“What Good Are Values If You Can’t Live Them?”

How to do what matters most to you when you're feeling stuck.

Posted Mar 30, 2018

Source: Pixabay

Years ago, I worked with a professional dancer.

She had been dancing most of her life, until an accident injured her legs, and ended her dancing career.

No longer was she able to do what gave her life meaning and joy. Naturally she was devastated.

The harsh new reality was hitting hard on her, and she became depressed over the unfairness of life. And in the midst of her anger, she shouted “What good are values if you can’t live them?”


Values and goals are a central part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT in short).

ACT is less about getting rid of the bad stuff (difficult thoughts and emotions), and more about bringing you closer to what makes your life rich and meaningful.

ACT answers questions like:

  • What is the most important to you?
  • What kind of person do you want to be?
  • What do you want to stand for?
  • And how do you want to behave when nobody else is watching?

ACT acknowledges that there’s pain in your life, AND there’s meaning. There are people, events, and activities that are truly meaningful to you.

And by becoming aware of what matters most to you—your goals and values—your pain can become meaningful.

No longer will you have to endure senseless suffering, but your pain can be in the service of something bigger, something much more important.

And when your painful experiences are in the service of your goals and values, pain itself becomes much easier to handle.

  • Waking up at 3 a.m. becomes easier, when it’s in the service of nursing a crying baby.
  • Working late hours becomes easier, when it’s in the service of providing for your family.
  • Facing rejection and harsh criticism becomes easier, when it’s in the service of advancing your career.

As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a strong enough why can be bear almost any how.”

Knowing your why—your goals and values—is fundamental in overcoming pain, and building a rich and meaningful life.

But what do you do when your why is denied?

What do you do when your goals and values become inaccessible to you?

What do you do when you want to dance, but your body doesn’t allow it?


Before we talk about a solution, let’s clarify that this affects all of us.

We all will experience loss at some point of our lives.

Either through aging, illness, accidents, or other misfortunes—we will all lose physical functions, and people that we truly care about.

Such is life.

The question is then whether we have the flexibility to adjust the form of our journey, without losing the heart of our journey.

In other words, we can continue to live our values and strive for what matters most to us, if we’re willing to change the nature of our striving.

Let’s take the example of the dancer.

There was something to dancing that made her cherish it above all other activities.

However, dancing was no longer an option.

So we dug a little deeper.

During therapy sessions we uncovered that there was something even more important than dancing itself.

What she valued the most about dancing, was “bringing beauty into the world through dance”. She wanted to be able to reach others so as to increase the appreciation of the beauty of human movement.

It was less about dancing, and more about what dancing meant; what it stood for; what it did.

This is a subtle, but very important distinction.

By discovering the value underlying to dancing, she was able to reconnect with what was truly important to her.

She found new ways to live her value of “bringing beauty into the world through dance”: she started to raise money for a youth dance troupe.

Admittedly, it wasn’t the same as dancing, and it’s not to say that she didn’t miss dancing, or that she didn’t suffer from the loss. However, she found new meaning, and new ways to live what was actually important to her.

And it was this new meaning that helped her to move out of depression, and into a life she truly cared about.

There are many ways to walk a valued journey.

If the way forward is blocked, see if there are other ways forward that maintain some (or all) of those qualities. Even if some of the forms change (or even all of the forms change).

When the path forward is blocked, look out for other ways to practice your values.

No, it will not be the same.

But whether you struggle or thrive, your path forward will be more fulfilling, more meaningful, and more enriching when it’s connected to what matters most to you.

And that, in the end, is what values are good for.