C00 Public Domain
Source: C00 Public Domain

What Are Values, Anyway?

Values are qualities or principles that people consider to be important and wish to personify. Your values represent what you view as most meaningful in life. Values often translate to the standards of behavior a person wants to demonstrate—to him- or herself, as well as to others. Our values help define the kind of person we want to be and the kind of life we want to live. When we live in accordance with them, our values influence our priorities, our thinking, our choices, our decision-making and our actions.

Personal values provide an internal compass that points the way to what an individual identifies as positive, healthy, beneficial, valuable, useful, desirable and constructive. For most people, life is generally more content and satisfying when they can identify their values and respect them through choices and actions that honor them. In this way, the degree to which your behavior is consistent with your values is a measure of your integrity.

Active addiction usually takes people away, often light-years away, from their values. In their quest to get what they want, be accepted by others, or just feel good or feel better, practicing addicts often go against their own values in ways that start out as subtle but become more blatant over time. Sometimes it happens within a few weeks and sometimes it takes months or even years, but however positive and healthy a person’s values may be, those values are eventually crowded out by the obsessive thinking related to using alcohol and other drugs, the compulsive need to use, and the self-absorbed attitudes that are dominant during active addiction.

  • You may value honesty, but in order to continue to use alcohol and other drugs and avoid the consequences, you have to be dishonest with your family, partner, employer, etc.
  • You may value responsibility, but the progression of active addiction renders you increasingly less capable of acting responsibly.
  • You may value education and want to get a college or higher degree, but using alcohol and other drugs kept you from continuing or completing your education.
  • You may value being healthy and physically fit, but active addiction makes that less and less important.

As active addiction progresses, most people drift further and further away from even their most deeply held values. They find themselves being people they never thought they would be and don’t want to be, living lives they never thought they would live, and doing things they never thought they would do. When what you do and how you behave goes against your values, it causes discontent, regret, and unhappiness. For many people, this is a source of tremendous guilt and shame. As distressing and intense as the pain caused by acting in ways that violate your values can be, this pain can also be positive—it can provide motivation to change.

The Effects of Ambivalence

Ambivalence about both one’s alcohol and other drug use, and making changes in that area, is normal. This ambivalence can complicate the processes of addiction treatment and recovery. Frequently, people are well aware of the risks related to their substance-using behavior but continue to use substances anyway. Part of them may want to stop, while another part of absolutely does not want to stop.

As natural and understandable as it is to have mixed feelings about making significant changes, a process of values clarification can help tip ambivalence toward motivation to change. Denial begins to dissipate when someone consciously considers the differences between their behaviors in active addiction and their values, and between their current situation and their hopes for the future. In taking a close and open-hearted look at the ways in which their current behavior diverges from behavior based on their values, the vast discrepancies are difficult to rationalize When people can connect the dots with regard to how are their values and personal goals are being undermined by their alcohol and other drug use, frequently their readiness to do something different increases.

When people work toward living in accordance with their identified values, their chances of success in recovery increases, as does their overall level of contentment. Invariably, when our actions are in alignment with our values, we do better and we feel better.

Addiction is about using alcohol and other drugs to feel good or to feel better—it is the seeking of pleasure by means of neurochemical reward and/or relief. However, the way to genuine contentment and satisfaction isn’t through pleasurable experiences that depend on external circumstances. Like recovery, it is an inside job. It comes from making choices that are healthy and helpful, and in alignment with our values. When our actions are consistent with our values we participate in life in a way we can feel good about, regardless of external circumstances. Conversely, when our behavior violates our values it’s almost impossible to feel good about ourselves—no matter the outcome or external circumstances.

When you understand this, you understand that how you live your life is what’s most important because it is the source of true contentment. When people’s actions honor their values, they do the right thing—regardless of criticism or praise, pain or pleasure, loss or gain. And, in turn, they still feel much better about themselves.

But to live in a way that respects your values, you need to know what your values are. When was the last time you thought about your values? This is not something most people do unless a significant event (usually an extremely negative, painful, or traumatic event) shakes them up so much they feel compelled to consider their life’s meaning and purpose. When this happens, a crisis can become an opportunity to think deeply about what their values are and what kind of life they want to live. Coming to that place where people find themselves in treatment for addiction can be a crisis that creates such an opportunity. The question then becomes, how will they use it?

Identifying and Clarifying Values

Even though values are often fairly stable it is not unusual for them change over time. As we progress through life and have new and different experiences, some values become less important to us while others become more so. This is one reason why it is helpful and healthy to regularly consider what is truly important to you. Even if you believe your values haven’t changed over the years, it is still helpful to engage in the exercise of values clarification.

In recovery, what people consider important shifts. As a result, when people move from active addiction to recovery they always experience some changes in their values. Longstanding values that people have ignored or let slide during their addiction again become a priority, while some newer values may also begin to assume importance. Recovery provides the opportunity to identify and establish new healthy priorities, and revive the personal qualities that have always been important to but were buried by alcohol and other drug use.

As what’s important to you changes, so does your definition of success—and your personal values. That is why keeping in conscious contact with your values is a lifelong practice, but is especially valuable to engage in now. 

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