Values--So Old School, So Important

by Monica Ross

One of my favorite tools and techniques to use with clients is a value’s exercise. There’s a handout that I typically use that lists on one side several potential values a person may have and on the other side is a goal-oriented exercise. Why would a discussion of values be important when it comes to mental health? Well we each have our own set of values that’s for sure. A client might look at the list and identify their top 5 and it could look very different from someone else’s to 5.  What is a value but nothing less than what’s important to someone. I posted a quote recently on my Empathic Online Counseling facebook page that states “It hurts because it’s important.”

When we are not living according to our values, when we’re not doing the things that we know to be important to us, then it does tend to hurt and many people do seek some type of therapy or guidance at that point.

Much of therapy is self-reflective and introspective work. A person sets aside a specific time and dedicates that time to focusing on their thoughts and feelings, on what is causing them distress, on what is important to them. Sometimes people just need the time and space to talk and to be able to express that this particular thing, whatever it is, is important to them.

There is something healing about that.  It's why I love what I do.

So, the first step is to identify those values. How else might we know we’re not living them if we haven’t first identified what they are? Where do they come from?—our history, our culture, our experiences in life, our personality, our beliefs religious or otherwise. That’s why they can be so very different for every person.

But when it comes to a discussion of what is making me or anyone else unhappy in life or when a client comes in and says Why can’t I seem to get the motivation to do anything? Often perhaps it’s because they value x,y,z and it’s in some way not being fulfilled, they are not doing it.

Think of the artist, the painter let’s say. Maybe they learned at the age of 10 that art was very important to them. They got an award at school for a drawing they did in art class. As a teenager they refined those skills. They may have come from a low socioeconomic background and felt pressured later to study finance or accounting in college.

Now in their 20’s they work at PwC. They wake up one day feeling miserable about life. They’ve been feeling miserable all along about something. Why? Maybe all of the rest of life got in the way and they got detached from their love of art.  I’m not suggesting then that the person leave their job at PwC and apply to study at the San Francisco Art Institute. I’m not suggesting that they don’t either. I’m pointing out that it’s a pretty simple formula.

If we value something, whatever that thing is, let’s do it in order to keep ourselves interested in life, even if we do that thing on the side if necessary. Alan Watts talks about this topic.

The next part of the exercise is, What do you want to have happen followed by What are you going to do about it? These are excellent questions to be asking ourselves everyday. What do we want to have happen? And what are we going to do about it?

When a person comes in distress sometimes it’s from some type of trauma and when you’re experiencing trauma the feeling can be such that you feel very powerless. Your power has been usurped from you.

So to say to someone, anyone, what do you want to have happen? Well it shifts things. The thinking goes from there's nothing I can do here to there is something I can do here.

The way that this works in terms of this exercise is something like this.

A person comes in saying they value education, but they dropped out of school in the 8th grade. Then the question: What do you want to have happen? The shift. The answer: I want to finish my schooling. I want my GED. I feel like it’s holding me back in life by not having it. The follow up question: What are you going to do about it? I’m going to start taking classes this semester at the local community college. Excellent idea!

It doesn’t always flow that smoothly. I mean think about it, sometimes we can come up with answers off the top of our head without having to deliberate much about it.  We just know the answer.  Other times it takes a lot of work and effort to come up with our answer. No judgment either way.

Sometimes these things do take time. In the meantime as Rilke says, let’s learn to love the questions. They offer hope for the power of things to be different, if our present experience is an unhappy one.

Here’s a link to the exercise from SMART Recovery.