The Value of Values
The Value of Values
Issue 48 – November 2016
Author: Phil Houghton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Values are chosen life directions which can provide an important springboard to behaviour change
- The ability to enact our values is heavily influenced by our social historical context
Implications for practice
- Goal setting can be improved through placing those goals in the context of meaningful values
- Identifying values will rarely change behaviour without helping the person tap into their available resources or where possible develop new ones.
ACTWithin Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT2) values are seen as an individual’s “chosen life directions” which are “vitalizing, uplifting and empowering” 1 (p.155). It is important to differentiate values from goals. Whilst goals may form a point to aim for in living our values, unlike goals, we never achieve or obtain a value. Rather it acts as a compass point to direct our chosen behaviours. For example, a person’s values may include “being a loving parent”. It may well be helpful to set a goal related to this (e.g. take my daughter to the park each week), but we never reach the goal of being a loving parent and stop. Whilst our children are alive this is always a direction we can attempt to travel in. Within services we can often be very focused on goal setting, yet if those goals do not fit with the values the person holds then the chances of behaviour change are massively reduced. It is therefore helpful to identify the values which may underpin the goals, and which are meaningful to the person. There are a number of ways of trying to help people identify their values within important life domains.1 One way I sometimes use is to ask people to imagine their 70th birthday party and get them to think about what they would like loved ones, colleagues etc to say about the future life they have led around different domains (e.g. as a parent, partner, colleague). Through such questions we are essentially trying to help people to answer the question “what do you want your life to be about”. 1
ValuesValues do however have their limitations, brought about by the fact that whilst we may be able to choose our values in life, those values are chosen by an embodied human being living in a social context. For example, as human beings we are all born with powerful psychobiological systems which shape our behaviour. The two major body and brain systems identified are firstly; those systems designed to help us avoid or escape from aversive stimuli or threat, and secondly; those systems which are geared to approach attractive stimuli in daily life, such as food and companionship3. In addition, Gilbert4 also identifies a third system which he calls the “soothing and contentment system” which enables a sense of soothing and peacefulness. These psychobiological systems evolved prior to our more language based skills (e.g. thinking, imagination, comparison), and will be triggered much faster that conscious reflection or indeed outside of it completely. Our physical bodies are so important as whilst it may well be helpful to choose our values, our bodies have their own inbuilt directions of travel (e.g. avoidance of threat) which we have not chosen and may well operate in the opposite direction to our chosen values. How exactly our psychobiological systems develop, function and interact is of course impacted on by what has happened to us in our lives. For example trauma has a hugely significant effect on how we respond to occurring, imagined and recalled threat.5 Indeed, for individuals who have had precious little power and agency in their lives to date the act of identifying and choosing values in and of itself may be extremely difficult.
Power to ActWhilst it is helpful to identify our values, we also need to have the power to act on those values, particularly if they go against the natural direction of our psychobiological systems discussed above. As Smail6 discusses, we are not born with a reservoir of power we can draw on to affect change when we need it, rather “power is a social acquisition not an individual property” (p.44). The power to behave in a certain way stems both from our history as well as the social resources available to us, such as our home, family life, and material resources. 7 For example, take the example of two people who have been mugged and are now staying in all the time. Both have identified the value of “developing close relationships with others”, and can see that leaving the house will help them move in this direction. One person may live in an area with a high crime rate, have few friends or financial resources, and have experienced an abusive childhood which has led them to perceive others as threatening. The other may live in a safe neighbourhood with supportive friends and family and little experience of threat prior to the mugging. Both may have the same values to help guide their behaviour, but their power to act on their values will be very different. As well as having the power to act towards our values, we may also need to overcome situations where values clash, which can be very common (e.g. choosing between enacting the value of being a loving parent or a dedicated employee when a piece of work is overdue).
Prompting ValuesNotwithstanding the above challenges, trying to elicit a person’s values can be an incredibly important start in supporting behaviour change in the people we work with. Changing how we respond to our experiences and acting differently in the world is incredibly difficult, and the first step is to help someone anchor onto values that will make the effort and pain involved in behaviour change worthwhile. For example, before simply setting goals such as going out more, it is helpful to identify the values which may underpin what the point of going out more is, as this can help the person clarify why they are tolerating the increase in anxiety which comes from stepping outside of the house. If we can help people identify their values then we can then assist them to identify goals which take them in that direction, and which are practical and obtainable.1 We can also help them to clarify whether their current behaviours are helping them move in the direction of chosen values, or are designed more to escape distressing feelings or thoughts. What we need to remember however, is that identifying values is not the same as changing behaviour, and for this we need to, where possible, try and bolster the person’s power to enact their values. This is where we are much more limited, but we can help through clarification, support and encouragement as well helping people access more concrete resources (e.g. benefits, housing, social groups). In sum therefore, whilst the concept of values has its limitations, the identification of values can be a springboard to helping someone make positive changes to their behaviour.
- Hayes, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, CA.
- Houghton, P. (2010). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Clinical Psychology Bite-Size, 23.
- Van Der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., Steele, K. (2006). The Haunted Self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. Norton: New York.
- Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. Constable: London
- Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Viking: New York
- Smail, D. (2005). Power Interest and Psychology: Elements of a social materialist understanding of distress. PCCS: Ross-On-Wye
- Coles, S. (2010). Contextualising Distress I: Background and power mapping. Clinical Psychology Bite-Size, 20.
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