of ACT is that we can all name and explore our unique values as individuals and let them serve as a compass for our lives.
Looking back on that sunny day in my kitchen, I realize that certain circumstances in my life were not serving me — or, more specifically, they were not serving my values. Taking actions that are more closely aligned with my values has helped me gain a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. It doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle, and it certainly doesn’t mean that everything is happy and easy all of the time. However, I find that I am willing to embrace those struggles, because deep down I know that my soul is on the right path. In fact, examining my values ultimately led me to pursue counseling as a career!
If you are feeling lost, directionless, or dissatisfied with certain aspects of your life, I invite you to pause. Take a moment to reflect on your values. Better yet, jot them down so you can actually see them on paper.
Gina Henschen (she/her) is an Affordable Counseling Intern at People House and a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling candidate at the University of Colorado Denver. She has experience working with adults through a variety of issues including disordered eating, trauma, depression, and anxiety. In her spare time, she finds grounding and comfort in all things outdoors, including climbing, hiking, skiing, camping, and gardening. Some of her core values include connection, authenticity, and contribution. You can reach her at email@example.com to connect.