Personal Values vs. Cultural Conditioning: Helping Patients Tell the Difference

Therapy can yield fantastic results but it’s hard work. To stay motivated even in the face of challenging or even traumatic material that comes up during the therapeutic process, it helps to encourage patients to stay in touch with why, to begin with, they’re in therapy.

Making contact with values every so often can remind patients why the work is worth it, and motivate them to stay the course.

Values Work

Because values work is such a key component to many contemporary psychotherapy models, there are a variety of worksheets, exercises, and group activities designed specifically to help patients explore and clarify the things that matter to them.

 One common challenge to identifying values is lacking insight around the difference between personal values and cultural conditioning. For example, clients may have been told by family members, doctors, television, and movies that staying healthy should be a value. But if they don’t personally identify with why that is important, they will struggle to connect with being healthy as a motivator for change.

In order to make this value more personal to them, the patient may need to do some work around what being healthy means to them specifically. Alternately, they may find that other things are more important to them. It’s part of the therapist’s job to make space for the client to let go of a value that he or she doesn’t particularly connect with in favor of finding one that feels like more of a fit.

 To help clients parse out which of their values are truly theirs and which are the products of conditioning, here are some areas to investigate:

 Family Values

 Our caretakers and family are where we pick up much of what we know about the world, including what we believe to be important. Looking to the things that our parents or caretakers found important provides us with valuable data about whether the things we think are important are truly our own or have simply been passed down to us.

Sometimes, clients find that they genuinely share values with their families of origin, and sometimes they don’t.

 A client with an eating disorder, for example, may have grown up with a mother who valued exercise and staying fit more than she valued community engagement or doing work that felt meaningful to her.

If the client goes to the gym instead of doing homework, or skips social events to work out, she may ask questions about the values or beliefs that are underlying those behaviors.

She may find that while she was brought up to believe fitness came first, that value cannot co-exist with her personal value of social connection and doing well in school so that she can become a doctor.

 Romantic Partner Values

 In the ideal relationship, we share values with our partners and have relatively similar ideas about what’s important. But not every couple has compatible values, and when there is disagreement in this area, it can sometimes cause one partner to lose touch with his or her own values.

Spending some time considering what’s important to their partner may help patients recognize ways in which they may have taken on values that don’t really belong to them, and to reconnect with what they hold dear.

 A patient who identifies as an artist and wants to pursue a master’s degree in fine art may light up when she talks about the possibility of applying to programs. Her partner, on the other hand, may be a financial planner who thinks art degrees are impractical and unnecessary.

Neither partner is wrong, but if the patient attempts to take on her partner’s values—putting financial security over doing work that feels personally meaningful and fulfilling to her—she will likely struggle to move forward toward goals to which she has little connection.

As a result, she may stall in therapy, or cease coming at all.

 Societal Values

 Societal values are often incompatible with personal values. The things we are taught to value through television, movies, and magazines may not resonate with what feels truly important or supportive of our values as individuals. As a result, we have all found ourselves stuck—at one point or another—chasing something that we don’t even want.

The client who struggles with disordered eating may equate being thin with being selfless and taking up as little space as possible—values that are engrained in women across cultures.

In exploring the societal values around what “good” women should be and look like, she may become aware that the way she has been measuring her goodness is flawed and problematic. Coming to this understanding won’t likely make her symptoms go away, but it will provide her with some important information about what drives her behavior while helping her clarify her own values that may be based on something entirely different.

 Personal Values

 The purpose of exploring the values of those around us is to get a better sense of what’s personally important to us. By recognizing the values with which we’ve grown up, been exposed to in relationships, and been taught through marketing and advertising, we can have both a better understanding of the origin of some of our behaviors, and a clearer pathway back to living in accordance with our own values.

Personal Values vs. Cultural Conditioning: Helping Patients Tell the Difference

Jessica Dore

Jessica Dore is a behavioral science and spirituality writer with several years of experience in clinical psychology publishing. She blogs weekly about tarot cards and psychology on her website In her free time, she is a devoted ashtanga yoga practitioner, food enthusiast, and DJ. Follow her on twitter @realJessicaDore.


APA Reference
Dore, J. (2018). Personal Values vs. Cultural Conditioning: Helping Patients Tell the Difference. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 4 May 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 May 2018
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