Hayes and Smith (2005) point out that working on values is the most difficult area of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. One of the reasons for this is that getting in touch with our values makes us vulnerable to pain. “You cannot value anything without being woundable, indeed, your values are the most intimate part of you” (p160). Many people, particularly those who have been deeply hurt in the past, shut themselves off from what matters most in their lives in order to avoid exposure to the wounds that can come from acknowledging and journeying down the valued path. Because so many of us are cut off from our core values, the work of uncovering and clarifying them has many pitfalls and detours that need to be navigated [See Note H10i]. One of the ways this happens is getting distracted by things that seem like values, but aren’t really. As a practitioner, it is beneficial to have a clear idea of how values are different from the most common distractions which are goals, feelings and outcomes, and to have ways of talking about these differences with your clients.

What values are and are not:

Values are not goals – Goals are specific measurable objectives describing things that we want to achieve, acquire or complete. In contrast, values are not things that can be achieved, acquired or completed. Harris (2009; p191) defines values as “desired global qualities of ongoing action”, while Hayes and Smith (2005) talk about values as “chosen life directions”. In other words, values are about how we want to behave or act on an ongoing basis, while a goal is something that we hope to achieve at a particular time in the future. Values are like a pathway, while goals are the things that we can obtain while travelling on that pathway. Goals are empowering and motivating and can help us focus on the path ahead, but they are not the path. As an example, a young person might have a value of helping animals. That is how he wants to live his life. As part of this life direction he might set the goals of completing a Certificate in Animal Care and getting some volunteer work at the zoo in the summer holidays.
Values are here and now but goals are for the future - Even if you have neglected a particular value for many years, at any moment you can act on it. In contrast a goal is always for the future – it is something you are aiming for, striving for, working towards. “Because of this, people who lead a very goal focused life often find that it leads to a sense of chronic lack or frustration. Because they’re always looking to the future and continually striving to achieve that next goal under the illusion that it will bring lasting happiness or contentment. In the values-focused life, we still have goals, but the emphasis is on living by our values in each moment. This approach leads to a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction [because] our values are always available” (Harris, 2009; p194). The contrast between these two approaches to life is well illustrated by the Two Kids in the Car metaphor
Values are not feelings – Many people feel a sense of vitality when their actions line up with their values, and a sense of frustration or emptiness when action and values are not connecting. But this does not mean that values are feelings. It is especially important to understand that acting on values does not mean doing what feels good, particularly in the short term. “A person with a drug addiction feels good when using drugs. That doesn’t mean that being high is a valued outcome. Suppose the person really values being close to others, but when he takes steps in that direction he feels frightened and vulnerable. He hates that feeling so he uses drugs or alcohol again. If this person stops using and begins to walk in a valued direction, he won’t “feel good” anytime soon. He will feel frightened and vulnerable” (Hayes and Smith, 2005; p159). Another difference is that feelings cannot be controlled while choosing a valued direction is something that you can control. For this reason, a statement like “I value feeling good about myself” is based on a misunderstanding of values.

In addition to getting distracted by goals, feelings and outcomes (avoidance), work on values clarification can go off course if we let ourselves get too fixated on them (fusion). It is helpful to bear the following points in mind. 

Values are best held lightly – Values are flexible guides not rigid rules. If we fuse with our values they can become restrictive and oppressive. To return to the compass metaphor – we do not walk around clutching the compass at all times. We carry it in our back pack and take it out to check our bearings when we need to. 
Values often need to be prioritised – Because all of our values are available in each moment we need to prioritise which ones we act on. There are times when two values may work in competition and we cannot act according to both. For example, we may value being loving and caring towards our partner and friends, but if a partner or friend is continually hostile and abusive towards us our value of self-protection and self-nurture may need to take priority and we may need to cut off from that person.
Living according to values is not the same as following a straight path – Living according to values is like a bus heading east. But on the journey the bus may enter a valley of narrow dirt roads that wind around lots of creek beds and take detours around other obstacles. At times it is necessary for the bus to head north, south or even west before finding the road that heads steadily east out of the valley. A parent may value building a loving family, but they may have to go through a divorce. “Someone recovering from [an AOD problem] who values [abstinence] and helping others may relapse. That person’s mind may be screaming, ‘See, you can’t go east! You are a liar and a failure! You can’t be trusted’ as if to say, ‘Because you are heading north as usual, you can’t really value heading east’. In such an instance that person’s task is to thank his or her mind, feel the sadness and pain that comes from relapse, and then turn and head east once again” (Hayes and Smith, 2005; p161).

Successful conversations about values have a sense of vitality, openness and freedom. When a conversation brings a person into connection with her values “it brings a sense of liberation and expansiveness; she realises that even in desperate situations she has choices; that she can open up to life and take it in meaningful directions” (Harris, 2009; p196). These conversations tend to be very emotional.

These notes are based on Harris (2009), Chapter 11; and Hayes and Smith (2005), Chapter 11.

Note H10i The work of connecting with values is best done with clients who are ready to start planning for the future, or who have already done a lot of work on dealing with difficult emotions, and can benefit from getting into action.