Posted on December 14th, 2015 by Nicole Stokoe

With Christmas fast approaching, this two part blog will focus on the concept of personal values, what they are, how to identify them and how to use them to keep on track with your own valued direction.

Christmas day is just one day of the year and yet we start hearing about Christmas, seeing Christmas in the shops and some of us planning ahead for Christmas as early as September. This year I started to see Christmas related items in the shops before Halloween had even started.

It’s a big day and we all have an opinion about it – what we feel about it, whether we like it, love it, hate it or are indifferent. In a conversation about Christmas (I believe it was still October at the time!), my friend said to me: “I hate Christmas, so many people to please, all the family want to see you, it’s not relaxing at all, it’s hard work!” I could understand where they were coming from. However, on reflection, it surprised me to hear these words from a person I know absolutely loves their family. In terms of their values, I would guess that family would be at the very top of that list with spending quality time as an important way of moving in that valued direction. Every other day of the year, I hear them talk warmly about their family, wanting to see them more (not less!) and making efforts to stay in touch. It seemed that Christmas has grown so big that the value of family had somehow become lost in its shadow and the very thing that meant being in line with that value suddenly became something to dread.

So what got in the way? What conflicted with the value of family that turned Christmas into something to dread rather than cherish? This may be related to how Christmas is framed and how our negativity bias comes into play at these times (look back to the first blog to understand more about the negativity bias – It may be that other values come into play and there is conflict. Or it may be that the emotional experience, expectation or judgement about the event overshadows the underlying value beneath it. We can see this in other ‘big’ situations – weddings, becoming a parent, going to University, first day at school. Often the emotional experience of these events overshadow the value underlying why you wanted to do it in the first place.

We all experience times in our lives when we lose sight of our values, what’s important to us, because they get overshadowed. In this article I am going to talk about values, what they are, why they are so important and give some tips on how to identify them.

What are these things called Values?

We all have values. We may not know what they are but we all have them. Values are the things in life that are most important to us, are deeply held beliefs and who and how we want to be in life. In the words of Russ Harris (2007): “Values are our heart’s deepest desires for the way we want to interact with and relate to the world, other people, and ourselves. They are leading principles that can guide us and motivate us as we move through life.” There are some great worksheets here.

Values are different to goals. Values are a direction that we want to work towards in life. Goals are a destination that we want to achieve. A metaphor is useful here:

If you were to go travelling around the world, you may decide to travel in a particular direction to reach a number of destinations. You may decide to travel East, you will never reach East but you can always travel in that direction. This direction is your valued direction. As you travel in this direction, you may decide to visit a number of different places and tick these off your list as you go. These destinations are your goals.

To help bring this idea into a real world context, the comparison of becoming a parent as a valued-direction and a goal can be helpful. A person may have the goal to become a parent. Logically, as soon as the child is born, they can tick that goal off their list – they have achieved ‘becoming a parent’. However, the value of being a good parent is not an achievement to tick off a list. We can’t say “today, I have achieved becoming a good parent. Job done. I can tick that box”. Being a good parent is something that is constantly worked on and moved towards. It will never be ‘ticked off the list’ but is a constant journey throughout life. There may be goals that are ticked off along the way, but an overall destination is never reached. It’s a constant work in progress.

Why are Values so Important?

On this journey through life, we keep track of our valued direction using a values compass. This compass is held deep within us – it’s often a felt experience. When we are moving in the right direction, the compass is happy and settled and so are we. When we start to go off track, down the wrong path, the compass starts trying to pull us back in line. The compass needle tries desperately to point us in the right direction and we can feel that pull.

You may experience a feeling of discomfort, of unease, an awkwardness, a gut instinct if you like. These experiences are your values compass trying to communicate with you. Trying to help you see that you have started going in the wrong direction. You may have even started going back on yourself. The purpose of this ‘pull’ is to communicate an important message to you so that you will feel motivated to get back on track.

When big events come along, it can be easy to lose sight of these values. They can get lost in the shadow. You know they are still there somewhere, you can feel your values compass trying to pull you back in line, but they are harder to see and connect with. It is at these very times that remembering your values, keeping them in plain sight, is more important than ever. Linking back to the Christmas Day example, the value of family was lost in the shadow of the expectation to buy presents (and to get it right), to try and see everyone within a short space of time, the need to travel, to eat constantly, the stress, the lack of routine, the different pulls and needs of others…….it all became overwhelming. 

Being in touch with our values and keeping on track with them is important for a balanced and healthy life. Research published this year looked at the overall effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an approach that focuses on living in line with values. This research was an analysis of all the relevant research currently available about this approach. It showed that by engaging in a process to highlight and mobilise a person’s valued-direction can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, low mood, depression and somatic health problems (Davis, Morina, Powers, Smits & Emmelkamp, 2015). When we live in line with our values we live better.

How to Identify your Values

So how do we find out what our values are? Fortunately, there are a number of really helpful exercises that have been developed to help us work this out. Russ Harris (2007), shared a number of these exercises online and has also published a really nice, easy read book called “The Happiness Trap”, which shares a number of these ideas and takes you on your own journey of self-discovery. There’s also a follow up called “The Reality Slap”, which I would also recommend.

Below, I have outlined an exercise for you to try. You can find more of these types of value exercise on this website: There’s a values app: “The Forstara Personal Values Sort” which takes you through a number of different statements and will help to highlight your values based on your answers. It can be helpful to look at a ‘Values List’ and see which values stand out for you. I have copied a Values List for you below at the bottom of the article – you can add your own too.

Values exercise: “What advice you would give yourself when you are 90 years old?”

Spend a moment to imagine your 90 year old self. You have reached 90 years old living the way you are living your life now. You have the wisdom of experience and you are at a stage of life where you can step back, observe how you have lived your life and reflect on what you would have done differently. What advice would your 90 year old self give to you now? What three changes would your 90 year old self advice you to make? Why would they give you this advice?

What next?

If you are interested to know more, I will be publishing the second article for this blog next week where I will share ideas for how to balance and use your values in everyday life.

If you are interested to learn more about values and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, there are a number of good books and resources online.

Recommended website: This is a fantastic website with lots of free resources and exercises you can engage with.

Recommended books: “The Happiness Trap”, Russ Harris. “The Reality Slap”, Russ Harris.

If you would like to learn more on either an individual basis or as part of a group, Avenue Therapies offer Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/valued Living approaches as part of the therapeutic work and teaching we deliver. Please get in touch with us on our email, phone number or through our contact form if you would like to know more:

Values List