- Values are not the same as goals or outcomes.
- When clarifying values, many often mistakenly fixate on goals, things they can’t control, perfectionistic values, or narrowly defined behaviors.
- By identifying these common missteps and countering them, one can cultivate more of a sense of meaning in life.
This post was written with Josh Bartok.
In a previous post, I described the importance of clarifying what matters to us—i.e., our values—so that we can take actions that will be fulfilling. This kind of clarification work can be drawn on at all times during our lives, but it is particularly essential to have done when we find ourselves in times of stress. In this post, I will summarize some of the missteps (or “traps”) that we all tend to make when we first try to clarify our values.
We often don’t have a lot of practice clarifying what matters to us and this can leave us feeling lost about how to make our lives more rewarding. Recognizing these four missteps can help us to clarify our values. Those values can guide us to enrich our lives, even in times of change or stress.
Misstep 1: Mistaking goals for values
Values are processes or guideposts; goals involve outcomes. Even when we try to think about the direction we want to be moving in, often concrete goals come to our minds most easily.
Three qualities of values are relevant to this distinction:
- We can always take an action today that is consistent with a value.
- We can never “complete” or “fully achieve” a value; rather, we can take ongoing actions in alignment with a value.
- We have control over actions consistent with a value, whereas goals require the world to cooperate.
For instance, we might misidentify “completing school” or “finding a partner” as values—but because they are outcome-centered, they are actually goals. They are not things we have complete control over, and once we’ve reached them, they are done. Goals can be a useful part of life–but they cannot serve as a compass to point us in a meaningful direction at any given moment. Only values can do that.
So, how can we reframe a goal into a value?
We can look at the goal and ask ourselves what value or meaning underlies that goal. So, for completing school, we can consider whether we value learning, professional growth, skills building, uplifting our community, or some other direction that the process of completing school can embody. Then, each time we work on an assignment, attend a class, or take an exam, we can remind ourselves of the value that underlies these actions—especially, for instance, when we do not find an assignment immediately or inherently rewarding. Or we can use the clarified value to guide how much effort we put into one assignment versus another, or which courses we take, or other aspects that relate to the overarching goal. And even after we finish school, we can continue to connect to the underlying value in a variety of ways.
Misstep 2: Trying to control the uncontrollable
Often when we start to consider what matters to us, we identify things that we would like to change that we do not or cannot fully control. For instance, we might mistakenly imagine we “value” a particular internal state like calmness or happiness (this is a preference). Or we might identify wanting other people in our lives to act differently (this is a wish). Or we might want the future to be a certain way (this is an outcome).
None of these things are fully in our control. So, we might prefer feeling calm, but nonetheless, sometimes we feel anxious. Or we might wish others to be different, but nonetheless, they keep on being the same. Or might hope to be free from illness in the future, but nonetheless, we might get or remain sick.
While we can influence our internal state, other people, and the future, we don’t have complete control over them. So values like “I don’t want to feel frustrated with my children” or “I want my partner to act with care toward me” will naturally lead us to ongoing frustration when it doesn’t happen. It’s helpful to notice when we’ve identified a value that involves control over something we can’t control.
When we notice ourselves framing a value so it involves control over something we can’t control, we can refine these initial framings to point toward values that do meet the criteria listed previously.
When a value involves a targeted internal state, we can ask ourselves, “What would I do if I felt this way?” Perhaps if we weren’t frustrated with our children, we would be able to listen to them and respond with care. Then our value is “listening and responding with care,” even while we’re frustrated. That’s something we can control, and even when we don’t meet that value in one moment, we can act consistently with it in the next one.
If we think of things we want from people in our lives, we can instead ask the question of how we want to be in these relationships. This might include communicating what we hope to receive from others and it might also include ending or altering relationships with people who aren’t able to respond to our needs.
A values-centered approach will always turn our attention to our own choices and actions, rather than focusing on what others should be doing. This enhances our agency in our lives.
Misstep 3: Wishing to be perfect or somehow superhuman
Our first try at articulating our values may involve something extreme that is hard to actualize. Values like “I want to always be there for people in my life” or “I want to excel at my job” aren’t necessarily actionable for a couple of reasons. For one, “always” is an exceptionally high bar. Also, we hold multiple values and so we can’t always prioritize one of them. So, for instance, being there for our family (one value) may sometimes need to be prioritized over another value, “excelling at work.”
(As an aside, these kinds of values can also lead to self-consciousness and self-criticism when we inevitably make mistakes, as discussed in "Mindfully Making Mistakes.")
We can often address this misstep by removing extreme words from our values statement. So, instead of wanting to always be there for people in my life, we can make it less extreme and more specific: “I value being available and caring to people in my life.” Then, in a given moment, this can point me in a certain direction without requiring something unattainable of me.
Other times, we may again want to ask ourselves about the value that underlies the statement. So, if I want to excel at my job, I can consider how I want to do my job. Perhaps “I value being responsible and responsive in my job.” Or “I value working well with others in my job.” These directions will be more flexible, and thus more useful in living life in a meaningful way.
Misstep 4: Focusing on narrowly defined behaviors
Another common misstep is choosing a specific behavior as a value. A value like this can sometimes be a useful guide, but when life circumstances interfere with or prevent the specific behavior, we can be left feeling like we can’t live according to that value, and then be left without a compass to choosing meaningful actions.
The way around this is to understand that values can always be embodied by multiple actions and manifestations. So, instead of the narrowly defined value of “attending every basketball” game our kid plays, we can broaden it out to a flexible underlying value like “showing our kid that we care about their activities and efforts.” A value like this means sometimes we might enact that value by attending games they play in—but if work or a family emergency (for instance) interferes with attending a specific game, we may think of other ways to live this value such as asking enthusiastic questions about the game we missed, or maybe scheduling a special outing on weeks we missed games.
This ability to step away from a limited set of specific actions that embody our values and think flexibly about other actions can be especially important and useful when we face changes in our life circumstances. For instance, at the beginning of the COVID epidemic, we were all faced with the challenge of finding new actions to enact values and actualize what mattered to us. When we used to connect to colleagues in the office, we had to find new ways of cultivating meaningful connections. And with regard to extended families or communities, we learned to Zoom for family or community events or play games together online as ways to meet our relationship values with new actions. We have to make similar adjustments when we move, our physical health changes or other circumstances prevent us from doing something we used to be able to do to enact our values.
Clarifying and refining what we value is ongoing and rewarding work. I hope this post helps you get started.
This post is adapted from the Worry Less, Live More workbook, co-authored with Sue Orsillo.
Orsillo, S. M., & Roemer, L. (2016). Worry less, live more: The mindful way through anxiety workbook. New York: Guilford Press.