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Using Values as Your Compass

How to use values to stay on track, even when we don't feel like it

One of the most valuable self-help tools I've come across is values work. I've taken my personal stance towards values somewhat from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but I am not an ACT expert, nor have I really researched how values are used in ACT. I just read some stuff about values in one or two of our books and liked it, so this is how I use values in my own life. Well, theoretically. Sometimes it can be really difficult to remember to use values as my compass. But when I do, my intuition and the rest of me "knows" it's right.

Values are different than goals because you can never "reach" a value. You can live in accordance with a value, but you'll never get to the value and then have to come up with a new value to strive towards. Values are about what we want our lives to mean, and the qualities and tendencies that we want our lives to align with. A value might be "being a supportive friend" or "being a good communicator in my relationship." Most of us have several major life categories in which we hold values. Usually, they're something like: Family, Friends, Work, Spirituality, Parenting(or Nurturing or Creativity, for those of us without kids), Health, Intimate Relationships, Recreation, Community, and Service. Everyone will have a different list of categories that are important to them.

The values themselves are as unique as all of us. We might decide that we value staying present and supportive of our family and friends, displaying creativity, diligence, and responsibility at work, developing and maintaining a mutually supportive, present, sexually fulfilling relationship, getting physical exercise regularly and nurturing our body and mind by eating healthily, and helping our community by volunteering or staying politically informed.

Where values really come in handy, in my personal experience, is when we don't know what to do or what decision to make, or when we feel so bad that we can't take care of our own needs. When I'm in that place, I tend to isolate myself, not eat well, stay in bed, blow off work, not get any exercise, and ruminate. I sometimes get cranky with friends and family, or don't answer their calls at all. When we feel like we're in a leaky boat, sailing through the fog to nowhere, we can use our values to call ourselves home.

Here are some ways to use values as a compass.

1) First of all, decide what your values are. Write a list of 7-10 life areas that are important to you. If nothing feels important to you right now, either use the list above, or think about what used to be important to you.

2) Next, decide what your values are in each category. Really think about this. If you were on your deathbed what sort of life do you want to have led in each category? Not what other people or your culture say you should have done with your lfe, but what you really want to have done. When you imagine loved ones eulogizing you about each life category, what do you want them to say?

3) When you have a list of values that feel true to you, type or write them up nicely on one page. Take care with it. Make the page look beautiful, with fancy fonts, nice borders, whatever you find appealing. But make sure you can read it.

4) Print out the page, if you did it on a computer, and make a copy of it if you didn't. Now, have that list with out wherever you go, and also post it somewhere where you'll see it but it doesn't feel alarming. (i.e. If you don't want your roomate seeing it, post it somewhere where only you will see it.)

5) Keep it posted for a few days and then put it away. But always keep a copy with you, in your purse or wallet.

6) Whenever you feel down, sad, anxious, worried, or need to make a decision about something that feels hard or "sticky" (like you know the decision you "should" make but you don't want to), take out your values list.

7) For the decision, ask yourself what decision will help you live in accordance with your values (or a particular value in a particular area.) For me, this most often happens when I'm supposed to go out, exercise, or make a phone call but don't feel like it. When I really don't want to go out or pick up the phone, I can remind myself that one of my values is connecting with friends.Using the values list can also be helpful with procrastination.

8) At the same time, if you still feel like making a decision that isn't strictly in accordance with your values, remind yourself that sometimes, the right decision is to live in accordance with the value of taking care of yourself. Last night, I had plans but couldn't bear going out in the cold and the rain. So I stayed home and hung out with my cats, and had a pleasant evening.