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The Key to Emotional Healing and Growth

Core value

Core value is the drive to create value, i.e., to make someone or something important enough to appreciate and invest effort and energy to preserve and protect.

The notion of “drives” has a long history in psychology. Drive theories hold that, in addition to biological motivations (to eat, drink, have sex, seek comfort, and avoid pain) people have innate psychological motivations. When fulfilled, these create states of well being or authenticity, and when frustrated, they cause tension and diminished well being. The most prominent drives that have been proposed in the history of psychology are autonomy, affiliation, achievement, and power. These seem to be present in everyone, though, of course, people vary in how much emphasis they place on each.

As basic motivations, drives have many behavioral and emotional manifestations. They are distinct from the states of mind they invoke and the behaviors they motivate, but discussion of drives invariably includes states of mind and behaviors. For example, the drive for autonomy may lead you to make up your mind independently of what other people think, either by shutting out other opinions or by listening to as many as you can before incorporating one or more into your decision. But if the drive for autonomy is important to you, and you don’t make up your own mind, you’ll likely feel inauthentic, experience a certain amount of self-reproach, and, in general, feel bad.

The Drive to Create Value

Various drives sometimes conflict with each other. Indeed, conflicts of the drives for autonomy, affiliation, power, and value-creation are present in virtually all issues that people bring to psychotherapy. Core value is in conflict with the other drives when they discourage appreciation, support, and protection. For instance, the drives for autonomy and affiliation are compatible with core value when we appreciate our loved ones and invest effort and energy in their well being, but not when we take them for granted or mistreat them. If you were ever betrayed in a relationship, your betrayer was probably motivated by the drive for affiliation (if she cheated on you) or power (if he abused you) or autonomy (if she deceived you), but he violated his core value when he betrayed you. In terms of core value, betrayal of loved ones is also self-betrayal.

The creation of value goes well beyond merely “getting your needs met.” Value-creation requires a choice to appreciate and invest energy, whereas “needs” derive more or less from survival instincts that largely exclude appreciation and choice. The creation of value is about healing and life-enrichment; “meeting needs” is more about maintenance and avoiding symptoms. An infant needs milk but values her mother. We need to breathe, but we might value breathing a certain kind of mountain or ocean air. We need to process social cues for normal mental health, but we value interactions with certain people. We need sensory stimulation, but we value looking at a sunset or a painting or a building or a piece of hand-crafted jewelry. The product of getting needs met is survival and maintenance. The product of the drive to create value is growth and, ultimately, civilization.

Why We Must Create Value to Heal and Grow

Value is created in the human mind; it does not exist in nature. You won’t see a sign under a sunset that says, “Value this!” The sunset has value if and only if you give it value, i.e., you create the value in your head—you invest energy and effort to fully perceive it, which allows you to appreciate it. While it does nothing for the sunset if you value it, valuing it does wonders for you. The moment of value-creation makes you feel more vital, engaged, interested, appreciative—in short, more alive; life means more to you at the instant you create value, just as it tends to mean less when you are not creating value. Most positive emotion, passion, meaning, purpose, and conviction come from creating value and most emptiness, aggression, and depression follow failures to create value.

Virtually all our accomplishments occur through value-creation and all our failures owe to devaluing (value-destruction). Consider who is more likely to maintain healthy weight, the person who values health or the one who devalues her body? Who is more likely to succeed with fewer mistakes, the coach who values the skills and cohesiveness of the team or the one who devalues his players? Who will do better at work and feel more satisfied with it, the employee who values her contribution and her co-workers, or the one who devalues his job, peers, or managers? Who is more likely to thrive after intimate betrayal, the betrayed partner who values her well being, her other relationships, her strengths and resilience, or the one who devalues his life and most of the people in it?

But, alas there is a large problem with value-creation: It consumes enormous amounts of energy. It takes a lot more effort to appreciate a sunset or your child’s smile than to ignore them. Most of us try to conserve our limited stores of energy by withholding the necessary components of value-creation: interest and attention. If we withhold too much too often, we’ll end up running mostly on automatic pilot and just going through the motions of living. Eventually, we’ll get depressed —depression can be understood as extremely low value-creation.

A common way to avoid the depressed mood of low value-creation is to devalue, i.e., lower the value of someone or something, e.g., “You’re not good enough,” or “That’s not worth it.” Devaluing brings a temporary surge of energy because it invokes a subtle form of anger (to enforce presumed superiority), which feels more empowering than the depressed mood of low value-creation. Devaluing behaviors include criticism, verbal aggression, and anything motivated by contempt, disgust, or presumed superiority.

Everyone devalues sometimes. But in the long run, if you devalue more than you value, your life will be pretty bad, even if a lot of good things happen to you. And if you value more than you devalue, life will be good generally, even if a lot of bad things happen to you.