Finding Values in Every Behavior

Finding Values in Every Behavior

Ever wondered what behavior was all about? Here we explore Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) through the relational structure of Values – Narrative – Behavior, the guiding philosophy taught at Life Weavings through therapy and coaching. Challenging the usual understanding of behavior that it is a conscious reaction to a situation, instead we’ll be looking at how behavior works in consideration of the nature of our predictive brains and our deep need to construct a reality that works for us and makes sense. 

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Finding Values in Every Behavior

Pathologizing Human Behavior

There is much research noting how, when it comes to bad behavior, we excuse our own by pointing to external variables and blame internal unchanging qualities for others. Further, we like to give rationales for all behavior, to place each exhibit into a personally coherent narrative and create an individualized museum dedicated to life’s exploration. Unfortunately, like any archeological dig, we are only able to see what we’ve currently dug up, what we’re currently focused on. There are any number of other behaviors lost to history or simply not being looked at. 

In science there’s a built-in mechanism for continuing to ask questions and a peer review process to help doubt flourish even after conclusions have been reached. When it comes to humanity, there is no built-in process, it has to be taught, practiced and actively engaged in continuously.

The result of all this is a tendency to make what is normal human responses within disparate social situations, into glaring pointers towards pathology. A person lies and it’s a sign they’re a sociopath and pathological liar. A person experiences variations in mood and it’s a sign of bipolar disorder. Periods of sadness are now major depressive disorder. That the person in question faced a difficult choice, went from a challenging environment to a supportive one and is working through a loss, respectively, are all side-notes to the need to identify something aberrant. 

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Stop Being Emotional About Your Emotions

Stop Being Emotional About Your Emotions

Metaphors for living are numerous; a good thing as they provide the structure through which we interact within the world. Were they shallow and few, our lives would be equally as such. The multiplicity of metaphor, like the personal narratives carrying purpose and meaning, allow us to encounter variations in life without sitting down in an overwhelmed stupor. One such metaphor is the game of billiards (though ‘marbles’ could also work here): one ball at a time moves across a table (or floor), hitting one or another ball at a time and sending each in a prescribed path according to the dictates of geometry. The means of initial movement is directed by the cue (or finger). Substitute the cue for consciousness, the ball for your body and other balls for people/objects/situations, and you have a fairly full idea of how the metaphor works.

When talking about emotions using this metaphor, phrases like ‘I had my buttons pushed’ and ‘I put my feelings on him/her’ are common. These and other phrases are based on assumptions within the metaphor: ‘Emotions Move Us’ and ‘Emotions Have A Direction.’ These assumptions culminate in the quite common phrasing of ‘I was moved’ when describing a particularly emotional event/image. At the level of  immediate, self-centered awareness, this way of looking at our emotional lives seems legitimate, even obvious. Unfortunately for the continuation of this view, it isn’t that simple.

Go back to the billiards metaphor, but this time remove the cue and attach cables between the balls of varying lengths, number, tension and substance. Here is life, an interconnected whole bound by various lines vibrating with tensions as each ball moves about the table. The truly frustrating bit is how the cue has been replaced by a hovering lens with a very poor viewing area. The result is it only ever sees a part of the table and only some of the attached cables at any given moment.

Emotions are Relationships

Within the billiards metaphor, emotions and thoughts are separate objective things, moved around by conscious will. How and whether a person responds to them is then viewed as a choice by each person. The notion that ‘I can’t make you feel that’ or ‘It’s your choice to be hurt’ is based on this, as if the potential choices a person has are limitless and no longer tied to context. Once we shift to a more nuanced metaphor, how and whether a person responds to a situation is more constrained. There’s still choice, but because of the cables binding various relationships, it’s a choice with boundaries and limits.

Every relationship comes with attachments, the stories/hopes/desires/histories we bring.  The words we use are the means through which we elaborate upon and flesh out the substance of all those attachments. Emotion labels are no different. They direct our attention to the cables binding us within an interconnected life.

From Our Emotions Are Never Left Behind:

“Our minds are predictive devices, attempting to set up an accurate enough framing of our upcoming experience to guide our behavior to meet it. To do so, our past is linked with input from our current context. This combination requires constant evaluative processes, often fast and far more rarely, slow.”

Emotions are a label connecting something we care about, a Value, to the object/person/situation that said Value is perceived as embodying. Do you get angry about things you don’t care about? Do you love without someone in mind? Does frustration exist without being thwarted in pursuing a goal? Our emotions are not driving us towards anything, they are the labels we place on movement we’re already engaged in. They direct our attention to the relationships we have between our Values and the people/places/things in our lives.

Emotions Are A Means, Not the End

From Emotions of Social Interaction:

“Because objective analysis of our own demeanor and behavior in emotional exchanges is so difficult, we need to understand the function of certain emotions in our social interactions, which are likely to exert more influence on what we do than what we think we’re doing.”

The Emotions of Social Interaction: Psychology Today

Function implies a tool being used, like a knife to spread butter or a cup to hold a drink. Thinking this way puts us right back in the original billiards metaphor. However, pause for a moment and consider the rarity of encountering a tool that isn’t used in many ways, often outside the original intent of the designer. Who hasn’t used a paperclip to unscrew a flat-head screw? How about using the back end of a hard object, like a stapler, to push in a nail? Function here then is more than just the utilization of a tool, it is the recognition of a connection between the person using it and the goal to which it is used.

