a handmade figure

Values are the work of the heart

Values are important. They are a hidden rudder, our inner compass, and when we are clear on our values, making decisions that feel good and sit right with us gets easier. They also help us to set good boundaries, to know what we want to say ‘yes’ to and what we want to say ‘no’ to.

When I introduce values in my art therapy work it can get a bit complicated and we tend to start over-thinking things. Values are often presented in long lists, and then we are asked to circle and highlight… and it gets paralysing:

  • There are so many – yet we feel like subscribing to almost all of them!
  • They all sound so virtuous – can we live up to them?
  • What happens when values clash?

I like a metaphor Russ Harris uses for values (he is the Australian guru on Acceptance-Commitment-Therapy and has authored ‘The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living’). Russ uses the metaphor of an old-fashioned globe, the ones on an angle that you can spin around the axis… – Imagine that each country represents a value. As you look at the globe, you can never see all countries at the same time. The globe spins, some countries are visible, others hidden. Values behave in a similar way. In any situation in life your actions will be based on some values, never all of them simultaneously. So holding all our values and the conflicts between them becomes an important life skill.

I’ve often observed how people can get overwhelmed or disheartened when working with long lists of values – that’s where Art Therapy comes in. We can ditch the wordy lists and begin to work with images. We can also work with the qualities of different materials. We can create sculptures to represent our values. Or avatars which can be styled in a way that our values become tangible qualities. 

Expressing our values creatively shows us the layers of our value system, how for example our value avatar can wear a kindness cape and carry the assertiveness toolbox over the shoulder. We can see how the material we choose to depict our value for achievement has a sturdy and tough quality, and is companioned by some light and airy material that represents our spirituality.

The image shows my values avatar which I created as part of my training and with a focus on building a private practice. Her name is Jana, she lives on my desk. Her googly eyes were a creative error, she wasn’t meant to look that cross-eyed into the world! Working with the hot glue gun means you have to embrace your mistakes, and her googly eyes are a good reflection of how I feel sometimes during this adventure that is Sensemaking Space. And they go hand in hand with other values she holds such as resilience and kindness, productivity. Jana’s tangible nature and the individual elements of her outfit, accessories and styling created a personality I can identify with – we can even have conversations…! This makes understanding my values system much easier than if I were just thinking about my values.

In all my creative coaching or art therapy sessions, we are exploring values at some point. When working and learning about your values, don’t just engage your rational thinking brain. Move away from the lists. Don’t get stuck on trying to rank your values, that’s really hard! Get creative instead. Draw, map, construct, find random images or objects, arrange them and play.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

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