Clarifying your core values is essential to fighting depression and anxiety. You can learn to identify and act on your core values as an antidote to constantly struggling against your emotions. In this episode we’re going to talk about how to create a life where you feel a sense of peace and integrity. You’re going to get a chance to clarify your values and see how striving towards them is the key to a fulfilling life, which is what I call happiness.
The day I was revising the draft of this section, I had an interesting conversation with one of my clients. Briana (not her real name) is a 15-year-old who has been having a hard time getting to school due to anxiety and sleep problems.
Today we started talking about her self-esteem. I asked her how she feels about herself.
“Oh, I guess a five out of ten”
“Hmm, that’s not too bad. Tell me what you like about yourself?”
“Well I like my hair, my nose, my body, I have okay skin.” She continues to mention a few other physical characteristics she likes and a couple that she doesn’t.
“That’s interesting; when I asked you about your self-esteem, you talked about your attractiveness. Is that the main thing that matters to how you feel about yourself?” I ask.
“Oh, not at all,” she says. “My personality is way more important than that. That’s just the stuff I like about myself.”
“Okay, so do you like your personality?”
“Not really, I mean I’m kinda mean, I’m not a very nice person.”
“What do you mean? You seem nice enough to me. What kind of personality would you like to have? What kind of traits?”
“Well I really want to be nice, I want to help lots of people, I want to be funny.”
“Do you feel like those things are outside of your control”
“No, I just get so scared of being rejected. I mean, what if I offer to help someone and they say no? That would hurt. What if I’m nice to someone and they aren’t nice back? I might feel sad. I just get so scared. So I hate going to school. I never hang out with friends because I’m too scared that I might feel anxious.
“Well, on the one hand that makes sense. Reaching out to people can be quite scary. What you’re telling me is that you’re waiting for that fear to go away before you live the life you value. Basically, you’re saying ‘I’m afraid that I will feel something painful if I am the person I want to be, so instead I’m going to just shrink back and hide.’ Which then makes you feel like crap about yourself in the long run, is that about right?”
“Well when you say it like that!” She laughed. “I’ve never thought about it that way.”
This client thought that she was a bad person, that she didn’t have a good personality, but the reality is that she values being kind and caring but she was just not living the way she wanted to because she was too busy avoiding anxiety.
I’m going to paraphrase something I learned from Lowell Bennion. He said “Self-esteem does not come from saying nice things to yourself or thinking nice thoughts about yourself. It doesn’t come from external attributes or possessions. Self-esteem comes from integrity. It comes from keeping the promises you make to yourself.
In this episode we’re going to talk about how to create a life where you feel a sense of peace and integrity. You’re going to get a chance to clarify your values and see how striving towards them is the key to a fulfilling life, which is what I call happiness.
Values are the essence of ACT. Our drive toward values is what makes it worth it to learn the skills of willingness and self-regulation and to do all the hard work to change our thinking.
Core Values Defined
To be clear, when I say values, I don’t mean religious or moral values necessarily. Values are character traits.
Values are who we are striving to be and what we believe in. They include characteristics like honesty, spontaneity, hard work, compassion, or grit. You may value making art or music, or you may value fighting for justice and equality.
When I talk about values, I literally mean which of these traits do you value? When we value something, we put our money on it, our time into it, our resources into it. You might value many traits to a degree, but at some intersections in life you have to choose which ones are worth more to you. We choose who we are when we choose how we invest our time, effort, and actions.
Russ Harris, who is a brilliant ACT educator, says “Society tells us that the way to be happy is to reach those goals (rich, married, big house), but when we reach these goals there is a little burst of happiness, but it doesn’t last long. But if you’re constantly looking for the next high, the next buzz, you spend much of your time unhappy.
There is a radically different way to live your life: values-based.”
In his video he compares a goals-based life to a values-based life by sharing the example of two kids in the back seat of a car as they’re driving to Disneyland.
Kid A is goals-based. He can’t wait to get to Disney. They have to drive three hours, and he’s constantly saying “Are we there yet? How long is this going to take? Why is this drive so long?!”
Kid B is values-based. He values fun, adventure, curiosity. So as they drive along he looks out the window, he wonders about the different people in the cars around him, he notices the strange buildings, he plays the alphabet game.
So they finally get to Disneyland and have a great time, and then they have to drive home. Kid A is like “Ugh, are we there yet? Why is this drive so long?”
Kid B looks around and notices how everything looks different at night; he wonders about all the people on the road.
Now, in Russ Harris’ example, let’s say that on the drive to Disney, the car breaks down. They never reach their goal. Kid A is so upset he cries and whines while they wait. “This is a disaster,” he says. Kid B is curious. Why did the car break down?
The tow truck arrives, and Kid A just throws himself in the back of the tow truck and pouts.
Kid B is disappointed too, but after a while he starts to look around. At least he gets to ride in a tow truck; he’s never done that before. This is kinda adventurous. He is curious about all the different knobs and switches and asks the driver about them. He looks around and notices how the road looks different from way up high in the big truck.
