Focus on Values, Not Resolutions

The hope of change and renewal accompanies most of us as we part with one year and enter another. Some people feel confident and energized as they vow to exercise more, spend quality time with their children, learn to play an instrument, be kinder, change jobs. Others voice their aspirations more timidly or not at all, reminded by failures to sustain their efforts in Januaries past.

New Year’s resolutions are the culturally sanctioned means of expressing our collective appetite for self-improvement which we associate with a pathway to happiness. If I work harder, am smarter, more attractive, stronger, then good things are bound to happen. Sometimes that proves true, at other times it does not; the principle of fairness does not always govern our universe.

Resolutions are more than an expression of the quest for self-improvement fueled by our consumerist culture. Something more profound is articulated through them, namely a yearning to feel congruent, in harmony with the deepest parts of ourselves and how they are expressed in our everyday lives. New Year’s resolutions often manifest a longing to reflect through our behavior what really matters to us.  Thus, the resolution to exercise more may reflect a growing dissatisfaction with not having taken good enough care of your body and an aspiration to treat it better, all grounded in the value you are assigning to health and wellbeing. And that may in turn be linked to other values: perhaps you are concerned that if you do not exercise, you will not be able to keep up with your child when she is older, and you really value having an active presence in your child’s life.

If as the new year dawns, you find yourself longing to make meaningful changes in your life, delve deeper into why these changes matter to you: what value lies underneath the desire for change? Rather than setting rigid and unrealistic goals (“I will not eat any junk food”; “no TV shows in January”), examine your motivations first. If you discover that your desire for change is based in non-acceptance and judgment of some part of yourself, recognize that no meaningful and sustainable change has ever come out of contempt and self-hatred.

Take the idea of exercising and making more healthful food choices. If all you want to do is lose weight because you hate how you look, as soon as you find yourself not living up to the goals you have set, you are likely to go into “forget it!” mindset and give up in frustration, flinging yourself into an even deeper shame and judgment spiral. Instead, learn to take judgments out of your goal-setting (consider adopting a mindfulness practice to help you with that), brainstorm the many ways in which you can manifest the value you place on a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and keep reflecting on how this is an important value to you. A few days of being too sedentary or undisciplined in your food choices will no longer feel like a failure.  Recognition of straying from what you value will simply prompt you to find a way to reconnect with those values. Perhaps that will mean eating an apple or taking a few minutes at work to stretch. Possibilities are limitless, more fun, and varied than the injunction to quit all sugar or to exercise exactly four days a week.

What is freeing about the focus on values is that they do not fit into the success/failure binary and still manage to be motivating. You cannot fail at values. Similarly, it is not possible to arrive at a point of saying: “I have met my values.” They are not something to be met or mastered. They are a compass needle, pointing us in the direction that is meaningful to us, and letting us know when we have strayed. They are also supremely personal and not subject to comparison. I cannot have better values than you do, or values that are somehow “more correct” than yours. How liberating given our propensity to compare and judge!

There is another reason why acting in congruence with our values is likely going to be more effective in the long-term than simply willing ourselves to follow through on a resolution, and it has to do with the flexibility afforded by the focus on values. If you complete any values clarification exercise (here is a good one), you will quickly discover that there is a high likelihood that a number of your values clash with each other when choosing a particular action. As I write this article, the door of my home office is closed behind me while my husband and children are playing a board game. I value writing and sharing of resources related to mental health and wellness and I also value my family: spending time with them, giving my children undivided attention, nurturing my marriage. The second set of values is not receiving expression at this moment. I cannot be in both places at the same time (and if I was aiming to play the board game and write this article, neither activity would do a solid job expressing my values). The choice to write this article is not a failure. It is an intentional decision to manifest the first set of values, knowing that in the next few hours and days, space will need to be made for the other values as well.

Let’s say you did not go for a run you had planned and instead spent the evening wrapped in a blanket, binge-watching a TV show, something you have previously shared you would like to cut down on. If you let yourself get really quiet and explore why you have made the choice you made, you might find you were exhausted today, and needed to feel a sense of ease, comfort, and warmth. You expressed a value of comfort, a particular kind of self-care, in that way. If you always chose to relax on the couch over behavior manifesting other values you hold dear, you would likely feel incongruent and dissatisfied. But perhaps today it is just what you needed to do. No judgment necessary.

Clarifying your values at the dawn of a new decade is a marvelous way to cultivate a sense of renewal and hope. All too often we focus on what we like or do not like about ourselves and anchor the efforts to change in a desire to escape those parts of ourselves we struggle with. Running from ourselves never works well. Connecting with your values – and doing so again and again and again (values are dynamic and subject to change!) – is not only inherently motivating, but also a means of getting to know yourself. That is a deeper and more satisfying foundation for a happier life.


About Aga Grabowski, LCSW, PMH-C, CST (she/her)

I am a co-founder of Wildflower, a psychotherapist, a presenter and a consultant in the area of perinatal and reproductive mental health.  Many other aspects of my personal identity shape my clinical work: chief among them is the family and immigrant background which has informed my attunement to the psychological upheaval that accompanies major life transitions and to the many sociocultural forces that impact our lived experience.

In my clinical work, I am focused on helping people thrive and cope during periods of significant change, and particularly during journeys towards and through parenthood which may involve infertility, losses, depression, anxiety, and conflict.  I work with people from all walks in life. Clients I work with are some of the strongest, most resilient folks I know. They don’t always feel this way, and they come to therapy feeling raw, maybe lost, and certainly quite vulnerable. It takes courage to confront your pain and struggle. I view psychotherapy as a deeply collaborative process that aims to help you discover and tap into your strengths and resources.  You already have what it takes to feel better, be happier, face challenges – good psychotherapy basically helps you access all that. This can only happen if your therapist genuinely cares about and respects you and is invested in their own ongoing professional development and personal growth.

I have extensive training in perinatal and reproductive mental health, evidence-based treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, sex therapy, and trauma.  I earned my bachelor’s degree in international studies at the University of Chicago and obtained my master’s degree in clinical social work at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.  I often present on topics related to mental health. I am an AASECT-certified sex therapist and a certified perinatal mental health clinician. My most valuable learning experiences come from my clients: their experience, wisdom and perspective have shaped my clinical practice the most, something I am deeply grateful for.

LCSW License Number:149016046
Type 1 NPI Number: 1841631132
Accepts: BCBS PPO and BlueChoice plans, Lyra, self-pay and out of network clients


Selected training and affiliation
AASECT-Certified Sex Therapist
Certified Perinatal Mental Health Clinician
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Training
Bringing Baby Home Educator Training, Gottman Institute
Circle of Security Parent Educator
Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) training
Gottman Method Level 1 training
Dialectical Behavior Therapy Training

Key beliefs
People are stronger and more resilient than they often realize.
Our culture teaches us to be fiercely independent. To thrive, we need to embrace being interdependent -- deep connection with others is essential for happiness.

More about me
I love the outdoors and hiking, camping, kayaking.
I can’t live without chocolate.
I feel grateful every day for getting to do the work I love.