When you are struggling with life’s problems it is difficult to keep your priorities straight. People who have anxiety disorders find everything is so important they run from task to task with never a chance to rest. People with depression find any and all tasks overwhelming. Sometimes it is hard to take any action. Recovering people are often faced with the need to decide what is really important in their life. What things need to be kept and what things can be let go. We call this process “values clarification.”
“Values Clarification” is also an exercise that we sometimes run in group therapy. It goes something like this. Each member of the group is asked for two things that are important to them. We go around the group and everyone gets a chance to tell us about two things that are important in their life. I like to write this on a board or paper in front of the group as I go. Sometimes we get several things that seem almost the same and need to be lumped together. For example, one person may say my job and another says his career. I make a bigger category of employment.
These lists contain quite a variety of things. Some people nominate material items, a car, money or a place to live. Other people list self-improvement things like education, sobriety or achieving a life goal. Many people mention relationships, like with their wife, husband or children. Some people include spiritually values like God or religion. And there are often nominations for global goods like peace, health, ending pollution and saving endangered species.
Now I have found that the list I get varies a lot depending on the group involved in this exercise. People in a locked hospital because of psychosis are likely to mention basic needs of life, like food or a place to live. People in substance abuse treatment are more likely to mention things like sobriety and attending twelve-step meetings. They are also more likely to look at internal personal things as important like peace of mind and self-respect.
The next step in the process involves clarifying these values. Son and daughter might be combined to make children and so on. Each member of the group is then given three votes for items on our refined list. This requires them to vote for at least one thing they did not nominate. It also allows people to change their mind and vote for things that they did not think of before. In the process of voting a strange thing takes place.
The list has some items with a lot of votes and others with few or no votes. In most every case I have ever done this, relationships, family, and friends rose to the top of the list. So did intangibles. Peace, happiness, sobriety, and security, which beat the heck out of money, cars, and pleasure most every time. In recovery, we find that the values we hold drive our actions. It is important to be clear on what really matters.
So if relationships and peace of mind are so important to us – why do so many people spend all their time and effort on making money and getting things?
What is important to you? What do you spend your time pursuing? Care to comment and share what you value most?
Special thanks to Irene Aparicio, LCSW, an early supervisor in my career who taught me this exercise.
Till next time, David Joel Miller, LMFT, LPCC
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