A Case For Setting Values - Not Goals

Updated: May 21, 2020

Researchers at West Virginia University published a very interesting case study in 2003.

A middle-aged man that had long struggled with alcohol addiction, underwent ACT-based therapy. He had a very hard time staying sober, and suffered from a non-existent relationship with his daughter. Overall, alcohol had a tough grip on his life.

ACT distinguishes itself from other forms of therapy with its focus on accepting uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, to be able to be guided by deep-rooted values instead of negative emotional states.

The subject underwent 15 weeks of therapy, in which he worked with accepting and living with his pain, and thereafter establishing values in different life domains. He managed to identify several values he would like to live up to - none of them which were directly related to alcoholism. He also was helped to plan how to translate these values into concrete behaviors that would feel meaningful to him.

The results were simply astounding. From at the beginning of therapy having 0% of days in the week sober and struggling for years with his addiction, the last 5 weeks of therapy he had a 100% rate of sobriety. In a one-year follow up, his results were still slightly below 100%.

What makes this approach to treatment so interesting is that not once did he explicitly set a goal to stop drinking. In fact, he did not set a goal whatsoever. What he did, was to define a meaningful life. And in trying to act in line with his values, he realized alcohol came in the way of that.

Although only being a case study, and not a full RCT study, this case provides a powerful example of the value of values. If he would have identified rigid goals, any improvement would have been secluded to those goals. He would also have had the painful chance of failure. Since values are processess rather than outcomes, he could not fail as long as he did what he knew was right. He also gained a lot of valuable changes in his life, that he probably would not have initiated if he was solely focused on drinking less.

Heffner, M et al. (2003). Valued Directions: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Alcohol Dependance. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice. 10(4). 378-383.



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