Most of the time, we go to therapy because we’re trying to get rid of something. You may struggle with recurring depression, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, relationship issues, insomnia, or any number of other mental health issues. These feelings can be incredibly unpleasant. It can feel like they are standing directly in the way of you and the life you want. To illustrate this, try completing the sentence below. Fill in the first blank with your most persistent mental health “problem,” and the second blank with what you think you could do, if only that problem went away. You can look at the made-up “Alice” example for help; we’ll keep using Alice’s experiences for reflection throughout this tip.

If I could just get rid of _____________, I would be able to _________, _________, and ____________.

Alice: If I could just get rid of my panic attacks, I would be able to go on dates, feel happy again, and stop drinking.

Whatever sentence you wrote is your own personal “story” - your reason to get help. It’s important and legitimate, because it helps you understand that your mental health issue has a tangible impact on your life! At the same time, holding onto this story super tightly can also make it harder to get better. Here’s why:

Mental health isn’t the absence of distress. In other words, being really, deeply happy doesn’t mean you never feel bad. Part of healing is changing your story so that you can feel bad sometimes but still do things that matter to you and still feel content in your life. That perspective shift is a core part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s also a BIG idea that ACT addresses from many different angles: willingness to feel what we feel, being in the present moment, and the way we relate to our thoughts are a few examples. Today, we’re going to consider the reason we want to heal in the first place: our values

Psychological research suggests that we feel happiest not when we get rid of all the stuff in our lives that could be painful, but when we move effectively, in the real world, toward something that matters to us. For example, if you are struggling with panic, it’s possible that focusing less on getting rid of your panic, and more on living true to your values, would actually help you feel better. That shift might also give you more reason to treat your panic attacks, beyond just wanting to feel “not panicky.” After all, it’s hard to feel motivated to practice self- care, learn to meditate, take your medication on time, and commit to therapy if you’re out of touch with why you want to feel better in the first place, right?

This is actually a pretty wild perspective shift, when you think about it. Essentially, we’re suggesting that you don’t have to fix all your mental health issues to live a fulfilling life! Furthermore, focusing on your values instead of making all your mental health problems go away might actually help you heal those same problems. To make this concrete, let’s go back to that story that Alice told about herself.

Alice: If I could just get rid of my panic attacks, I would be able to go on dates, feel happy again, and stop drinking.

That story suggests that Alice should focus ALL her energy on getting rid of those panic attacks! After all, they’re costing her dates, happiness, and sobriety. Her story tells us something else, too. Alice might value having a romantic partner, feeling happy, and being sober. Drawing from the idea above, perhaps it would be possible to help Alice focus more on those values, and less on getting rid of her panic. Let’s give it a try together. Alice’s potential values are written down below, along with a space for you to write your own, from that first exercise. The reason we’re calling them “potential values” will become clear in a moment.

Alice’s Potential Values

Have a romantic relationship

Feeling happy

Being sober

My Potential Values

_________________

_________________

_________________

Great job! You now have a sense of what you want to move toward, rather than just what you want to move away from. Now, the work gets a little more challenging. Unfortunately, your values aren’t somewhere inside you, waiting to be discovered. Similarly, no other person, culture, or institution is responsible for handing you your values. Freely chosen values are motivative statements that we build ourselves in response to what feels meaningful in our lives. With this in mind, let’s help Alice clarify her first potential value: having a romantic relationship. Consider the following conversation with Alice:

Therapist: Alice, can you tell me a little more about why having a romantic relationship feels important to you?

Alice: Well, my sister is happily married, and I’ve always felt like if I was too, my panic would go away and I wouldn’t be such a failure.

Therapist: I see. It seems like you want to stop having panic attacks so that you can be in a relationship, but it also seems like you want to be in a relationship so that you can stop panicking! That must be a confusing loop to find yourself in.

Alice: Totally. It all comes down to needing to fix myself and be like my sister. I get caught up in that loop and end up going in circles.

Therapist: That sounds exhausting. At the same time, I think you’re also working on something important - the way you feel about connection in your life. I wonder, if I had a magic wand and I waved your panic AND all that pressure from your sister away, do you think being in a relationship would still be important to you?

Alice: Hmm...that’s a hard one. Can you ask it a different way?

Therapist: Sure. Let’s picture an older version of you who is nearing the end of her life. In this universe, you’ve grown into the wisest version of yourself, and you’re looking back proudly over all the meaningful parts of your life. Would being in a romantic relationship be one those things?

Alice: Ah, I see what you’re getting at. If I’m that really wise, proud version of myself I don’t know that “being married” would be the thing that would feel meaningful...I think I’d feel proud of having a relationship in which I let myself be really vulnerable - a relationship where I loved another person without holding part of myself back.

Therapist: Wow. That’s a really beautiful value you just articulated, Alice. It sounds like it’s important to you to connect deeply and authentically with someone - to let yourself be seen and to see them in return. Is that right?

Alice: Yes! I’d phrase it like this: I value loving another person with my whole heart, and letting them love me with their whole heart, too.

In this vignette, we can see that Alice’s potential value was still a little fused. It was tangled up with her “problem” - panic attacks - and with cultural or familial expectations of her. But, once Alice spent a little time considering this value, she was able to construct a new value that felt less confusing and more meaningful. Ready to give it a try?

Choose one of your potential values from the exercise above. Take a few moments to reflect or journal on the following questions, in order.

  1. What do I believe would happen if I “achieved” this value?
    1. How is my answer related to my “problem,” if at all?
    2. How is my answer related to my family’s ideas about what will make me happy, if at all?
    3. How is my answer related to my culture’s ideas about what will make me happy, if at all?
  2. If 1a, 1b, and 1c all went away or were resolved, would this value still feel meaningful? Why or why not?
  3. How would the wisest version of me articulate this value?

Fantastic work. Again, creating meaning in our lives is something we do, not something we have given to us. It is a difficult, active process, and you should feel very proud of the effort you just made! 

Now, you might be asking yourself what you’re supposed to do with your answer to question 3. The answer is multifaceted. From an ACT perspective, healing involves building meaningful values, like we did today, but also (1) remembering our values in the present-moment, (2) being willing to feel the pain of being out of touch with our values, (3) asking ourselves which patterns of thought are consistent with our values, (4) taking the perspective of the wisest version of ourselves and (6) following through on our values with committed action. That last task, committed action, will be addressed in the next post in this series on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For now, consider the new story that Alice, and you, began building today:

Alice’s old story: If I could just get rid of my panic attacks, I would be able to go on dates, feel happy again, and stop drinking.

Alice’s new story: I value loving another person with my whole heart, and letting myself be loved in the same way. Despite my panic attacks, I can move toward this value in my life by ___________________.

As you can see, Alice’s new story isn’t complete yet. She needs time, not only to flesh out her value, but to think about what moving toward it looks like in her life. However, Alice’s new story isn’t about her panic, nor is it about what others think of her! Alice has freed up some of the energy she was using to “fix” herself, and can focus instead on how to live a meaningful life in this moment. Values work can be incredibly challenging, especially if you are coping with persistent mental health issues, trauma, or significant upheaval in your life. If you’re struggling, it can help to work on this with a therapist. You can reach out to one of our therapists and schedule an appointment by clicking here or calling 215-922-LOVE x100.