Late December can be a good time to reflect on how things are going for us, and what we’d like to be different. It can be a time of making resolutions and bucket lists; setting goals for the year ahead.
Setting goals can be an effective way of getting things done, and we might get an initial buzz from the achievement; but we can also end up feeling deflated afterwards. There might be a sense of “Now what?” Maybe you’ve had that feeling, coming back from a long-awaited holiday, or on reaching your target weight, or when you’ve bought that thing you’d been saving for, Perhaps you spent a long time preparing for the goal, and it took up a lot of your time and thought, but: “Now what?”
We’re more likely to feel like this when the goals we set ourselves are not in line with our values. Perhaps the goals just seemed like a good idea, were what our friends were aiming for, or were a response to the time of year: "Dry/Detox January", "Summer holiday", "Movember", etc. Instead, if we live according to our values, setting goals that line up with them, we are more likely to find a sense of meaning, purpose and contentment in life. This is a key component of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).
If you’ve never thought about the difference between a value and a goal, goals are something you can complete. You can tick them off a list. Done. Finished. For example:
“Give up chocolate”; “Spend less time on social media”; “ Do a parachute jump”; “Go to Venice”; “Get a better job”; "Visit the Science Museum"; "Watch all seasons of Breaking Bad".
Values are not something you can ever complete. They are more like compass points – a direction to move towards – something you’ll never finish. For example:
“Develop close friendships”; “Eat healthily and look after my body”; “Connect with nature”; “Experience new things”; “Be truthful and authentic”. "Teach". "Connect with my culture of origin".
We all have different sets of values, and we might find that they change over time. What’s crucial today might seem less vital to us in the future. Still, the journey “towards” a value will be life-long. You will not “finish it”. Importantly, it doesn’t matter whether you move just a little bit towards your value each day or whether you do a great big leap in that direction. What matters is that you are connecting with your values and moving towards them.
What does that look like in reality? Well, if you have a value of “Developing close friendships”, moving a little bit towards it might look like replying briefly to an email. A great big leap might look like meeting up with a friend and risking being vulnerable with them about your feelings. If you have a value of “Connecting with nature”, a little step might be to look outside the window and mindfully appreciate whatever little of bit of nature you can see, even if it's "just" the sky. A bigger leap might involve going for a walk in a forest. Remember, the size of the step does not matter. What matters is that you are moving towards what is important and meaningful to you.
Unfortunately, it can be really easy to lose sight of our values and become disconnected from them, especially when struggling with emotions, life challenges, or mental health difficulties. Sometimes we can get pulled right off course. This simple cartoon illustrates how distraction, discouragement and past experiences can all get in the way of pursuing the things that matter to us.
As a practical example of this, in my work with people with eating disorders, I've often challenged clients to think about what they'd like as an epitaph, summing up their life and essence. No-one has yet answered: "They were very thin". Yet, eating disorders often compel people to live their life in the service of this one goal, pushing all other values aside. Understanding this, and learning to move towards your true values can be a really important part in recovery.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking that you don’t even know what your values are?
A wise ACT teacher once told me that discovering your values shouldn't be a labour-intensive, difficult process, like digging up well-buried archaeological relics. Instead, try approaching this subject with light-hearted curiosity and an open mind. The following exercise might help.
First, let your mind float over different areas of your life: relationships, work, leisure, health, personal growth etc. Then consider these questions.
What do I like doing? (Are there things I do where I lose track of time because I'm enjoying it so much?)
When and where have I been happiest? (Think of several examples from your past).
What inspires me?
What makes me furious?
What makes me cry?
What am I most grateful for?
How would I want to be remembered?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions; instead, your answers are likely to give clues to your values. Once you have identified some themes, see if you can reduce the list to a top three: your current most important values. Write them down, somewhere you can find and refer back to them easily.
Finally, ask yourself:
Do my emotional difficulties get in the way of my values?
If so, is there anything I could do about this?
How could I "move towards" at least one of these values today?