The Relationship Between Values and Actions

I think about values a lot these days. This is relatively new for me, as in, really, the last 3 years or so, and correlates directly to my introduction of SMART Recovery. For those who are unfamiliar, SMART Recovery is a substance use recovery group whose goal is abstinence through an understanding of how thoughts and feelings ultimately lead to behavior in general, which can sometimes lead to substance use. It can be used as a stand-alone recovery group, or in conjunction with 12-Step groups. One of the reasons I love SMART Recovery as much as I do is because of its emphasis on individual value systems: This is one of my favorite tools to use, because I think values are the backbone of all decisions we ultimately end up making, whether substance use-related or otherwise.

If you really think about it, values are a huge part of our lives; when we are young we are taught the things that our family values. As we get older, we can choose whether we want to adopt those values as our own, or create a new value system. Often, we base our individual values on the system we were taught as a child, either determining they should be kept, or we do the opposite and reject them if we determine that they were, for example, harmful to us in some way. In either case, this is highly useful information we are processing because the rejection of a value is just as important as the continued use of one. Essentially, we are deciding what aspects of our individuality are important to us.

If I were to ask someone to make a list of some of their values they might list some very typical items such as family, friends, a spouse, a career, or financial security. For the most part, these are all very positive things that many of us want in our lives. What is interesting about this is, very rarely does anyone list anything negative on their list of values. Now, you might be thinking, why would anyone do that? Values are supposed to be good things, right? Well, not necessarily! The dictionary defines a value as either “The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something” and also “A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life”. In looking at both of these definitions, it may be noted that nowhere does it say that a value must be positive!

When I work through this tool in SMART Recovery, typically substance use is then reluctantly added to the list, but there are many other things that can be added as well. This list can also include being a people-pleaser, over or under functioning, disempowerment, giving up too easily, or having a negative self worth. Going back to the definitions of what a value is, if we are adopting these standards of behavior, if we decide something is important, if it is useful to us in some way, then it is something that we value. So, just as someone would value substance use as a way of coping, we can also value people pleasing, or disempowerment. Because, we would not be doing these things if they were not somehow valuable to us.

The good news is, our values are not set in stone. We do not have to continue to feel disempowered. We can learn to stop people-pleasing. We can function in healthier ways within all of our relationships. And, we can stop coping through the use of substance use. Maybe none of these things are easy, but then again, anything that is really worth it in life is worth doing. Maybe we need some help to change some of these behaviors, and that is okay too – we are not alone on earth for a reason. We can access either professional or personal support. But, as always, the first step is acknowledging that a change must take place, because we don’t know what we don’t know.

My best advice is to start slow; it is not necessary to change our personality overnight. And even if we could, there are already some wonderful things about each of us that shouldn’t be changed anyway – we have been successful at life up to this point because there are aspects of us that do work quite well! If after some reflection, you decide there are a few values you would like to work on changing, choose just one. They say it takes three months to change a behavior, so pick one value and work on it for at least three months (or longer) before introducing something else. The goal, and really the key, is to “successfully” change a value. Self-improvement does take time – but the ultimate benefit of self-love is priceless.

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