“Why am I not satisfied with my work?”

“Do I want to have children?”

“What should I do with my life?”

“Am I with the right person?”

“Where should I eat for lunch?”

Problems like these are ubiquitous and unavoidable. They are what make us conscious human beings. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make them any easier to solve. As mental health professionals, we know this to be true since these kinds of issues take up a considerable amount of space in sessions. What’s more, battling with tough decisions or situations can occasionally lead to stickier, more insidious problems like anxiety or depression.

So, the important question becomes: How do you “nip it in the bud,” so to speak, when you notice a big problem is messing with your mental wellbeing?

Enter: Values. If used properly, values can be enormously helpful in guiding people in the right direction. They can help to reduce the additional suffering people tend to (unintentionally) inflict upon themselves when they endlessly ruminate and angst over problems. They can empower individuals to move forward more smoothly, with clarity and confidence, despite somewhat murky circumstances.

Kip therapist Cindy Herrera, LMFT, walks through a few basic values exercises, drawn from one of our favorite cutting-edge therapy modalities, ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Keep in mind that these steps can be practiced solo, but they may be more effective if practiced with somebody else (preferably with a mental health professional like a therapist):

Step 1: Identify your values

“The first thing you want to do is to explore what you value,” says Cindy, “There are a number of different ways that I get clients to think about values.”

The first strategy is to ask guiding questions, such as “Let’s pretend that you’re at the end of your days and are looking back on life. How would you have wanted to live? What would you have wanted to stand for when things got hard?” These questions are designed to encourage you to imagine certain scenarios that are more likely to reveal who and what you truly care about. They enable you to narrow focus and discover your own values by clearing away distractions such as parents’ wishes, friends’ or partners’ values, or societal expectations. These intrusions are often disguised as values when really, they’re likely projections from external factors or people. This exercise also aids in distinguishing true values from goals or desires.

Another popular strategy is dissecting daily routines. Right down to flossing your teeth in the morning (or not).

“Every behavior we engage in happens because we are getting something out of it,” Cindy explains, “So, what we do is we list every little thing that [my clients] do throughout the day and I ask them, ‘Why do you do that?’”

An example might look like this:

“I go to work.”

“Why do you go to work?”

“Because I need money.”

“Why do you need money?”

“To pay the bills.”

“Why does that matter to you?”

“Financial responsibility?”

“What does financial responsibility bring you?”

“Independence.” *ding ding ding!*

Step 2: Organize your values

Once you’ve developed a list of values from the guiding questions and the analysis of your day-to-day actions, organize your list from the most important value to the least important value. As you do this, shift your perspective so that you’re looking at the list from the “end of your days” point of view. Once you’ve formed a new list, rearrange your values again, this time according to the life you live right now. You can frame this exercise by considering which values you spend the most time and energy on right now. If it’s helpful, refer to your day-to-day actions.

By now, you should have two lists — one that lists your values from most to least important and one that lists your values from most currently engaged to least. From here, you’ll write one final list; this one will be arranged according to how you wish to prioritize your values based on your present stage of life. For example, perhaps you value parenthood, but right now is not a good time for you to embark on the journey of raising a child. You can slide that value to a lower rank on your list for now, until you’re ready to re-engage with it in the future.

Step 3: Assign a values-based behavior for each value

Review your final list — the one that ranks your values by how you aim to live your life. For each value, write down a behavior or action that you can immediately implement, bringing you closer to your value. This exercise is best performed with flashcards, so you can physically flip each value over and write realistic behaviors that will contribute to progress toward the value.

“One of the main things with ACT is that there’s a difference between goals and values. Even if you’re in a really unpleasant situation, you can still feel good as long as your behavior reflects what’s important to you, a.k.a. your values,” says Herrera.

So, if you value independence, what is something you can do now to better align yourself with that value? You could, for example, cook dinner instead of ordering takeout, saving money and learning a useful, new skill.

Step 4: Let your values guide you when solving a problem

It’s a well-known fact that problems are myriad and inevitable. But here’s the thing: When faced with problems, people often cause ourselves undue, additional suffering. And this is something that is entirely preventable (through — you guessed it — mindfully incorporating our values!). Here’s how:

  1. Begin by writing down your problem.
  2. Next, identify all available options. List anything you can do about this problem, ignoring whether the option is “good” or “bad.”
  3. List pros and cons for each option based on reason and on the list of values you want to live by (list #3).
  4. Choose the option that is most reasonable and most closely aligned with your values.

Values are defined as a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life. Your principles serve as the foundation for a system of mindsets and behaviors that you can engage right now. In other words, your values are ways of being. When you practice values-based thinking and behavior, it spills into all areas of your life. You’re more present, focused, and able to enjoy the whole journey of life, rather than chasing a goal or destination.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor E. Frankl