Now we’re back in a mindset of relationship.

Too often emotions are considered the end goals themselves, as if to feel happy, angry, or sad, is the end of a journey. This is based on emotions being objective simple things that we engage with, like a ball from a sport. Seeing them as labels for particular relationships not only removes this limiting vision, it enlarges personal perception to look at all the myriad ways Values are being put into action. For instance, rather than happiness itself being a goal, we can inquire and identify what within the situation it is that we care about (Value) and be more present with the actions we’ve taken to support it.

Emotions are like that accident on the freeway, we seem to not be able to stop looking at it even if it means not paying attention to our own driving. They’re loud and take up most of our perception, so it makes sense to believe that they’re central to who we are. Thankfully we are more than the blaring sirens, we have lives dedicated to what we care about. Stepping back from the noise we can become more aware of what is actually driving us (our Values) and spend our energy supporting our Values in the most life-affirming way possible.

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

Behavior Comes From Our Values, It Does Not Propel Us To Them

Behavior Comes From Our Values, It Does Not Propel Us To Them

Note: We are so quick to declare that a particular behavior will propel us towards a correct end, we cease to understand that behavior does not exist in a vacuum.


The tragedy of another school shooting is not made more important by directing attention to their seeming ubiquity. Each and every one of these events is used as a case example of the failing of some particular institution, often selected by virtue of one’s political ideology. Liberals will decry not having enough social programs in place, conservatives will note the breakdown of the family, fundamentalist religionists will point to gay marriage or the legal support for abortion. All of these and more, from the serious to the ridiculous, will be played out on various media forms, but none will come close to addressing the deeper issues involved. This lack of a result will not be due to a difference in values, there is no group claiming an absence in valuing life or love or family. Indeed, the very fact that all groups are claiming different social problems stemming from the same general values, points to the underlying problem being ignored or simply not being seen.This confusion stems from the dual manner with which we view and judge behavior. We can call the first form of judgment, internal responsibility, and the second, external pressure.

From a place of internal responsibility, we promote the notion that behavior is a product of a person’s ideas concerning reality, ethics, etc. This behavior is seen as connected in a straight line to that person’s values, with the selection of the behavior being made out of a panoply of options. The American judicial system is based on this, as is the social politics notion of pulling yourself up by gravity-defying bootstraps, or for those spiritually-minded, the positive thinking movement follows this structure as well. All base their judgment on the notion that a person who has committed an act could have at the time done something different, that they selected from potential behaviors the one they actually did.

The external pressure form of judgment resides in the contextual backdrop of family, society and biology. External pressure could be referred to as the “not me” form of judgment, where “I” is somehow held as being separate and distinct from the material world. “Mitigating circumstances” is the reference in a legal framework, whereas liberal social policy points to some lack in education, social movement or financial freedom. Whatever the frame, the result is a diminished capacity to choose from what otherwise would be available behavioral options. The cited variables are considered outside of the control of the individual.

In personal practice, judgment following internal responsibility is often made as it pertains to others, whereas the external pressure form is kept when viewing our own actions. “He/she should just get a job” is immediately turned into “the economy is terrible” when it pertains to ourselves. Colloquially we often hear the phrase “it wasn’t the real me” or “I don’t know what came over me” when attempting to explain some action that afterwards is determined to be outside of our usual values.

Delusions 1

In both forms of judgment, the assumption is the same, that behavior propels us or moves us toward a particular value, as if the value exists in some form “out there” waiting to be fulfilled. We can call it the “values shape toy,” where block shapes will only go inside the ball through the pre-cut forms already in place. The only difference is where the impetus for that movement is originating; with the first judgment being internal and the second judgment being external. This conflating of particular behavior with values is simple and makes for great media sound-bites and knee-jerk judgments. However, this almost completely destroys the potential for dialogue by making any debate one of battling or competing positional statements. Further, such thinking also diminishes our felt experience of being both in and with the world, removing our sense that we live in a world that interacts with us.

Changing the view of how values manifest first requires seeing values not as pre-formed behaviors but as deriving from our narrative principles. These principles form the cognitive foundation of how we construct our perspective, working alongside the social relationships we live in. Notice in the structure above how both the first and second forms of judgment are not inaccurate so much as incomplete. The first correctly notes the reality of our thoughts and how we look at our lives as playing a part in manifesting behavior, what we often refer to as personal responsibility. The second correctly points to the situational context that our personal history, social connections and biology work through.

Behavior does not propel us towards our values, it manifests them, but it does so in and through the world that we are an integral part of. Looking at behavior to judge others and ourselves is only helpful when it moves us to more deeply consider the myriad of variables that reside as building blocks to its fulfillment. Understanding ourselves and our fellow travelers in life is not a matter of looking at the proclaimed end results that are our behavior.  Learning about how our lives are shaped by us and for us means looking at ourselves as integral beings, which in the end provides a source for respect and wonder as well as stopping us from rushing to unwarranted conclusions.