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Clarifying What Matters

What we care about can help us enhance our lives with values-based decisions.

Key points

  • It is easy to lose our connection to what matters to us amid life’s external stressors and pressures, as well as amid internal distress.
  • Clarifying and connecting to what we care about helps us choose actions that are meaningful even and especially in moments of stress or distress.
  • Awareness of what we value can help us to act intentionally according to these values, rather than getting caught up in habit or reaction.
Source: by Josh Bartok with permission
Life's winding path
Source: by Josh Bartok with permission

Here’s an example of the power of clarifying values: A student asked a question in class about something I’d already explained several times on a day that I hadn’t slept well and my commute had been longer than I expected. I began to respond with irritation, noticed the sound of my voice, and then took a minute to pause and gather myself. I reminded myself that it is hard to pay attention to people speaking all day amid numerous pulls at our attention, and then I reminded myself that I value being a caring, responsive teacher who students feel they can approach during difficult times. After a breath, I answered the student’s question in a way that was consistent with my values—rather than answering from a place of reactivity.

It is natural and human to respond in a moment based on habit or emotional reactivity. When we do the same thing over and over again, it creates habit energy that makes it easiest to keep doing that thing. Strong emotions elicit an “action tendency”—a strong urge to take the action connected to that emotion—that can easily overwhelm us. Contextual stressors and injustices can make these reactions even stronger and more compelling, and understandable.

Of course, sometimes habits and emotional reactions are useful: My habit of checking the birdbath each morning to make sure there’s water in it keeps the birds that visit our deck hydrated, and my emotional reaction of fear when I hear a horn or screeching brakes leads me to jump out of the street, keeping myself safe. And, when structural and institutional contexts are particularly harmful, distress, anger, or outrage can be important motivators that maintain safety and integrity.

Nonetheless, habitual and emotional reactions can also narrow our lives. While leaving a situation due to anxiety or fear is natural, when the situation is one we value, we may want to override the reaction and stay where we are because doing what matters to us is more important than avoiding fear. Or, if a situation is actually threatening, we may want to address the threat directly rather than just avoiding it. Many meaningful actions, like being in relation to others, pursuing education, or working for justice, can naturally elicit tension or distress, yet are nonetheless still an important part of a meaningful life.

To make these discernments, we need to clarify what we our values are. And we need to understand why acting in alignment with our values may be difficult.

Ongoing experiences of internal distress (anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration, pain), as well as external stressors and pressures, can lead to us losing our connection to what matters most to us. For example:

  • We can start to live our lives with a goal of feeling some particular way (e.g.,happy or calm or not anxious) rather than taking actions we that matter to us.
  • Messages about how we “should” be can override our own sense of how we would like to be or how we in fact are. We may find we make choices that are based on reducing the chances that others will judge or reject us, rather than what we most care about.
  • Social media and other societal influences can distort our sense of what a meaningful life might look and feel like. Or they can give us a sense that we are excluded from a meaningful life because we don’t share characteristics of the people who are centered and celebrated (e.g., young, thin, White, cisgender, heterosexual, abled, partnered, familied, accomplished, always apparently happy).

Because so many factors can lead to confusion about what is truly important to us or what we in fact value, it can be helpful to take time to reflect on what we find meaningful. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Acceptance-based behavior therapy (ABBT), and other approaches to therapy propose that values are intrinsically-rewarding principles chosen by us that define our way of being in the world. We can use our clarified values as a compass to guide us amid the storms of our inner and outer worlds. Our clarified and chosen values are present-moment oriented rather than goal- or outcome oriented. This means they refer to ways we can meet this moment right now regardless of what happens later or what we may achieve in the future. .

So, for instance, in any moment, I can choose to reorient to my personal value of being responsive or caring as an educator, even if my reactivity led me to not be this way in a previous moment.

Another way values differ from goals is this: Values have no endpoint. We’re never “finished” living in alignment with our values, and no amount of stumbling in the past means we have somehow “failed.” If I’m responsive or caring today, that doesn’t mean I’ve finished and won’t still have that value tomorrow; and so too if I’m reactive today.

Values are chosen directions that are wholly in our control. This means we can do our best to act consistent with our values regardless of external factors, and even any internal state. In any moment, I have the ability to remember I value being responsive and empathic as a teacher. It may be harder to remember and even harder to do in some contexts or in some mood states, but it is always available to me.

Clarifying what matters to us can help guide us when we have choices to make in a given moment—especially because our habits or emotions may not be the best guides in a given situation.

There are several ways our emotions and habits may prompt us away from our values:

1. Our emotional reactions may lead us to respond to a situation in a way that is counter to how we want to be, which can negatively affect our relations with others, our success, our own emotional state, and our relationship with our own self.

  • For example: When we react with anger or frustration to our loved ones, it may lead to more interpersonal distress and reactivity.

2. Emotional reactions can also lead us to miss out on activities and experiences that make life fulfilling.

  • For example: It is natural to experience anxiety when we encounter new people, take on new challenges, or anticipate a difficult conversation with someone in our lives. If we “listen” to (which is to say, “act from”) that emotional response, we may avoid these encounters. But recognizing why new connections and new challenges, or even difficult conversations may be meaningful to us (i.e., in alignment with our values) can help us to turn toward these experiences and benefit from them.

3. Habitual responding can lead us to do only what’s asked of or demanded of us and to miss out on opportunities for actions that might be more fulfilling.

By reflecting on what matters to us, we can actively choose to add in actions that are more rewarding. We can take a moment to connect to someone on our way to work, or add reading or physical activity into our daily routines, or pause to notice our environment in the midst of a busy day.

Being clear about what matters to us can also bring a sense of satisfaction to daily tasks. We can approach making breakfast or doing the dishes as a chore, or we can connect these tasks to caring for ourselves, our home, and/or our families and experience a moment of satisfaction as we act consistent with this value of care.

Taking time to reflect on what matters to us can help us to make choices in moments throughout our day that enhance our lives.

So, take a few moments to reflect on various domains in your life—in relationships, at school, at work, in community, and with regard to self-care and fun---and see if you can identify one or two (non-goal-oriented!) values you hold that can serve as a compass for you.

This blog post is adapted from the Worry Less, Live More workbook.

(With appreciation to Josh Bartok for editing help.)


Orsillo, S. M., & Roemer, L. (2016). Worry less, live more: The mindful way through anxiety workbook. New York: Guilford Press.

Wilson, K. G., & Murrell, A. R. (2004). Values work in acceptance and commitment therapy: Setting a course for behavioral treatment. In S. C. Hayes, V. M. Follette, & M. M. Linehan (Eds.), Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive-behavioral tradition (pp. 120–151). New York: Guilford Press.

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