In my work as a psychotherapist in Washington, DC I often use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with my clients. One of the major areas covered in ACT therapy is that of values. At first glance, we may all think we know what values are and that we have them, but we often can’t answer some basic questions about our values. What are our values? What really matters to each of us? For some people like myself, this can be a hard concept to untangle.
One way to decipher what truly matters to us and what we truly value– not just what we think we “should” value– is to recognize that the things in our lives that stress us are typically the things that are very important to us. Our stress points to what we care about most!
For some of us, our job can stress us out, parenting can stress us, finances stress us out, etc. These things cause us stress, because they matter to us. If we did not care about them, then we wouldn’t care and we wouldn’t be stressed, right? But if they are stressful, they matter. If we care, we value them.
This can be an incredibly powerful reframing of stress. Let’s take our jobs for instance. Even though I am a therapist and I help other people manage their stress, I still get bogged down in stress. My personal work to manage my stress is an ongoing exercise. I try to reframe my stress and reconnect with my job. I go through a mental exercise and think of my job as something I value, something I want to do, and something I care about. Once I reconnect with my job in this light, then I can shift my focus from something that I’m stressed about to how I care about helping others feel and get better. I then consider what I can do today to help others rather than what I’m worried about.
Sometimes figuring out your values can be difficult, it can be hard to self-reflect, especially when we are stressed. Sometimes we confuse values with goals. A goal is something we can check off a list, something that we can attain. Values are something we strive for because we care about it. I like to think of values as a direction. Take the direction “east” for example. It may never be possible to reach “east” but I can keep striving to go “east”.
So why are values important? As I have already alluded to, clearly understanding our values and how they are different from goals can help us manage our stress by shifting our focus to what we care about now and helping us move in a direction that aligns with what matters to us most. Stress is information about our values—-Use it to get going in the right direction.