What Are Values? Do They Really Matter?

Your values are your beliefs that some things are right and good and others wrong and bad, that some things are more important than others, and that one way of doing things is better than another. Values are usually deeply held—they come from your earliest learning and background. Values reflect what your parents taught you, what you learned in school and religious institutions, and what the social and cultural groups you belong to hold to be true and right.

Values are important to all addictions, and not just addictive drinking and drug taking. If you compulsively gamble, watch porn or live out your life on Social Media to the exclusion of your ‘real life’, then your values are on display. The same principle applies to pursuing sexual opportunities to the exclusion of productive activity. Most people enjoy sex, but they avoid compulsive or random sex because they feel it’s wrong. If you engage in indiscriminate sex, then you are signaling either that you see little wrong in it or that the other values in your life are less important than the good feelings you derive from such sex. If you are willing to accept this picture of your values, then so be it. If, on the other hand, you have other values that run against compulsive sexual activity, eating, or shopping, then these values can serve as an important tool with which to root out your addiction.

Many people find that alcohol is tremendously relaxing, sexually exhilarating, or provides some other powerful, welcome feeling—but they do not become alcoholics. They simply refuse to go there. Have you ever heard someone say, “I know that when I have more than one drink, I throw all caution to the wind”? Most people who react so violently to alcohol say, “That’s why I limit myself to a single drink” or “That’s why I don’t drink.” But alcoholics regularly override this realization about their reactions to alcohol and continue to drink.

Some people who are tense by nature find that smoking is one way to relax. Yet many such people still refuse to smoke. Many simply rule it out of their lives for any of a variety of reasons —health, appearance, or their general feeling that it’s bad.

Values do not simply dictate whether you do or don’t try a drink, a cigarette, or a drug. They also influence whether you continue to indulge in an activity or substance and how much you will allow your indulgence to affect your life before you limit or quit your involvement. Finally, at a deeper level, values determine how intensely and how irreversibly you become addicted. They also play a major role in whether or not you choose to quit after you become addicted.

Regardless of whether you seek treatment or make efforts to change outside of formal treatment, you and others dealing with you must respect your values. True, you may need to learn how to do things in a new way, or to value new ways of looking at the world. However, in order to decide what recovery path to take, you must first understand what is important to you, what you believe, and what you consider to be right. (Exercises in our Life Process Program will help you to identify such values.) Otherwise, your energy will be wasted in an unacknowledged values war between you and your would-be helpers or, worse, in a war with yourself.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts by The Fix, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.

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