Every person has a set of values that guides their choices in life. Values are concepts and activities that give our lives meaning. Our values are essential to our well-being, and values can help guide us towards achieving a fulfilling and meaningful life. Some examples of values include, but are not limited to:
Acceptance – to be open to and accepting of myself, others, the world, etc. Connection – to engage fully with myself and others. Equality – to treat others as equals. Honesty – to be honest and sincere with myself and others. Independence – to be self-supportive and make my own decisions. Persistence – to continue forward, despite obstacles or difficulties. Self-care – to look care for my health and well-being, and ensure my needs are being met. While values may help us identify goals, they are fundamentally different from goals. Goals are destinations, while core values are directions. We set our own goals, while we discover our values. Overall, values are not something that can be achieved, rather they guide us towards our goals.
People with eating disorders sometimes find that their eating disorder is the one setting goals for them. The eating disorder wants you to value your food choices, your weight, or your appearance and sets goals related to these values. The eating disorder ignores the things that you value, and maybe the eating disorder has caused you to forget your values. One way to fight against the eating disorder and work towards recovery is to find your values and to start to set your own goals based on those values. For example, if you find that you value connection, you can set a goal to reach out to friends and family members at least once a week.
But how do we go about identifying our values? There are several activities and exercises that can help you find those things that are really important to you and give your life meaning. For instance, you can write down a list of all of your values (i.e., acceptance, equality, connection) and then sort those values based on importance.
You can also try reflecting on your values using the written practice below. This practice is adapted from the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Drs. Kirstin Neff and Christopher Germer. If you find this practice helpful, you can find more information and practices in the Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook which can be purchased here.
First, begin to imagine that you are in a comfortable, safe room. You might wish to close your eyes or place a hand on your heart to offer yourself some warmth and support in this moment.
Begin to imagine that you have aged and are now in your elderly years. You’re sitting in a beautiful garden, contemplating your life. Looking back to the time between now and then, you start to feel a deep sense of satisfaction, joy, and contentment. Life was hard at times, but you stayed true to yourself to the best of your ability. Which core values are represented in that life? For example, did you pursue peace, happiness, compassion, loyalty, adventure, hard work? Take a moment to write down those core values as they come to you.
Now, returning to listening to your body, ask yourself if there are any ways that you are currently not living in accordance with your values. Are there any ways in which your life seems to be out of balance with your values? Maybe you’re too busy to spend time with friends, despite social connections being one of the most important things to you in life. Pick one value that is important to you that feels that it is out of balance and focus on that value for the rest of this exercise.
There are usually obstacles in our way that prevent us from living in accordance with our values. Some of these obstacles are external, such as lack of money, time, power, or privilege. Write down any external obstacles that may be interfering with living in accordance with your chosen value.
There are also some internal obstacles that can get in the way with living in accordance with our values. For example, we might be afraid of failing or doubt ourselves. Reflect and write down any internal obstacles that may be interfering with living in accordance with your chosen value.
Take a moment to be kind to yourself regarding these obstacles. Could offering yourself some kindness help you feel safe or confident enough to take action, risk failure, or let go of things that are no longer serving you? Write down anything that you discover as you ponder this question.
Lastly, if you’ve identified any obstacles that you cannot overcome, give yourself a moment of compassion. Can you offer yourself some kind words of appreciation or respect? Despite these obstacles, you are still working so hard to identify your values.
Is there any way you can express your chosen value that you haven’t considered before, even if this expression feels incomplete?
And if this obstacle is that you are imperfect, as all human beings are, can you offer yourself some forgiveness for that too?
Consider the value you have recognized and consider any behaviors that might help you live in accordance with that value. For example, if you recognized adventure as an important value, are there places nearby that you can explore? Even if you are unable to explore now due to any obstacles, can you make future plans for places you would like to visit? Also consider how your eating disorder might be getting in the way of your values. How might pursuing recovery help you live in accordance with your values, and is pursuing recovery in of itself something that fits your values?