Each of us are unique in so many ways. Some qualities are concrete and noticeable like having a bright red hair or a boisterous laugh or an innate fondness for astrology. But some qualities are hidden, mysterious and less easy to quantify. Our value system falls into this latter category. Our core values are a huge part of who we are. They also affect how we operate in the world and how others relate to us. It’s important to know that your core values are influencing your everyday life, whether you know it or not. Because your values impact your decision making, it is wise to give some conscious attention to your core values.
Perhaps you have never considered how you make decisions. I had not given this topic much thought before I began studying psychology years ago. But think about it honestly. You make choices all day long – at work, at home, and all the hours in between. Some decisions are big such deciding whether to accept a marriage proposal or to move across the country for a new job. But most decisions are small, and they may seem inconsequential. Throughout each day, you determine between spending or saving money; being honest or telling a lie; exercising daily or giving into your cravings for TV and popcorn.
Decisions are made both consciously and subconsciously and they are often guided by past experiences, your mood-state and your values. You may think that your decisions are simply made by following sound advice and a little bit of intuition but that is not the whole truth. In reality, we operate under our own ethical and moral codes and these are formed by our core values.
Core values and beliefs are formed in childhood. We often learn them from the language, behaviors, and attitudes that we observed in our caregivers, culture and our community at large. In addition to helping us make important decisions, core values also help us to determine what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior from ourselves or others.
Maybe your parents made charitable giving a regular part of their weekly routine and therefore service and faith are important to you. Or maybe your mom was a marathon runner and she spoke frequently about the benefits of exercise. Or, perhaps, your grandfather was Chief of Police and so honesty, integrity, and commitment lay the foundation of your inner-being. These examples give you glimpses of how your values are formed.
Although our values are formed in childhood, they often change as we mature and have more life experiences. It is, therefore, helpful to revisit core value exercises several times throughout your lifetime to measure growth and stability. I like to do this exercise yearly and I venture to say that everyone can benefit from reevaluating their priorities and life goals following the health pandemic and lingering trauma caused by COVID19.
You will have many values, morals and ethics that guide you through life, but you will only have about three top values. Top values are ‘non-negotiable’. In other words, if you can live without this value, it is not a top value.
For example, if you love to exercise and consider yourself health- conscious but find that you are often making excuses to do something else with your time, then it is likely that health is not a top value. You value it, but it does not make the cut in real terms. Likewise, if you believe in God but rarely attend your place of worship, read faith-based books or pray to your God, faith is unlikely to score as a top value.
However, if after completing the exercises below, you discover a discrepancy such as this – that is, that you highly value something which is not showing up in your life in a meaningful way- than you need to readjust yourself to create a value-aligned life.
Discovering your Core Values
Perhaps you have been lucky enough to have taken a core values assessment online, or you have discovered your values through a team building exercise at work, or you addressed them in a therapy session. If so, consider this a review. However, most people have not looked deeply at their value systems before. Either way, our values can change over time depending on our age, experiences in life and the knowledge we gain along the way.
So, if you are curious about your values, take a minute to think about the last time someone ‘wronged’ you or think about the last time you felt a strong emotion (either negative or positive). Maybe someone blatantly lied to you and cut them out of your life as a result; or you saw an emotional news story and then you decided to make an anonymous donation to their cause; or you witnessed a random act of kindness that sincerely touched your heart and inspired a change in your life. These types of experiences can give us clues about our core values.
There are many more ways to uncover your core values and below I have provided some ideas to get you started on this self-discovery journey.
Contemplate, journal, and reflect on your answers to the questions below. This will give you some clarity on what values are important to you today… remember, these might have changed since your college days or pre-COVID19 life.
- Recall 2-3 transformative experiences that you have had in your life. Write down the details of what led you to the experience, your thoughts, and feelings during and after the experience and what you learned or felt as a result. Think deeply about what makes this a transformative experience in your life.
For example, you may recall delivering a key -note speech at your company’s annual symposium and from that experience you may conclude that personal growth, adventure and career prosperity are important to you. Likewise, you may be drawn to the experience of watching your baby learn to talk and walk in which case compassion, autonomy and family connections may emerge as top values. Or, you may recall the first time you fully understood and believed in your faith.
