The importance of personal values
A personal value represents a commitment to improving yourself, or the people and the world around you. They are what keep you going through the stresses and difficulties of life, and keep you on the path of personal growth. The exploration of personal values in psychotherapy are important as they are often the key to personal change, giving you a reason to do the hard work of transforming the self.
In this article we will explore the four types of value, and how you can utilise them to transform. Along the way overcoming adversity, achieving success, making the world a better place, and becoming the person you were destined to be.
Personal values in psychology
Abraham Maslow writing in the 1960s, was the first to introduce personal values as a subject area in psychology. He argued that healthy human beings were self-actualising people: meaning they pursued goals related to personal growth and self-fulfilment. Such goals were linked to their personal values: raising families, meaningful work, communal charity, creative and scientific endeavour and spiritual development, to name a few examples.
In interviews with numerous individuals who demonstrated psychological health he found that not only were subjects strongly motivated by values, they also reported having regular peak experiences: moments of joy, peace and ecstasy as they engaged in their selected activities. Needless to say, the rate of mental health problems amongst these subjects was low.
Maslow also pointed to the fact that, right from birth, human beings are necessarily value driven. In his hierarchy of needs model, Maslow pointed to the a scale of human values ranging from the basic need for food, warmth and medical care at one end of the spectrum, to self-actualisation at the top of the scale. In between we have a scale of ascending values related to security, love, community and self-esteem.
Some people can get stuck on the lowest rung of physiological needs which turn into selfish pleasure-seeking: food, drink and sexual gratification to take three examples. However, this submergence in pleasure misses out on the deeper rewards linked to values higher up the scale.
The four varieties of personal value
Values can be categorised into four main types: values related to your relationships with other people, values related to personal achievement, values related to making the world a better place, and values related to personal virtues. All of these values can interact. For example you might be doing work that saves lives, with people you like and admire, that earns you success and recognition, and which requires you to exercise wisdom and responsibility.
For optimum mental health you should engage in activities related to all four types of value.
Values related to other people
These values have to do with relationships and in making life better for other people. They include love, kindness, compassion, understanding, friendship, respect, mutual help and loyalty. As may be seen immediately these values help you build relationships and deeper connections with people. When we commit to them we enhance the lives of others, as well as our own. It could be argued that one value in particular is the most important human value of all: love.
In Maslow’s hierarchy we see that people values fit well with the need for love and belonging. However, when kindness to others is reciprocated, we also fulfil our basic need for self-esteem.
Values related to personal fulfilment
Values that relate to personal achievement include creativity, leadership, inspiring work, success and recognition, Note that money is not a value, as money is always sought for some other purpose; for example: security, the family, or the pursuit of personal excellence.
When we prioritise these values, we are motivated to set high goals, work hard, overcome obstacles to success, and continuously grow and develop. These values push us to strive for personal excellence and achieve our full potential.
Personal fulfilment can relate to success at work, but now always. Achievements outside work can often be more important for some: parenting, academic and creative work, sport, craftsmanship, etc. In this field much depends on the unique set of talents you were born with.
Pursuit of these values is linked to self-esteem and self-actualisation.
Values related to life improvement
These values relate to making a contribution to life; making the world a better place, and making life better for communities. They are loosely connected to spiritual values (see below).
Examples include improving the quality of life through care for the sick, charitable drives, peace campaigns, education, justice, equality, help for the disadvantaged, and care for the environment.
All these values are transpersonal values since they have little to do with personal advantage, and may entail self-sacrifice. They fulfil our hunger for connection to something higher than ourselves. As such they are linked to self-actualisation through love for others.
Spiritual values are connected to our sense of the divine. This can be defined (loosely) as anything that transcends ourselves, or it may be linked to a specific spiritual tradition and service. Research shows that spiritual people (loosely defined) are significantly more likely to enjoy mental health.
Values related to personal virtues
These values are related to the qualities we seek to develop in ourselves, and the kind of person we aspire to be. Virtues are traits (personal qualities) linked to excellence. Some virtues (e.g. truthfulness and integrity) are linked to moral excellence, while others (e.g. self-discipline and courage) are not. Moral virtues are associated with care for others, and for society; other virtues are linked to self-respect and the respect of others. But all the virtues are linked to personal excellence. Here is a list of some of the most common virtues:
Some virtues are associated with strength of character. For a free questionnaire that measures your most important character strengths see this link here.
Personal growth is closely linked to maturity and the acquisition of virtue. That is one reason why the virtues were emphasised in Stoic philosophy. In general the cultivation of the virtues turns you into the person you were born to be.
