Harnessing the Power of Values

Upside of Stress

In Kelly McGonigal’s fantastic book, The Upside of Stress, she talks about an experiment conducted at Stanford more than twenty years ago where they learned that writing about values helps give life meaning. The countless studies that have followed have confirmed that writing about values is “one of most effective psychological interventions ever studied.”

To take advantage of the powerful potential of this intervention, I have adapted an exercise from Dr. McGonigal’s book for my clients. You can follow the directions given below, and then skip to the section that applies to the disorder you are working to overcome. Then, let’s see how you might approach your opportunities to practice beating your disorder a little differently in the coming weeks and discuss it in session!

Values Exercise

  1. Begin by writing down your top three values. By “values” I mean concepts that are important guiding forces in your life. The Foundation for a Better Life has a great list of values from which you can choose. Or, if you’d like to invest a little more time (about 10 minutes), you can take the free Life Values Inventory and it will help you identify your top values. Or, you may just know off what they are off the top of your head. For all you recovering perfectionists (yes, you knoWriting about valuesw who you are!), the list of three doesn’t need to be the perfect list or encompass your whole life…just pick three that do a decent job of capturing what’s important to you right now. Also, your values don’t have to be something you are good at or even currently using…they can values you aspire to having in the future.
  2. Next, take 10 minutes and write about one of the values. Include why it’s important in your life, and how it guides what you do as you go about your days. For instance, you could describe how this value has influenced your life over the past week, or month, or year. Set a timer, use the whole ten minutes, knowing that what you write can be stream of consciousness or a list of bullet points or just scribbles and that’s just fine.
  3. Then, write your three values on a scrap of paper and stick it in something you always carry with you, like your wallet or your phone case.
  4. Finally, scroll to the disorder you are working to overcome (in alphabetical order) to see the next steps.


  1. Write your three values on several 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheets of paper and post them in the places where your OCD would like you to do rituals.Jumping OCD hurdles!
  2. As you are in those areas of your house, workplace, etc… notice the values and add them onto the end of your script. Notice also how this is really another way to support your Greater Good (your sense of purpose and/or how you can be of service to others). For instance, here’s what your script might look like:

“I’m choosing not to wash my hands, and I may or may not be dirty. But I can handle this feeling and I want to be anxious and uncertain because it will help me ________________ (insert how it supports your values or your Greater Good here).”

3. Then congratulate yourself on successfully facing your OCD challenge!

Skin-Picking Disorder

  1. Write your three values on several 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheets of paper and post them in the places where you normally pick.
  2. If you are currently trying to use a strategy that removes a picking implement (magnifying mirror, tweezers, etc…) take another piece of paper and write how removing that implement supports your three values. Then, remove the implement!
  3. When you are in those areas and feel the urge to pick, use all the strategies we’ve discussed in session to keep yourself from doing so, which may include saying your coping script out loud. For instance, an example might be:

“I’m choosing not to pick right now even though the urge feels intense and my thoughts may be telling me it’s a good idea to do so. I know those thoughts aren’t true (I can never pick just one, and picking makes things worse, not better, most of the time), so I’m going to back away from the mirror and not pick because doing so will help me  ________________ (insert how not picking supports your values).”

4. Then congratulate yourself on successfully facing your skin-picking challenge!