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Stress Prevention: A Values Clarification Exercise

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Begin your values clarification exercise by writing out a personal mission statement. To help yourself organize your thoughts, get out a notebook, or open up a word processor and answer the following questions, taking your time so that your responses are thoughtful and true:

  • What are the five most important things in my life?
  • How would I spend this week if I had only six months to live?
  • What are the most important relationships in my life? Why are these relationships most important, as opposed to others?
  • What are my long-range goals in life regarding family, career and money?
  • If I died tomorrow, what would I like others to say about me?

valuesYou may find yourself coming up with many different answers for these questions. That's perfectly okay, for at this stage of the game you may need to brainstorm potential responses and focus on sorting out the most important ones later. You may also develop additional questions that further clarify your values, and it is fine to answer them as well.

Use your answers to the above questions to create a personal mission statement that reflects all of the things that are important to you, including both personal and work-related goals. Though you may have specific goals you'd like to accomplish in different aspects of your life, it is necessary to view your life holistically for purposes of planning and decision making. When you start to divvy up your time and attention between your various goals, you need to be able to do so keeping all of your goals in mind, so that all of your values are satisfied by your decisions. This practice will help you keep your life in balance and your decisions consistent with your values. Review your personal mission statement whenever you are about to set weekly or daily priorities. Make it a habit never to prioritize without reviewing it.

To help put your values and goals into perspective, next construct a list of your various strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself how your various characteristics help or hinder you in the pursuit of your values and goals. Getting an honest handle on what you find easy to do and what is difficult for you to accomplish will help you make realistic decisions.

For instance, what things do you do well? What are you passionate about? Can you transition easily from one task to another or is it difficult for you to shift from task to task? Are you a hard worker, able to put off gratification for the future, or are you more interested in feeling good now at the possible expense of future success? Are you intelligent? Do you procrastinate? Do you tend to take on too much at one time, or are you good at refusing responsibility that would interfere with your present tasks?

It is hard for some people to develop a truly accurate understanding of their weaknesses and strengths. Therefore, it may prove helpful and eye-opening for you to ask others you trust and respect (who know you well) to comment on your perceptions. This process can also be quite frightening under some circumstances, so proceed with caution if you are a sensitive sort of person.

As you think through your strengths and weaknesses, also spend a little time thinking about your dependencies. Your dependencies are the various supportive foundations upon which you stand. People depend on being in good health, for instance, and they depend on the support of spouses and partners, friends and family. Health and relationships requiring active maintenance and investment to thrive. You cannot sensibly decide how much time to put into the pursuit of your various ambitions if you don't also know how much time you need to put into simply maintaining what you depend upon.

The need for adequate sleep is one of the fundamental dependencies all people must allow for. Following their desire for more time in the day, many people seek out ways to avoid needing a full night's rest, sometimes resorting to stimulants in order to make it happen. While this can work in the short term, there are medium and long term health consequences that follow as a result of such practices. It is generally a better overall strategy to give in to the need for sleep than to try to transcend it. This is also true for the other fundamental health and intimacy needs that people are motivated to deny. In addition to making time for adequate sleep (so that you feel rested), it is also wise to eat a healthy diet, to get regular physical exercise, to avoid smoking, excessive use of recreational drugs and alcohol (or non-prescription use of prescription drugs), and to recognize and honor the significant and important relationships in your life by giving them the attention they require. We know you know these facts, but you probably don't do these things, not because you are foolish or stupid, but because you haven't prioritized them. Our intention here is not to make you feel guilty, but to get you thinking seriously about why that is so.

Finally, list out the demands on your time and attention, including employment, family and personal responsibilities. Record both financial and emotional obligations, as both the need to earn a living and the need to care for dependent children and adults require substantial amounts of your time and energy.

It is helpful to sort your list based on the urgency of the demands you face. For instance, you may be sharing responsibility for children every day (an urgent responsibility), while simultaneously working a part-time job as a waitress (a less urgent responsibility than caregiving, but only slightly less so) and taking night-school classes so as to one day earn your college degree (a long term goal). More urgent responsibilities and demands (such as the need to care for a sick child) have a way of pre-empting progress towards longer term goals (such as showing up for work or school). When this happens too often, however, your actions can become out of alignment with your value-based goals (such as graduating school), adding significantly to your stress.

Having compiled statements of your overall goals, strengths and weaknesses, dependencies and responsibilities, you are now ready to complete the values clarification process by prioritizing your lists of goals and demands in relation to your understanding of your abilities, dependencies and desires. You will likely find areas where your goals conflict with the demands you face. This final task requires that you think creatively and carefully about ways you can honor your responsibilities while at the same time honoring your goals. Somewhat painful compromises may need to occur in order to ensure that your actions ultimately align with your values. You will know you're done not when you have a plan you feel good about, but when you have a plan that you can live with.

A dramatic example may serve to illustrate. Unwanted, unplanned pregnancies create new and urgent demands on young women, many of whom may be students not even close to completing their education. While such women may strongly value motherhood and want to become a parent one day, they may also strongly value their independence and continuing their education without interruption. These competing values and desires, combined with the demands of daily life and cultural messages regarding abortion and adoption options (including attitudes towards unmarried female sexuality) combine to create a highly stressful life episode. This stressor can only be resolved by a careful and very individualized examination of one's values, strengths and weaknesses, and responsibilities.

One woman may choose to abort her fetus, while another will choose to bring it to term and become a mother. Still another may offer her child for adoption. Though some people will undoubtedly disagree with specific decisions regarding this emotionally-charged matter, we contend that each of these choices could be the right answer for individual women who find them fitting. Each path results in sacrifice. However, the decision as to which form of sacrifice to pursue has to be each woman's personal decision, or else the sacrifice that results will tend to increase stress rather than decrease it.