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Values-Driven Action: Finding Motivation Where There Once Was None

Posted by John Tobias, MS, ACMHC, Therapist at Entrada on August 03, 2017

Without fail, my clients come to me having lost traction in the world. They are locked into patterns of behavioral stagnation (i.e., narrowed or limited behavioral repertoires), wherein they’ve become disconnected from what they want most in life, aside from relief from psychological pain. The reason most often given to explain this stagnation and paralysis is that they just don’t “feel” like they can move effectively in the world; their feelings of depression and/or anxiety dictate their behavior (or lack thereof). The implicit agreement they’ve made with themselves and the world is that they have to “feel” a certain way before they can act a certain way. “Once my depression/anxiety goes away, then I can live the life I want,” is the underlying agreement or assumption. It becomes an “if only…, then…” situation.“If only my depression would get better, then I could live the life that I want.” I’m reminded that my Zen teacher, Daniel Doen Silberberg, would often talk about this “If only…, then…” approach to the world. He would say, “We live our lives this way: ‘If only… If only… If only… If only….’ Dead.” Doen was referring to our relationships to both our external worlds (e.g., “If only I could have that house or car I want, then my life would be better.”) and our internal worlds (e.g., “If only I could make my depression go away, then I could live the life that I want.”), but it’s particularly poignant and pertinent when considering the impasse that many of my clients have come to in their young lives. Again, the implicit agreement they’ve made is “If only my bad feelings would go away, then I could live the life that I want.” It’s as though they’re waiting for the world-- someone or something--to come along and change their feelings so that they can begin living the lives they want. From this position, until their feelings change, they are doomed to lives of inertia and behavioral stagnation. The absence of “good” feelings (or the “right” feelings) becomes the reason for their paralysis.

“Well, John, if my feelings don’t dictate my behavior, what does?” is the question that clients quickly come to when I point out that nowhere in the universe is it divinely decreed that their feelings have to be the sole motivators of their behavior. It’s an assumption that they (we) fall into in relation to the world and themselves (ourselves). The short answer to their inquiry is “values.” The metaphor that I use that explains this concept succinctly is that of a car. We make the assumption that “good” feelings (i.e., happiness, etc.) have to be the fuel for the car (the car represents our lives). Without good feelings, our car goes nowhere. In contrast, I’ll ask clients: “What if happiness were the exhaust instead of the fuel?” “What if happiness were a by-product of values-driven behavior?” I go on to point out that we have all—even clients who have been “stuck” for a long time—let values guide our behavior rather than feelings at some point in our lives. Whether it’s getting out of bed early to go to football or soccer practice, band practice, even getting out of their sleeping bag here in the field at Evoke. At some point in their lives, clients have been connected enough to a value that the value itself was the motivator, rather than the feelings in the moment. In the above examples, if they would have let their feelings in the moment dictate their behavior, they would not have gotten out of bed (or their sleeping bags). It would have been more comfortable to stay in bed.

By the time many of my clients get to me in the wilderness, they have very little hope for the future. They feel “stuck” (which is reflected in their lack of values-driven behavior in the world). Values work begins in our first meeting. One broad therapeutic goal that I have for these clients is that they leave Evoke better equipped to take values-driven action in their lives. I want them to be able to move powerfully in the world again (some for the first time). And while many clients may find it difficult initially to identify their values, we can rest assured that they value something (because they’re human). It’s my hope that I can help them connect to what is it that brings them deep meaning in life, to help them be the best versions of themselves. Values work consists of helping clients define their lives when avoidance and escape are no longer dictating their behavior. Avoidance and escape can be seen as attempts to eliminate some internal experience. They are not about moving towards something or constructing anything in particular. Values-driven behavior, conversely, is about constructing a life with particular qualities, a life that moves in particular, chosen directions. The useful wilderness metaphor is that values provide the compass bearing that we can move toward. Clients will often talk about having spent a substantial amount of time moving away from things, away from life, and how good it feels (remember happiness as the exhaust) to identify what’s really important and move toward it. If feelings dictate our behavior, values are not easily manifested in behavior. People would quit projects, quit relationships, and quit athletic and creative activities with high frequency if engaging in these was determined by feelings alone. Why? Because engaging in these activities doesn’t always feel good in the moment. Sometimes it does feel good in the moment, and that’s great when it does; we get the immediate positive reinforcement. But leading a deep, rich, meaningful life doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we’d like in spite of our best efforts. People die. Accidents happen. Life happens.

