Why Values Matter

I want to talk about values, and why they are crucial to overcoming emotional blocks. I approach this topic with some trepidation, because it’s a hard thing to talk about.

“Values” is one of those words, like ”God” or “love”, that has been so overused (and some would say abused) that we have to strip off layers of connotation before we can attempt to use it. (Extra Value Meal? Values Voter Summit? Both make me slightly queasy). Maybe we should just ditch the word altogether, and find something new.

That said, if you're trying to overcome emotional or behavioral blocks of any kind, it helps immensely to be clear about your values.

What do I mean by values? Since I’m an ex-aspiring-academic, and a big fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), I’ll give you the ACT researchers' technical definition first:

Values are freely chosen, verbally constructed consequences of ongoing, dynamic, evolving patterns of activity, which establish predominant reinforcers for that activity that are intrinsic in engagement in the valued behavioral pattern itself” (Wilson & Dufrene, 2009).

Got that? Me neither. Doesn’t matter. In English, values are “the things that are deeply meaningful for us.” These can be people (like our family and friends), activities (like music or art), experiences (like exploration or appreciation), or guiding principles (like fairness or compassion). As human beings, we all have values.

Some characteristics of values:

Your values are yours alone. No one else can force you to value something. You can try to care about something that you don’t, but it probably won’t work (and it will likely lead to problems).  If your parents want you to be a dentist, but you hate teeth, dental school will likely be a mistake.

Values are directions, not destinations. As someone once said, pursuing a value is like going west. You can only go west; you can never get west. (FYI, this metaphor doesn't work for north).


Goals are destinations along your valued directions. You can’t get west, but you can get to Hawaii. Going to Hawaii is a goal that is consistent with your value of going west. Another example: Writing a book is consistent with your value of being creative.

Values are active, not passive. If a dead person can achieve it, it’s not a value. When I ask people to explore their values,  they often say, "feeling less stressed, anxious, or worried." But that’s not a value--that’s avoidance. Which begs the question: If you were less stressed, anxious, or worried, what would that allow you to do? The answer to that question often points to values.

Pain points to values. Just as physical pain indicates physical harm, emotional pain can point to valued aspects of your life that require attention. If you feel bad when you think about how you don't see your friends anymore, it probably means that you value friendship. Now, disconnection from values isn't always marked by pain; sometimes we get so disconnected that we just feel numb. But if it hurts, it’s worth exploring.

You can clarify your values--and you need to. Okay, actually, you don’t “need” to. But you should, if you want to feel clear about what you want. The more clear you can get about what’s important to you, the better able you are to withstand all the stress that comes along with trying to do or be anything.

Clarifying values to overcome emotional blocks:

It is a basic fact of human and animal behavior: We seek pleasure and avoid pain. We want to feel good.  If we had our way, we’d do away with this whole "pain" thing.

Unfortunately, the universe fails to cater to this whim of ours. Life is stressful.  There’s no way around it. And with this stress comes unpleasant feelings: Doubt, anxiety, uncertainty, and sadness, to name just a few.

When we are clear on what is important, it is relatively easy put up with these feelings. When we're really grooved in with our values, we're like Rocky in the training montage, gutting out a run through slushy streets with our eyes on the championship belt. Sure, there's pain. But hey, no pain, no gain. We can put up with anything, if we have a reason.


But when we're not clear on what is important, our compass spins. Instead of moving toward what's important, we move away from what's painful or scary. At first, we may be aware of this. We know something's off, and we don't like it. But once we've made avoidance a habit, we can go numb to the whole process.

Overcoming emotional issues like severe anxiety or depression is a twofold process. On the one hand, you learn how to better deal with, manage, and accept those feelings. You stop running and face the anxiety, and see that it's not as bad as you had thought. And, at the same time, you need to seek clarity about your values. Why, exactly, would you do something as bold and difficult as facing those feelings?