The link between motivation and personal values
Your motivation to succeed and overcome adversity is linked to your passion. Your passion, in turn, is linked to your core values. When we connect to our core values we access an unstoppable drive for self-improvement. This single fact enables people from deprived backgrounds who conceive a passion for a particular subject in school (e.g. science, medicine or literature) to go from GCSE standard all the way up to post-graduate study, and then on to careers as researchers, doctors or teachers. Thereby catapulting them from a culture of low expectations to one of aspiration and achievement.
A similar pattern exists in people who overcome illness, disability or mental health disorders. If they have an important enough reason to get well, then improvement is far more likely to occur: as many psychotherapists and medical doctors will tell you. A mother with young children will be far more motivated to recover from serious illness than someone who has little to live for.
For all these reasons the cultivation of personal values is closely linked to the art of resilience.
Resilience and personal values
Resilient people are better equipped to handle life’s misfortunes and disasters than the non-resilient. Which is one reason why some parents (and schools) are keen to teach their children the virtue of self-reliance at an early age, thereby enabling them to handle stress more effectively.
Resilience is associated with a number of values and virtues. Since resilient people set a high value on relationships, community and friendship they are far more likely to have a support network around them when life problems emerge. A training in resilience also teaches courage, self-discipline and responsibility – all virtues that make it easier to overcome setbacks.
When faced with challenging tasks or setbacks it can be easy to lose motivation and give up. However, when we are connected to our core values, we have a powerful source of motivation that helps us stay focused and committed. Our values remind us why the task is important and why we should keep going, even when it gets tough. By anchoring ourselves in our values, we find the strength to persevere.
Values in Decision Making
Have you ever changed your job, committed to a long-term relationship, moved house, embarked on a new course of study, or taken six months off to travel? If you have dome any of these then the decision you took will have been powerfully motivated by what was important to you. For example, you might have chosen the place where you live now because it was affordable, and thus met the criteria for security. If you were fortunate enough to look beyond security then you may have selected that house/apartment because you felt at home there, or because it was aesthetically pleasing, or because it was close to nature, or because your children could be happy there. You get the idea.
Good decisions just feel right; as if they were the only right choice to make. The most important decisions you will ever make will not be taken in your head but in your heart. That is because your values belong to emotional intelligence rather than the thinking kind.
Personal values in psychotherapy
Of necessity the exploration of personal values are integral to psychotherapy, for they are the catalyst for change.
Solution-focused psychotherapy often begins with two questions:
What do you want to change?
Why do you want to change?
Answers to the second question will reveal the values clients bring to therapy.
For example, depressed clients might say they want their lives back. Referring to a desire to go back to work, participate in the family, or resume sporting activities. Addicts might refer to the need for self-respect, repairing relationships, or pursuing a more fulfilling life. Anxious clients that they want to resume social life (although one of my clients also told me that her main motivation was to set an example to her children – who were already showing anxiety traits – and show them how to be free of anxious thoughts).
Sometimes clients end up in therapy from ignoring their personal values, as can be clearly seen in cases of Burnout syndrome. Here we see individuals stuck in the same grinding, overworked, stressful job they have stuck at for years; often for the money or the security that job offers. While gradually losing touch with personal values related to fulfilment, family and social life, and leisure. In their case psychotherapy typically starts with a review of the life choices in front of them.
Finally, couple therapy offers similar lessons about the importance of values. Sometime relationships break up because the couple have drifted apart, and are now pursuing lifestyles based on different values from the ones that kept them together. In such cases an amicable parting of the ways might be called for (or a separation period in which both parties can review what is really important to them).
In the majority of cases, however, relationships flounder because the couple have lost sight of the values that made their relationship work: love, friendship, respect and sexual fulfilment. This might occur as children come along; the parents are so busy trying to be good parents they have forgotten how to be a couple. Whatever the reason, the focus of psychotherapy will be on re-aligning to those values, and de-prioritising other activities that distract from them.
Change can sometimes be hard work. In psychotherapy it may require people to abandon comfort zones, give up long-standing habits, change engrained way of thinking and behaving, while embarking on activities never tried before. Doing this is so much easier if you have powerful reasons for wanting to. If some of those reasons connect to your core values such as love, self-fulfilment and mental health then it will be hard to derail you.
For further exploration there is the (paid) PVA Test that will rank your most important personal values in order. Also providing in-depth commentary on where these values will lead you in life.