So, what are values? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) founder, Steven Hayes, offers this definition of values: “Values are verbally constructed, global, desired, and chosen life directions.” It’s beyond the scope of this blog to completely unpack that definition, but there are some ideas that I highlight when talking about values with my clients. First off, values are recognized as qualities of developing action across time. They are a purposely chosen combination of verbs and adverbs. To relate to others would be an example of a value. They are also different than goals. A value is not a destination, can never be fully attained, whereas a goal is something that can be attained or achieved (or not). One way I describe this is to give an example of someone who values being a loving partner in a relationship. A goal this person might set congruent with this value might be to get married. They get married; goal achieved, but now that the goal has been achieved, the value can still be lived out, and will always be there to be lived out. Values act as points on the compass; we can always move in a particular direction. This points to another useful distinction. Values are not feelings. Values always imply action in a chosen direction, sometimes regardless of the present moment feelings. One way that I help a client understand the difference between a value and a feeling is to ask them to examine values in the context of something they don’t care about. I might ask them to convince their fellow group members that the green bandanas are the best, and they alone should be used by everyone in the field. (When clients come to the field, they get a bandana or two of various colors.) After a client looks at me like I’m crazy and says something like, “That’s just weird and ridiculous,” I ask them if they can have the thought that this is weird and ridiculous and still try to convince everyone in the group that the green bandanas are the best: “What might you do to convince everyone that they should get rid of their non-green bandanas?” They will say things like, “I could talk to them. I could write a poem. I could hang a sign in the tree. I could offer to make a gift for everyone who uses a green bandana.” “Right, and notice that no one in the group would know that you think this is ridiculous; and if you did all these things, you’d be valuing using green bandanas even though you think it’s a ridiculous thing to care about.” What I want clients to get is that it’s much more about what they do than what they think or feel. Because overt behavior is under more conscious control than feelings are, valuing with overt behavior is more effective than valuing based on feelings.

There are many ways to help clients access their values—some more straightforward than others. Moreover, there are things to keep in mind when exploring values. Clients tend to focus so much on their problems, their struggles, that they lose track of what it is that brings deep meaning in their lives. With our struggles though, if we just flip it over (like two sides of a coin), there will always be a value exposed on the other side. Let’s take anxiety, for example. Anxiety always points to something that we care about. A client wouldn’t experience social anxiety, for example, if they didn’t care about connecting with others. This perspective helps clients begin to relate to their struggle in a new way. The struggle becomes a gift that points the client in the direction they need to go: “Begin ‘valuing’ here.” As Steven Hayes has said, “We hurt where we care, and we care where we hurt.” This points to a way of life that is bigger than just problems and struggles (which is what consumes so much of a new client’s attention). I may say something like, “Is it okay if we spend some time looking at the larger context of your life—your hopes and dreams?” I’ll go on to ask questions like, “What do you want your life to be about? What kind of person do you want to be?” I’m not asking, “Who do your parents want you to be?” or “Who do you think you should be?” Clients who might struggle with the above questions, will often be able to access connection to their values by describing a really sweet moment in their lives, or by describing who their heroes are, or (as mentioned above) by describing their greatest struggles (which flipped over will always point to a value). These conversations are powerful ways to help clients who have been so detached from what really brings meaning to their lives to begin to connect again to sources of vitality.

As values are being defined and connected to, clients are asked to be explicit about this process. That is, through various assignments and interventions, clients are asked to clearly state what their values are and, concomitantly, identify ways to take action on their behalf on a consistent basis. One of my favorite interventions to this end, is the setting of daily SMART goals connected to values. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. I’ll ask clients to identify a value of theirs every morning (after we’ve spent time with values discovery) and set a SMART goal in service of the chosen value. An example of this might be a SMART goal of writing a letter to their mom, with the identified value of being in a healthy, loving relationship with their mom. The client identifies the underlying value, sets a SMART goal in service of that value, and lets peer and staff know what their SMART goal is for the day and why. I want clients to build the habit of living (i.e., instantiating) their values through their behaviors on a daily basis. I also want clients to have the experience that feelings don’t have to dictate their behavior. Instead, values can. In these scenarios, there are a few change factors at work that are important to highlight. One, clients are making their intentions known to those around them (i.e., they are being explicit about both their value and the goal they’re choosing in service of that value), and, two, they are getting feedback on the pursuit of their chosen goal. These two components greatly accelerate the process whereby a client can experience that a connection to values can motivate behavior when feelings fail to.

Last week in session, I had a young man who had been struggling with emotional reactivity during hikes, talk to me about how “liberating” it felt for him to have the experience of connecting to hiking as a core component of the larger wilderness experience he was finding value in, and how this connection helped motivate him to continue on hikes that, until recently, would have elicited passive aggressive comments and behavioral disengagement (i.e., he would have quit hiking). Unsolicited by me, he went on to talk about how he could apply this experience to going back to college, which he had struggled mightily with to this point. The experience that this client had epitomizes this process. He was able to connect to something of value in the greater Evoke experience, of which hiking is a core component, and this connection helped motivate him to take action in service of the value. He kept hiking even when he didn’t feel like it, even when he felt like shutting down. (The staff did some great work with him during the hike to help him stay present to the experience to be able to reap its present moment reinforcement. Perhaps an idea for a future blog post.) And, in session, he beat me to the next step of generalizing this experience to other values-laden areas of his life: “How can I apply this to school?” Clients who are able to connect with what it is that brings deep meaning to their lives are often surprised at the power with which they are able to move through the world again—both in the wilderness and in the rest of their lives.


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