Both of these kids had the same circumstance but completely different experiences. Kid A was focused on his goal of getting to disneyland. Kid B was focused on his values of curiosity, adventure, and fun. Orienting your life toward your values can help you face your challenges in a more fulfilling way too.
Our values are a direction that we can always work toward in the present moment. Values focus on what we become rather than what we achieve. Values keep us moving in a direction that matters to us. They give us power to keep acting, even when things are tough.
Values vs. Goals
Values are different from goals. For example, I was single for longer than I would have liked. I had the goal of getting married, but everytime I focused on that goal I got discouraged and frustrated. So I started to redirect myself to my values.
Values are something that we can live in every present moment. We don’t have to wait for something to change to get them. I can value relationships, connection, family time. And I can set a goal to get married. Values are like a direction (“let’s hike north”). Goals are like a destination (“let’s hike to that summit”). Both are good.
Because values are about who we are in the present moment, they are something that we can always act upon, Goals depend on many outside factors.
Values are all about the process and the direction we are moving toward, not some end destination.
We can evaluate ourselves based on how closely we are living to the things that matter most to us. When we focus on the process instead of the outcome, we make the outcome more likely.
When I settled down and focused on building healthy relationships, on being a good sister and friend and aunt, it cleared the pathway for me to reach my goal of getting married. But even if I hadn’t found my husband, I would have been living a good life because I was living my values.
When we talked about self-deception, we saw how acting contrary to our values leads to guilt, self-deception, anger, frustration with others, self-loathing, shame, and all sorts of other unhelpful and unpleasant things.
When we have integrity — when our actions line up with our values — we tend to feel peace instead of turmoil, connection instead of discord, and greater joy in our lives.
Values vs. The Pain Monster
So if values are so important, how come we don’t live them? One of the most common ways that we lose track of our valued direction is the Pain Monster. The Pain Monster says “Living that way is going to hurt.”
If you look at Briana, she wanted to be friendly and nice and she wanted to go to school — that’s what she valued — but the Pain Monster said “Doing that might make you anxious. You should avoid that.” So she did. She stopped going to school. She stopped hanging out with friends.
Living a valued life includes discomfort. Doing something good — like making new friends, serving others, creating art, making YouTube videos — it all requires vulnerability, maybe some anxiety, maybe disappointment.
For example, you might say “I don’t want to have that conversation because it makes me anxious” or “I need to use drugs to avoid the grief I’m feeling.”
As long as you’re alive you’re going to make choices, and as long as you make choices you have to choose what you base your choices on. Ifyou’ve been making choices based on doing what feels good in the moment or what feels less bad in the moment, you get to escape pain, but in the long run what are you actually getting? Greater suffering.
But when you clarify what is most important to you, what is it? Is it living a pain-free life? Or is it living your values? Most people would say the most important thing to them is to live their values, to have good relationships, to help others, to create beauty in the world.
So how do we do it?
We start with values clarification.
Core Values Exercise
In your heart of hearts, what kind of person do you long to be? What are the characteristics you believe are valuable as a friend, spouse, parent, employee, etc? If you have a hard time thinking of these for yourself, think of the people you admire. What is it about them that you look up to?
What do you want your life to be about?
What is important to you
You can’t choose everything; you have limited time, energy, money. So where are you going to spend your time?
Use the values list from the resources section of this course to select your top 10 most important values. Write them in your workbook.
Hang them on your wall. Look at them once a week.
The next step with living a valued life is to gently bring your life into greater integrity with your values. Ask yourself what are some areas where your actions and your values are totally lined up?
And then ask yourself “I say I value kindness; how well am I living this?” or “I say I value my family, but how much time and energy am I giving them?” What are some areas where you value something but you’re not living it?
So for example, I value hard work, integrity, and serving God and my family. I can evaluate my life and say “I’m working really hard at my job but I could be giving my kids a bit more attention.”
Write down one to three small actions that you could take now to live your life closer to your values.
If you want to live a rich and fulfilling life, you need to learn how to prioritize your values, to make them even more important than pain avoidance or just feeling good. Because these lead to misery, anxiety, and depression in the long run. Clarify your values, refer to them often, and hold yourself accountable to them.
I recommend doing a personal values inventory at least once every week. I do mine on Sundays. It’s like pulling out a map when you’re hiking cross-country and making sure that your life is oriented in the direction you want to go.
After Briana and I had this conversation, she realized that she wanted to make something out of her life, that her friends were more important than avoiding her anxiety. Each week in therapy we clarified what was most important to her, and we worked on facing her anxiety so that she could be a better friend and student.
Little by little she got better at it. Even though she still felt anxious, she started going to school more. She started hanging out with her friends more. And you know what, her anxiety even started to go down.
There is so much more for you out there than the hedonistic pop psychology of coping skills and self-care. A purpose-driven life is so much richer and more fulfilling than a life of pain avoidance.
Thank you for reading, and take care.
If you want to go deeper, check out my full How to Process Your Emotions course with added bonuses below.