Discovering our values: Curiosity in psychotherapy
A friend of mine messaged me the other day to let me know she had a new membership at a lovely, upmarket, London gym. She had an introductory session with one of the resident personal trainers, who asked her, "What are your values? What is most important to you about how you live?" My friend was quite perplexed by the question and found it hard to answer.
"Is my dog one of my values?"
"Possibly!" I said.
I found the question equally perplexing. It’s not often we are asked this, so directly. It made me reflect on my own values for living, but also the question itself.
We can recognise the presence of moral values – those ethereal guideposts that chart our moral course. These compass points, whether handed to us by religious doctrine, parental wisdom, or the culture of the society we live in, allow us to not only travel but create the environment in our ethical landscape. Beneath this well-trodden terrain lies a more personal odyssey – a quest to decipher our own unique values. What are the principles by which we want to live?
My friend followed up the enquiry by wondering about what makes her happy. She said she was realising she had no idea. This revelation can feel like a curtain being lifted on the grand stage of our psyche. Unveiled, is a profound aspect of our collective unconscious; the question of who we are, and how we should live, day to day.
Why might we come to psychotherapy?
It made me think a lot about the reasons we come to psychotherapy; or any therapeutic practice for that matter. Often we think we should go to therapy because we don’t feel well, have hit a crisis, or have been told we may have mental health issues. In my current practice, I certainly see that often, but I also see those who are quietly realising, that they don’t know who they are, what roots them, makes them feel content, or what principles they stand by.
Let us be clear – my perspective does not advocate for the rigid imposition of a dogmatic code. Instead, it urges us to delve deep into the well of personal significance and wonder whether the threads of our lives are woven in harmony with our core principles. Are we living how we truly want to?
We can be autonomous and authentic in life, leading to real relationships, not ones based on misguided, misunderstood projections.
I have been in therapy for eight years now, and like many others, I went because I was in crisis. The present issues may have been the gateway, but it was the work and exploration on the other side of those gates, that has truly informed and helped me to understand myself. It led me to consider that I could also be a therapist.
We all arrive in the material world, with innate qualities. That’s a given. We can witness the emergence of intrinsic personalities, even in the tiniest babies; qualities that transcend the societal stamps and familial imprints we receive, although, what is imprinted is also incredibly important. All of it is the makeup of who we are. Our souls, our ancestral legacies, and the kaleidoscope of generational experiences are what inform our existence within the world.
I know now that, for me, I must have time and balance. It is not in my nature to live a frantic life – the life I was living before I started therapy. I like to wake up gently, and quietly, and have time to organise myself and my day and possibly find time to do something a little creative. Two days after the friend first asked the question, a visiting family member noticed this about my habits. He turned to me and said, "It’s amazing how slowly you enter your day. That you’ve been able to cultivate something quite precious." This is a very simple example in daily life, but had I not found this out about myself, I might still be stressed, overworked, and desperate to move far away to retreat from my existence completely. I lived in a world of extremes, and now, after eight years, I don’t.
Personal evolution is indeed, a natural, gradual process. Yes, I’m older, and yes, I am growing – but importantly, it is the changing. Can we accept and understand the change that is needed? For those who feel stuck and stagnant – perhaps that their life is lacking energy; they may need to embody their sense of fire, of heat and dynamism. I, personally, needed to cool down and find sturdy ground.
Much of that ground was in understanding what had come before me; how my ancestors had lived and worked, and how I learnt to be in relationships with others. This was an endeavour that illuminated the contours of my identity. Equally, it became a transformative lesson in self-care – disrupting my habitual pursuit of pleasing others (as many find they do), a lesson that continues to shape my existence with each passing day.
How can therapy facilitate curiosity?
Therapy, undeniably, serves as a sanctuary for those in crisis, but it is also there for those who are curious. Who gently recognise that they do not know themselves and truly wish to. Whether they realise it or not, they take a step on a journey to becoming more fully formed and present in their everyday lives. Ultimately, in understanding our own values, we can realise what is important, and make decisions in better directions. We can feel a sense of mastery, rather than being out of control. We can be autonomous and authentic in life, leading to real relationships, not ones based on misguided, misunderstood projections.
So, here's to the therapeutic spirit of curiosity, to the unrelenting quest for self-discovery, and to the values we hold dear. I hope we can all endeavour to understand them and ultimately live them with passion and grace, knowing that they are uniquely ours, but shared with others.