Do you know what you value?

Discovering your values as a part of the therapeutic process

Discovering your values as a part of the therapeutic process

Values are defined as “a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgement of what is important in life”.

According to Steven Hayes, the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, when we are acting in accordance with our values we will experience more vitality and meaning of life, as well as more psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility basically means being able to attend fully to the present moment and continue or adjust one’s behavior accordingly.

I find that people often have a very hazy view of what their values are and no real idea about core values, those that are most important and meaningful. That’s why one of the first things I like to do, within the first four sessions, is an exercise to have my clients identify their core values.

Throughout therapy we will occasionally look back on those values and see if certain behaviors are congruent or incongruent with those values.

I like to do what is called a Values Card Sort. There are a lot of ways out there to identify your values, just Google it, but this is my favorite. My clients start with a stack of cards with one value written on each one. The cards are in no particular order.

Important and not important

The first step in the process is to separate the cards into two piles: important and not important.

It is interesting and insightful to watch this process, as some people just breeze through it while others really mull over the cards and have difficulty deciding in which pile they belong.

That’s the first step…and it’s the easiest.


Separate out the stack of value cards to those that are important to you and those that are not.

Separate out the stack of value cards to those that are important to you and those that are not.

But can you narrow it down?

In the second step, my clients are asked to pick only ten.

This is not typically an easy task. Taking a pile of cards that you have just determined are all of importance to you, and narrowing it down so much can be very challenging.

Something I have noticed is that typically a client will start to find cards that mean similar things and then remove one. That way she can still feel that she is holding true to most of the values even while dismissing some of the cards.

What do you REALLY value?

So, with that task done, the real fun starts. Next I say, “…but you can only have five.” I usually get a piercing look and a deep sigh.

I never rush my clients in this entire process. We start at the beginning of the session to allow for the entire hour, should she need it. This is tough stuff, and it takes careful consideration.

Once the top five cards have been chosen, I ask my client to tell me which cards she picked and what each one means to her. I never assume I know what the card means, since her interpretation may be very different from mine, and it’s hers that matters.

Narrow down your values until you discover the top five you cannot live without.

Narrow down your values until you discover the top five you cannot live without.

But you can only have…

Once the top five have been chosen and explained, I say, “…but you can only have four”, and my client spends time deciding which of these core values she could do without. If she is not thinking out loud, I always ask her to walk me through the decision-making process, as it is often very intriguing.

And on and on this goes, “…but you can only have three”, “…but you can only have two”, until the top value is picked out and I get to hear what prompted her to pick that one as the one she couldn’t be without.

Is there congruence?

What follows is a discussion about how her lifestyle is congruent and incongruent with the core values she has picked. This type of work sets the stage for change talk in future sessions. It opens up the idea that perhaps there are areas that need to be looked at more closely in order to start living her idea of a meaningful life.

I find values work to be invaluable in my work with clients, and I hope that this helps if you are interested in digging in and discovering what you hold most meaningful in life.

If you are in the Vancouver, WA or Portland, OR area and would like to schedule a free 15-minute phone conversation with me to discuss counseling, please fill out this form here.


Tamara Werner

Tamara Werner is a counselor, author, speaker, and activist. Her private practice, Get Centered Counseling in Vancouver WA, helps women with food and body issues learn to love themselves, their body, their life, and their relationships. Her life’s work is steeped in personal experience, having fifteen years in recovery for anorexia, in addition to being a breast cancer survivor. An up and coming force in the counseling community, Tamara has been published in a textbook called Treatment Strategies for Substance and Process Addictions, and has sat on a panel at the American Counseling Association Conference, where she spoke to her peers on strategies and tools to use with clients struggling with eating disorders. Having a deep, personal understanding of what it takes to recover from this condition, she seeks to be an example to those she treats, to let them know that recovery is possible.