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  • Dr. Glenn Sloman

Values, what are they good for? Absolutely everything.

Central to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is what brings meaning, matters, and gives purpose. Values are the reason to change, to develop and enhance coping skills, to be willing to open to pain, and to move toward life goals in the presence of suffering. Otherwise, why bother? Doing things to do things feels hollow and unfulfilling, like following in another's footsteps for approval or going through the motions. Often in the absence of values-based action or the misalignment between actions and values, there is pain. Often in violating our values, there is pain. It is easy to lose touch with our values when moments are tough, while at any moment, they can be there with us as if we are looking for our house keys and they are already in our hand. Values are a motivational force and a reason to persevere when times become overwhelming. They exist in the here and now through our actions yet help us define how we want to treat ourselves, approach the world, and interact with others throughout our lifetimes.

It might be helpful to first list some shared values to understand what I'm describing. For example, one can value self-care, humility, fitness, justice, trust, open-mindedness, and curiosity (one of my favorites), to name a few. Knowing what you value or what you may value is the first step.

Values into Actions

In ACT, values are not a destination; they are how we travel on the road. Don't get me wrong, destinations are critical. Destinations orient us to a direction to head; otherwise, we wander. Destinations are important in therapy because they articulate what you want from the experience, what you'll start or stop doing, do more, less of, and differently. On the other hand, values help us define how we want to behave when pursuing our goals. For instance, I can choose to approach providing therapy from my value of caring about others. I actively listen for understanding, validate the struggles that a person is experiencing, and, through a guided problem-solving activity, identify courses of action that may be more consistent with their values and more useful in the long run. Alternatively, rather than acting on my value of caring, I could provide therapy by jumping straight to a solution and not allowing space to hear from the client. Although the outcome may be the same on my end (i.e., identifying a potential path forward), the impact is quite different in how the approach helps the client and how acting on my values may be "felt" by a client: working together as a team to build a better life versus dismissing. If you have ever experienced going to the doctor and noticed the difference between those that have a warm bedside manner (showing patience, taking the time to understand, explaining effectively and simply what the issue is and the course of treatment) and those that don't (quick, invalidating), you have the gist.

Working with Values

Values may be known, experimented with, and need to be clarified or authored. Sometimes, clients know what they care about, and values work may be less emphasized. Other times, clients feel lost or unsure of what they care about, and values work becomes a priority. Occasionally, people want to engage in actions differently (such as how they approach work or parent), leading to values experimentation. Just like we can try on different clothes to see if they fit, we can do the same with values to determine if they align with how we want to approach the world and engage in it. In either case, engaging in values-based action is a goal.

Other Qualities of Values

Values are personal, and each person may have different values. We don't need to share the same values, and we may not have the same values because our experiences have shaped us in diverse ways. Values are explored and discovered individually and may or may not overlap with others. That is perfectly fine.

Sometimes values compete with one another. For instance, values of assertiveness and justice may compete with the value of conformity (showing respect toward rules and obligations) when rules are seen as unfair or unjust. Although these values may seem irreconcilable, there are ways of resolving the dilemma; however, it is beyond the post's scope to delve too far. However, one option may be to prioritize one value over another by imagining what you would be satisfied with looking back five years from the future.

Nonetheless, values become the key to guiding what we want our lives to be about and the reason why we choose to act differently.


Values are not about whether you win or lose but how you play the game. Values are a quality of our actions that are about the long-term. Goals are aimed for and can be achieved, while values can be actualized while achieving goals yet never captured, only lived.

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