Values in Therapy


There are moments in therapeutic work that challenge and expand our own views of what’s life, what is people, who is the client in front of me and of what is possible.

Practitioner of acceptance and commitment therapy ACT, know that values are the heart of these transformations. Values work is like  an entrypoint to someone’s heart.

It could be a young man´s tired of living amidst a too lack of care-world who feels alone in the way he feels the world around him

It could be the  patient´s who has recently suffered an accident and her life has been drastically changed, dreams gone, many things gone and in one sense for her, herself too, looking for a search of sense to stay, to keep on

Or a person that still lives his life in a try of getting rid of past painful memories, not finding another way

When clients capture, feel a deep sense of what’s most important in his/her  life and what they want to stand for, their fight against their pain changes, or is over; and a path opens. You see this path in their eyes

And from there, something begins to be built.  Clients sometimes take it even before you know, one step at a time, and another and begin to enrich their lives in ways that previously seemed beyond imagining.

This is possible, for every person who trespass the threshold of the therapy door; and even though difficult, that is the only important thing.

But this doesn´t happen automatically, neither is guaranteed

Indeed most of ACT clinicians have personal examples like the ones above, and still often we struggle to explore values in a way that facilitates depth and movement.

To understand better what I refer here when using the word “values” we can lump together the following characteristics that “values” concept are:

  • Freely chosen
  • Made of Patterns of actions: like the path that can not exist really without  the steps done towards that important something; both the direction and the steps or actions constitute a “value”. Therefore they are
  • Ongoing, dynamic, and evolving and can be Creatively constructed by the person who choose them
  • Process, not outcome: while goals and outcomes  are discrete, achievable and end –values can be lived at any moment, providing us with a sense of direction

Sometimes people get so fixated in the goal that they loose even the sense of “for what  I am  still doing what i am doing” but more importantly and sad it´s that when it comes that the goal is not achieved we might give up and stop to do what we were doing, even when  doing that was a meaningful path.

We people grow in an society that gives importance to outcomes, material and visual achievements, we inherit these rules, we even dedicate our lives to pursue material, social acceptable outcomes that can be visible for others. Money, security, stability can be very reinforcing and not only materially but also socially. We have learnt to follow others, we feel the pressure of society of friends, from parents or educators, what others expect from me…and becomes an habit  to do what we are supposed to, to be who we are supposed to, to follow a preconceived life.

 But how much time do you or have you spent  thinking about what is most important for you,  on a deep, personal level?

But on the other hand…  beneath values lies immense vulnerability.

And just touching what you most yearn for in life feels loaded with a huge amount of risk. .. because while hoping for something more, you can also conceive that you might not get it, that you might even lose it, or that you might actually be better off.

The uncertainty, the unknown can be a very risky and scary symbolic place. On the other side of the coin, inertia feels as known as comfortable where change feels dangerous and impossible.

 And we develop a lot of ways and strategies, very strange ways very far away from the burnt earth,  to protect us and evade ourselves against vulnerability, pain… Even when we feel desperate we still manage enough to keep our world safe around to us: stories we tell ourselves about why we can’t reach for that something more, who we think we are, why we are not others or why we try and fail, why we are not allowed to something else, chronic “stuckness,” “I don’t know,” “nothing matters,”etc.

These protective stories and behaviors might look different but their function is the same: protect, avoid, reduce pain, of losing, failing…

 One of these ways is precisely getting  resistant  to values work.

This protective behavior is automatic, it has become an habit, and in the therapy room we are constantly seeing it, hearing it and sometimes even doing it. And   even when  a value is at the table, the client returns again to his protective layer to his own reasoning, stories made of language, to filters of how to see the world again,  without having made the tiniest movement.

We’ve all come up against these walls as therapists, and we as persons, have made and faced our own walls, whether we see it or not

After a time, you client or me… we  might decide it would just be best to move on and leave dreams aside as “impossible” as the best thought option, is a safe option in one side only… and we can end up betraying once who we were and “the one you could be”. This is life drama, the drama you we will find in life, the same drama of so many lives …

As therapists we also go around the stuckness, when we try to review theory, apply another exercise, another homework, rethink each case and so on

But there is another way, a way that has to do much more with giving up this entire mindset, releasing its rope and  entering into the unknown, the uncertain, the risky place, like diving for a treasure hidden somewhere at the client´s  sea bottom

And it is in the midst of this darkness, from where it can be seen a flash like an abandoned longing at the bottom. Something that is precious and unique for the person, precisely because it has been well protected and closed.

The bad new is, that from this approach, or from this experience, recipes nor instructions will work, other things will, and courage and willingness to approach the abyss and explore with the client the unknown landscapes

And finally, why! Why should clients do this if it is scary, painful, loaded of the very same pain they bring with and that they want to get rid of?!

The answer must go beyond symptom reduction which are not more than surfaced outcomes of deeper motivations, the answer is about grasping what make us human, why we need and pursue meaning, why we take pain and do impossible things when there is meaning?

What I mean is that man is capable of anything, even with pain, in order to find meaning, and so, is this not the root of each person’s suffering? Not the pain itself, nor the sadness itself, nor the “negative” thought that comes to me one day and the other day, but the root of all these, the lack of substrate. Being able to do something different with all that, towards a purpose

“The quest for meaning is the key to mental health and flourishing”

Viktor Frankl