For a while, even as someone ‘experienced’ in ACT, I struggled with values. Specifically, I found the apparent disconnect between Values Measures and the qualities recorded on Values Cards difficult to reconcile. I am going to use this blog to explore the root of my struggle, and to try to articulate the way in which they fit together.
If you look at any measure of values (The VLQ, the PVQ, the VQ) then you will find items akin to ‘I have moved towards the things that are important to me’. Essentially, these measures assess whether you have been acting desirably across broad domains of valued living. In other words, have you moved towards your value of being a ‘good’ parent, have you been a ‘good’ employee, have you been ‘good’ with regards to your physical health.
What the measures don’t do is quantify whether you have actually moved towards your values. Just read that again. You can’t have a family value. You have a family domain. You can’t have a parent value. You have a parent domain. You can’t have a work value. You have a work domain. Values are the qualities that we wish to enact in each of the broad domains. Metaphorically speaking, values are what happen when you dig beneath the word ‘good’ in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. What does it mean to be a ‘good’ parent? The answer to that question will reveal your values. For me, in order to be a good parent I would have to be patient, loving and playful.
Values cards, which are essentially a physical manifestation of what happens when you dig beneath the word ‘good’ are essential in order to determine what qualities we want to bring to the various domains in our life. They serve as a guide to our behaviour when our minds throw mud at us. Broad domains such as ‘family’ don’t provide a guide to how we want to be in the world, they provide a context. It is only when we explore what is underneath ‘good’ that it is possible to reveal values that truly anchor us in times of trouble. A brief example. Imagine that I was about to argue with my Mother. Knowing that it is important to me to be a ‘good’ son isn’t enough. I would need to be clear on my values, on what ‘good’ means: compassionate, careful, attentive. The word ‘good’ just isn’t specific enough to capture the essence of valued living.
It is incredible though, right? That our values measures don’t measure our values, they measure whether we have moved forward in broad domains. Well, it’s not quite as shocking as you might think. Imagine that you had been in therapy for a number of sessions. In session 1 you might say how important it is to be a ‘good’ parent. By session 6, you would know the sort of qualities needed in order to consider yourself ‘good’. So, if after therapy had ended, you had to complete a questionnaire asking if you had moved towards the things (domains) that are important to you, then you would know what qualities you would have had to have brought to those domains in order to have moved forward.
In the applied world, you can’t discuss values at only a domain level; you have to dig beneath what it means to be ‘good‘ so that values can really start to guide action. However, you also can’t only discuss the qualities of valued living without a consideration of domain. Why? Because the qualities that we want to bring to the world will change depending on the domain. In the research world, questionnaires are aimed at the domain level because it would be impossible to standardize a values measure in which each individual describes their own values. Some might see this a problem but I would assume that the participants in those research studies understand that signalling improvement on a ‘good parent’ questionnaire item is equivalent to answering the question “have I been patient, loving and playful?”. There I am below trying to enact all three of those values in pursuit of being a good parent.