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Values: The Compass That Guides Us When We Are Lost

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

by Brittany Rickett CCC, LCT-C - 3 Rivers Counselling

stones with core values

What are Values?

"When you go through life guided by your values, not only do you gain a sense of vitality and joyfulness, but you also experience that life can be rich, full, meaningful, even when bad things happen."
Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap

Values can be a loaded word. I say this to my clients all the time when I introduce values into our discussion. When some people hear the word 'values' they think 'should and shouldn't', 'right and wrong', 'good and bad'. But there is no such thing as right and wrong in this discussion. Everyone has a different set of values, and looking at your values is not a test; it's more about clarifying or getting back in touch with who you want to be in this world. Values are about living in a way that matters most to us. They are the qualities we want to bring to the way we interact with friends, families, and ourselves. Values are the compass that guides us - if we learn how to read it.

Why do Values matter?

When we aren't living life in touch with our values, all kinds of problems can come up. We can feel less secure, experience lower self-esteem, we might become paralyzed by decisions, or feel embarrassed and ashamed of things we have done; we experience more guilt and regret, and anxiety and depression can creep in. But, when we connect with our values, we feel more motivated, more excited, and we are more likely to be living a life that feels rich, full and meaningful.

Values vs. Goals

Values are not about what we want to achieve or the goals we want to reach. Values are the guiding principles that help us choose the actions and behaviours we participate in everyday. They are about how we want to act, how we want to be with others, the qualities we want to cultivate as a person.

Try asking yourself these questions:

  • What gets me fired up?

  • What inspires me?

  • What infuriates me?

  • What matters most to me?

  • Deep down inside, what is important to me?

  • What do I want my life to be about?

  • If I wasn't struggling with my feelings, if I wasn't avoiding my fears, what would I be spending my time and energy doing?

While a goal has an outcome that we can achieve, a value is more like a direction. Goals can be completed, checked off the 'to do' list, but values are an ongoing process. They are the way we choose to live. For example, being a loving, curious, supportive partner is a value. It is something you can live everyday in the actions and behaviours you choose. If you stop being loving, curious and supportive, then you are no longer living those values. On the other hand, 'getting married' is a goal. You can do it and cross it off the list. You can get married and stop trying because the goal is complete.

Getting in Touch with your Values - 2 Simple Exercises

Here is are 2 simple exercises that can help you get started on clarifying your values. To get the most out of these exercises, give yourself some space and time to really think about your answers and write them out.

And remember, when you explore your values, try not to judge what comes up. Everyone has a unique set of core values. There are no right and wrong answers, and your own values may change and shift over time.

Exercise 1 - I am 80 Years Old

Imagine you are 80 years old. Maybe you are sitting in front of a cake about to blow out the candles. Think about the people you might like to have around you. You are looking back on your life as it is today. Complete the following sentences from your 80-year-old perspective:

  • I spent too much time worrying about ...

  • I spent too little time doing things such as ...

  • If I could go back in time, then what I would do differently from today onward is ...

Reflection: What did you notice? This simple exercise (from The Happiness Trap - Russ Harris) can be quite powerful for many people. It can help clarify the differences between what we value and what we are actually doing.

Exercise 2: Card/List Sort

Another Values clarifying exercise that can be helpful is a 'card sort' or 'list sort'. You can find a full list of ACT values here, or a link to a beautiful pack of values cards called 'The Live your Values Deck' here.

Card Sort instructions:

1. Take all the cards/values and sort them in to three categories: Very Important, Important, and Not Very Important. As you do this, remind yourself that there is no right and wrong and no one needs to know what you choose.

2. Discard the 'Important' and 'Not Very Important' piles. Now looking through the Very Important pile, select 10 cards that feel the most important.

Reflection: What was it like to try to choose just 10? What did you catch yourself feeling and thinking as you did this? How did you feel about discarding the other piles?

3. Lay out your top 10 cards/words in front of you. Narrow them down again to your top 5. Try to notice any self judgement and lay it aside.

4. Once you have chosen your top 5, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do these 5 have anything in common?

  • As I look through my choices, would I say that living in service of these would be a life well-lived?

  • What struggles would I be willing to put up with in the service of living these values? What thoughts and feelings would I be willing to have if it meant I could really live up to what these 5 cards mean to me?

  • If someone observed my life today, would they be able to know what my top 5 values are?

  • In terms of time, energy and resources, how much does my behaviour reflect these 5 values?

(Adapted from Veage, S., Ciarrochi, J., & Heaven, P. (2014). Value congruence, importance and success in the workplace: Links with well-being and burnout amongst mental health practitioners, Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 3(4), 258-264. and Kelly Wilson's Valued Living Questionnaire.)

Reflection: How did this go for you? Are there any small actions you could take today that would make you feel closer to living these values?

What if Thinking about Values is Uncomfortable?

Clarifying your values can often be uncomfortable. That discomfort is often helping us to see that there is a place where we might not be living in line with our values.

Try asking yourself what the discomfort might be telling you about how you are living or not living your values.

The things in life that are meaningful require a lot of effort, whether it's building lasting relationships, raising kids, addressing a problem at work, or renovating your house. But connecting to our values can help remind us that the hard work is worth the effort. If you value your health and connect yourself to that value, then it will feel worth it to make time for the gym or a walk. If you value being a supportive parent and remind yourself of this value, then it's worth playing crazy 8's for the millionth time. When we are in the moment, we may not feel like doing 'the actions' but being in tune with our values helps to motivate us to show up in a meaningful way.

On a larger scale, when people ask questions such as, 'What's the point of life?', 'Why don't I get excited about anything anymore?', 'Why bother?', or 'I have nothing to offer.' Connecting and re-connecting with valued actions can be a potent first step up from depression and connecting to a life that has meaning and purpose.

"Values provide a powerful antidote, a way to give your life purpose, meaning, and passion."

Russ Harris - The Happiness Trap


  • Values exist within us whether we are living in sync with them or not.

  • They connect us with a sense of purpose in life.

  • When we get hooked by difficult situations, thoughts, and feelings and take steps that aren't aligned with our values, we lose our sense of purpose and meaning. This can lead to a downward spiral of feeling stuck, feeling lost, feeling out of touch with life.

  • Living life tuned into your values can leave you feeling more grounded and confident in the behaviours you choose minute to minute, day to day, year to year.

Sand and Horizon

A Final Take Away

Try getting into the habit of checking in with your values - re-examining whether they are shifting, and then assessing how you are doing at living those values in all the domains (work/education, leisure, relationships, and personal health/growth) of your life.

When difficult situations come up, lean into your values to do the things that feel hard.

Try reminding yourself, "I'm doing this in the service of ____(insert value)______."

For Further Reading try:


About the Author

Brittany Rickett, Bachelor of Education, MA in Counselling Psychology, CCC, LCT-C

Brittany has her Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology from Yorkville University. She worked as a teacher for 13 years before becoming a school counsellor and opening a private practice for virtual and in-person therapy in St. Stephen, New Brunswick. Brittany is passionate about ACT in therapy and also draws on solution-focused and somatic approaches in her work. Brittany is a certified yoga instructor and Social Emotional Wellness coach offering online workshops and professional development on resilience, mental health, and mind body connection.

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