Commit to Action: Values-Based Living with Chronic Illness

Young parent kneeling on path near grassy lawn holds arms open for toddler to run intoWhat are your core values? Can you state them without thought?

A better place to begin might be, What are core values?

A core value can be considered a life direction, an internal compass that serves to guides us throughout our lifetime. Our values mold who we are and help point us in the direction we want to take in life. According to Russ Harris, therapist and author of The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, values are what we want our lives to be about, deep in our hearts. Values—which vary from person to person and may change over time—include ideals like trust, love, success, wealth, freedom, health, and adventure.

Some of us may have identified our core values but experience challenges or barriers of some sort in moving forward with them. For many, chronic illness may be one of these barriers. Many of the people I work with in my practice who have a chronic illness experience an internal battle between their core values and what their bodies will allow as they attempt to work to establish these values in their lives.

Allison,* for example, is in her early twenties. She recently married, and she and her husband had planned on having children soon after their wedding, but instead Allison received a cancer diagnosis. Without hesitation, she went through the necessary therapies to treat the cancer, but unfortunately these treatments left her unable to conceive. “I want to have children, but I can’t because of my illness,” she sobbed in one session.

Allison values family, but her plan to have children was waylaid by cancer treatment. “I’m so disappointed and sad,” she disclosed, tears streaming down her face. “This isn’t where I thought I would be at this point in my life.”

Allison and I began to address this by first paring down her value list to her top three—love, family, and health— in order to help her come up with some committed action steps to help move her forward. While she cannot become pregnant herself, she can adopt children to start her family. To this end, she and her husband have begun the adoption process by going to informational meetings, saving money, and interviewing different adoption agencies.

Sometimes Allison has to sit with the feelings of sadness and grief, accepting the temporary pain with the knowledge that the feelings will pass. But she also knows that if she continues to move toward her values through committed action, she will indeed find a life filled with love, family, and health.

Determining Our Core Values

How do we determine these values for ourselves? And once we have done so, how do we take action in our lives to implement them? It’s not all that easy to do, but it can be life-changing! There are lists of core values available online, but you can also make a list for yourself.

When you have a list, further whittling it down to the top three values is next. This process, which can be an interesting and insightful one, is important, because it may be too overwhelming to find direction if we have too many core values. Like the old adage says, “The hunter who chases two rabbits catches neither.”

Once we have identified three top core values, we can move forward. Proactive behavior moves us in the direction of our values. If we find we value adventure, making plans to travel someplace new could be a “moving toward” behavior. If health is one of our core values, eating more nutritious food, exercising regularly, and practicing self-care are some committed action steps we might take.

Along the way, we might notice certain distracting behaviors that move us away from our values, rather than moving us forward with them.

Learning to be observant of our behaviors can help us catch ourselves when we’re moving away from our values and get us back on track.

Behaviors that sidetrack us might include:

When we get caught up in these behaviors, our values are waylaid, and ultimately, we are left feeling unsatisfied. Learning to be observant of our behaviors can help us catch ourselves when we’re moving away from our values and get us back on track. (Any of these behaviors might also be indicative of an underlying concern, though this is not always the case. It can be helpful to raise these concerns, and others that may impact daily life and function, with a mental health professional.)

Sometimes even ordinary illness or fatigue can get in the way or slow down the process of moving toward our core values, and coping with a chronic illness can make a person’s quest to attain their values particularly challenging. However, because our values are ever-present in our lives, we can always commit to some kind of action steps, even if they are small.

What kinds of distracting behaviors are keeping you from moving toward your values? Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is one approach that can help us identify our values and make a commitment to taking action steps. I believe that doing so can ultimately help bring meaning to life, even in the midst of chronic illness.

What’s stopping you from living a rich and meaningful life?

Editor’s note: Names in the preceding article were changed to protect confidentiality. 


Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Boulder, CO: Trumpeter.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea M. Risi, LPC, Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Harper

    November 28th, 2016 at 2:43 PM

    It took me a long time to figure things out for myself but I finally have at the ripe old age of 43 figured out my core values and what I would like for them to be. I want to have a family, have a home, and be a good mom and daughter and wife. That’s it.
    I used to think that I needed all of these other THINGS in my life but they made me no happier than anything else ever did so you know, I never made any real head way in life until I decided on the things that are the most important to me.
    My only wish is that it wouldn’t have taken me this long to figure things out but such is life.

  • Andrea Risi

    November 29th, 2016 at 9:14 AM

    Thank you for sharing your experience with core values, Harper! I’m happy that you have found ways to move toward a meaningful life.

  • Thomas

    November 28th, 2016 at 4:17 PM

    And what about for those who fear they may have waited too late in life to find meaning?
    That they don’t have enough time left to make a difference?

  • Andrea Risi

    November 29th, 2016 at 9:16 AM

    Don’t despair, Thomas…it’s never to late to figure out what’s important and start moving toward those values. In fact, values can change over time. Identifying those core values now can help enrich the rest of your life!

  • Thomas

    November 29th, 2016 at 11:10 AM

    Thanks that is very reassuring. I have always thought well, if you get that diagnosis because you never quite know what life has in store for you, you could get it one day and then your life changes forever.
    It is comforting to know that if you have time here on this earth then you have time to come to know the real values that you have in your life.

  • Cathy

    November 29th, 2016 at 1:53 PM

    One thing that one has to remember is that even though let’s say that you are diagnosed with a chronic illness, that is not some automatic death sentence. You could have many more wonderful years ahead of you, and the last thing that you will want to do at this point is waste that opportunity that you have been given to live life to its fullest.

  • Brenda

    November 30th, 2016 at 8:54 AM

    Andrea, Your article is helpful in pointing out how important values are in guiding us how to live our lives. Discovering our values can be harvested from allowing the self to make room for the pain. Step by step with mindfulness practice we can expand our ability to gently hold our pain with courage and kindness.

  • Norah

    November 30th, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    Whether you are ill or not it is always the best approach to live one’s life from a values driven approach. Without those there to guide and center you, how can you ever really know which direction to take? Because without them it is hard to discover that which is actually going to be the most important things for you to one day accomplish.

  • ezekiel

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:41 AM

    I say just commit to living one day at a time being thankful for the time that you have been given it must be easy for me to say this though because I am not sick, so maybe I take what I have for granted a little bit

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