Whatever experiences resonate as memorable and life-changing will provide you with personal insight about your value system.
- Think of people you admire or with whom you feel deeply connected. These can be famous historians like Abraham Lincoln or Rosa Parks, or they can be teachers, bosses or family members. Identify what you admire about these people. Is it their careers, their compassion, or the way in which you felt validated and loved by them? Again, you will glean self-awareness and insight about your core beliefs by noticing who you admire.
- Identify people or events that were negative influences on you or your life. Through our most difficult interactions we can often identify what is most important to us. For example, if your business partner conned you out of money during a major business transaction, you may learn that honesty, integrity, and loyalty are your top values. If you witnessed domestic violence in your childhood home, you may identify with the values of peace and safety.
In this exercise, you will start by reading a list of common core values. From there you will start to highlight those values which most resonate with you. Bear in mind, that there are as many different core values available to us as there are stars in the sky. Below is just a small sample core values. For a more complete list, follow this link.
Step 1: Read this full list once or twice. Just read the words and contemplate each word with its meaning to you.
Step 2: Highlight any words that resonate with you. Do not overthink it, just tune into your intuition and highlight values that stand out to you. The next step is to group your values together into a few sub-categories. For example, from the list I provided, your groups might look like this:
Step 3: Identify what does not resonate. As you parse your list into sub-categories, you will notice that some topics do not resonate at all. In this example the subset regarding money (i.e. Wealth, Abundance, and Financial Health) did not make the cut.
Step 4: With your parsed list, identify one word from each sub-category that most represents your beliefs. Your final list of core values should include 3-4 top values as below.
Step 5: Take time to define each of these values for yourself. Write a definition that makes sense to you.
You are now aware of your top core values, but now what do you do with this information? My suggestions are to assess how your values are influencing your current decisions, behaviors and attitudes. Are you practicing your top values daily or are they just an after-thought? If you are misaligned with your values, you notice that your mood is anxious or unstable, that you are experiencing difficulties with relationships or even physical health issues such as migraines, insomnia, or back pain.
If you are unsure how aligned your life is with your values, try this simple exercise:
- Assume your top value is Health. Now, review your past month. Have you been attending to and prioritizing your health? Have you been going to the gym regularly, getting enough sleep, eating your vegetables, and reducing your alcohol consumption?
- If you answer yes- you are living a valued-aligned life.
- If you answer no- you are out of alignment.
Self-awareness is the first step to any change. Next, identify what obstacles and challenges you face in this area. Once you have identified the challenges, fine some solutions to these issues. For example, if you are only averaging 5 hours of sleep per night, why is this? Too much screen time? A newborn? Overeating? Then strategize to overcome these challenges. Maybe that means cutting off screens by 9.30pm or eliminating alcohol 5 days per week. You decide. Then commit to change.
Why bother going through all this effort if there is no return on investment? Rest assured, there is a great ROI if you choose to live a value-aligned life. Just try it for yourself. I find this is always the best option!
What you will notice is that your overall stress level reduces. Your life will feel more at ease and the little hurdles and set-backs will be more easily overcome. You will feel more inner-peace, more motivation and your relationship with yourself and others will improve.
I also notice that my own opportunities in life increase when I am living in my values. The more aligned you are, the more people (think employment opportunities, potential mates, new friends) will be attracted to you simply because of your presence. Again, you need to try this for yourself.
Curious? Just ask. As a professional life coach and psychotherapist, I love helping people, just like you, learn to live a value-aligned life.
Carrie Mead, MS is a Professional Life Coach, Psychotherapist, and Reiki practitioner based in Maryland. Carrie provides guidance, support and empowering exercises to help her clients redefine and enact on their life’s mission following a major life transition. Connecting authentically and compassionately forms the basis of all of Carrie’s personal and professional relationships. Carrie holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling from McDaniel College and a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Gettysburg College. Carrie is a licensed mental health therapist in the state of Maryland and Certified Seasons of Change Coach. Learn more at www.curiositylifecoaching.com .