When we’re experiencing significant mental distress, we might seek the aid of a therapist or psychiatric provider. These are the people whose job it is to try to help us get better. Why do we want to get better though? The obvious answer is that we do not wish to suffer, but this begs the question, what is it about the psychological events we categorize as distressing that causes us to suffer? Some are simply painful and upsetting in and of themselves. However, the immediate unpleasant nature of these symptoms aren’t the whole story. Mental health difficulties also make it hard for us to pursue, and engage with, the things that we want in our lives. This results in a decrease in the sum of our rewarding experiences, thereby deepening our distress and potentially exacerbating symptoms. On the other hand, if we lean into the things that are important to us (our values and valued ends) we may be better able to tolerate—and even reduce—distressing symptoms.
It’s useful to identify our values because doing so clarifies our motivation and strengthens our resolve. After all, improving our mental health takes work—and work requires incentive. Humans are capable of enduring great hardship if their reason for doing so is clear, as was observed by Holocaust survivor and father of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl, when he recalled Nietzsche’s statement that “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” This sentiment extends to coping with mental health symptoms. For example:
A professor who has taken sabbatical to address his OCD symptoms may endure the anxiety aroused by resisting compulsions because he knows that being free of compulsive behavior will allow him to return to his career.
A mother with major depressive disorder may engage in activities that are known to improve mood, despite a lack of intrinsic motivation to do so, because she knows it will provide her with the energy necessary to be an attentive and engaged parent.
A musician with social anxiety may push herself to increase her tolerance of the uncomfortable feelings that arise when she’s onstage, so as to continue pursuing her art.
In each of these scenarios, it is the value (career, family, art) held by the person that provides justification for the effort necessary to manage their symptoms.
In addition to providing us with the necessary Whys for addressing mental health difficulties, our values can also serve as Hows. When we are engaged in rewarding, value-oriented activity, we experience a sense of vitality that can have hugely positive effects on our mood and ability to cope with stress. Focusing our attention toward personally meaningful ends shifts our mental energy away from unhelpful thoughts and helps us structure our behavior more deliberately, thereby allowing us to avoid maladaptive patterns we might otherwise inadvertently fall into. In a sense, our values can act as a compass that keeps us moving toward our goals and prevents us from drifting off toward less desirable directions.
Identifying our Values
A necessary precondition for actively pursuing our values is knowing what they are. It’s not always clear what’s meaningful to us in life. This is especially true when we spend a long period of time in mental distress, during which our focus may have been on just feeling better. Ultimately, we want to do more than feel better; we want to excel past feeling better (which will actually make us feel better). However, the question remains, toward what are we striving? The answer will be different for every person.
One way to identify our values is to imagine our ideal future. For instance, we could ask ourselves, “What would I like an average day in my life to look like in five years?” This question helps us think about concrete changes we’d like to see in our lives in the not too distant future. With that information, we can identify immediate actions to take to move ourselves in that direction. Another exercise for identifying values is to imagine our 100th birthday. In this scenario, friends, family, and other well-wishers have gathered together to celebrate our life. If we take a moment and imagine that they’re going around, giving speeches about the life we’ve lived thus far, we can ask ourselves:
“What do I hope they’ll say?”
“What kind of life would I like them to describe?”
“What would I like for them to know I stood for in my life?”
The answer to these questions can give a sense of the more general areas of life that are especially meaningful to us.
We can also work to identify our values with the aid of mental health professionals. Therapists can help us identify our values through structured activities or through exploratory discussion. Therapists that utilize acceptance-and-commitment therapy are especially interested in values-exploration, but practitioners of all modalities of psychotherapy are concerned with what motivates their clients.
Whether we are attempting to manage mental health difficulties or simply trying to make a difficult decision, knowing一and following一our values can clarify what steps we should take. When we are living in accordance with our values, we are more likely to feel a sense of rightness and certainty about our actions. Ultimately, our values grant us clarity, confidence, and courage.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy who provides teletherapy to clients across New York State. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.