Hand holding golden scales, evenly balancedValues clarification is a psychotherapy technique that can often help an individual increase awareness of any values that may have a bearing on lifestyle decisions and actions. This technique can provide an opportunity for a person to reflect on personal moral dilemmas and allow for values to be analyzed and clarified. This process may be helpful for self-improvement, increased well-being, and interactions with others. Therapy often provides an opportunity for values clarification.

Understanding Values

Values, which may be described as behavioral standards and needs that work to support a person's purpose and vision, are often a guide in decision making, and a particular individual's values can be defined as what that person holds to be right or good.

Each person has core values that contribute to that person's system of beliefs, ideas, and attitudes, and values often affect how a person operates or responds in certain situations.

Values can be influenced by:

  • Family: In childhood, most people develop an internal reference for what is good or bad, important, or desirable and useful. This reference is often based on what parents or family members value.
  • Individual experiences: Values are often transformed or adjusted based on life experiences, education, personal challenges, and successes.

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  • Religion and/or culture: These values tend to reflect a person's sense of right and wrong.
  • Community: Values may be shared by many people who live together in a community.
  • Political leaders: Overarching political values may have an influence on people regardless of religion, culture, upbringing, or life experience.  

If a person's value system is undefined, it can lead to dilemmas in life, especially when crucial decisions need to be made.

Values Clarification in Therapy

Values clarification techniques are often used as part of therapy. People may enter therapy with a range of psychological and physical health issues that stem from an inability to resolve moral dilemmas as a result of undefined values. These issues can include conditions such as anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and generally poor physical health.

A therapist can use values clarification in order to help a person explore and define values when it appears that the individual's well-being is affected. Values clarification techniques often help people learn more about themselves and develop reasonable goals, and therapy often allows for a safe environment in which people can understand and develop their own set of values and achieve realization of their motivations and characteristics.

A good therapist should be sensitive and accepting of value systems that differ from the therapist's own values, as it is considered to be unethical for therapists to pressure individuals into developing the same set of values as their own.

Values clarification therapy aims to reduce emotional distress and increase positive behaviors through reinforcement. It helps those in therapy to identify and clarify the values that influence their decisions and behavior and encourages them to build on their inner resources and strengths. Someone who has explored their personal values in therapy is often better able to identify what will enable them to effectively function in life and thus may be able to make more self-directed choices.

Values Clarification Exercises

A therapist may begin helping a person determine what values are most important in life by having that person read through a list of common values and choose the 10 to 15 that stand out the most. The values are further explored as the person identifies the top five values affecting personal life decisions. These values become what are known as the person's "core values." The therapist may be able to make an initial judgment as to whether these values are conflicting or self-defeating but will likely also need to explore how they are applied in the person's daily life.

Some people experience difficulty with the process of identifying their core values, and in these cases, the therapist may draw on a range of values clarification exercises—such as worksheets and brainstorming activities—to assist in the process of better understanding what lies behind thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

In order to help someone clearly identify values, core values may need to be translated into intended behavior change. For example, a person may identify a value of financial security. The therapist can then help break this down into specific goals, such as maintaining a financial plan, carrying no debt, and having adequate savings. This value can be further translated into realistic and attainable actions such as work full-time for five years, devise a financial budget, and open a savings account.

Case Example

  • Recent college graduate seeking guidance: Naya, 21, enters therapy in some distress. She recently graduated from college and is looking for her first job, but she is not sure what she wants to do with her life. She tells the therapist that her parents encouraged her to study at the college they both attended, that they helped her choose a major, and that they have heavily influenced most of her major life decisions. Naya has always counted on their support, and she tells the therapist that she has never made any important decisions on her own. Her parents have suggested several career options for her, and Naya relates that none of them sound bad, but that none of them sound particularly appealing, either. She wants to make this decision on her own but needs help deciding where to begin. The therapist first helps Naya identify 15 values that are important to her, then together they narrow these to a shorter list. Naya finds that although she shares many values with her parents, she has grown apart from many of their more traditional values, and although she recognizes and appreciates their support and encouragement, she is ready to start making decisions on her own. She decides that she would like to train to become a police officer and that she wishes to begin living on her own—choices she knows her parents will resist. But with the help of the therapist, she feels empowered to exercise the right to make her own decisions. 


  1. Bonow, J., & Follette, W. (2009). Beyond Values Clarification: Addressing Client Values in Clinical Behavior Analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 32(1), 69-84.
  2. Marsh, J. (n.d.). Clarifying Personal Values. Retrieved from http://www.cmhc.utexas.edu/clearinghouse/files/DP007.pdf
  3. Values Clarification. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://oxford.emory.edu/life-at-oxford/student-conduct/sanctions/values-clarification-activity
  4. Values Clarification. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2015, from https://www.smartrecovery.org/resources/library/Tools_and_Homework/Other_Homework/Values_and_Goals_Clarification.pdf