What comes to mind when you think of values? If you take a minute to think about what’s really important to you, what pops in your head? Family? Friendship? Money? Love? Having the best job? Some of us may think values relate to just the moral or ethical codes we live by such as “I value honesty and following the rules.” While this helps us understand a part of your value system, how does that value show up in your life to best support you?
When we connect and feel good about our values, we tend to feel a better sense of wholeness, balance, and overall happiness. When we struggle to connect or identify with our values, we may feel incomplete, like we are lacking importance, or just feel more depressed overall.
Definition of values
If you look up the definition of values, one of the first statements you will see is “the regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.” Keep in mind that everyone’s values will look different. And even if you share the same value, the way you show up in that value may also look different, and that’s okay! This article will help you identify your core values and ways to explore the importance of each value. You will learn to create helpful steps to improve your areas of value and begin to implement ways to align your life with your chosen values.
Our values history
Before we begin making steps to fully connect with our values, it’s important to understand where our learned values and chosen values come from. Learned values are values that tend to be unspoken or implicit and given to us by our close family and friends. These values are unconsciously ingrained in us without questioning them. Chosen values are those that we explicitly seek to incorporate into our lives. We may have learned about these values from media, books, school or work, and consciously thought to ourselves we want them to be a part of our lives in one way or another.
You may consider your learned values to be more implicit. You hold these values subconsciously without giving them much thought or care. We can trace a lot of our core values we’ve learned to our childhood and early development. Our parents or caregivers likely shared and tried to instill their own set of values onto us. Think about the times in your childhood when you were told to do this thing or that because it’s the “right thing to do,” or because your parents told you so and that it worked for them.
Sometimes, learned values aren’t spoken. It’s what you witness. How do your parents treat the waitstaff at a restaurant? Does your dad get road rage? When you have big feelings, does your family make space for them or do they minimize them, leaving you with the unspoken message that feelings are unimportant or not valued in your family. Another example is sex education in your school. Did you only learn about sexually transmitted infections, birth control, and pregnancy? If so, then an underlying message you may not have received is sex can be pleasurable. The value of sex for you now may be for procreation only and you may struggle to be present in the bedroom if you’re trying not to get pregnant or get your partner pregnant.
Our friends and partners have also helped us understand our values through the relationships we share. For instance, if your partner makes it a point to call you each night and ask how your day was and check-in with you, they are telling you a value of theirs is connection through communication and making sure you’re doing okay.
What are some learned values that you’ve picked up on throughout the years of interacting with different people in your life?
Our chosen values are more intentional or explicit. You consciously make a choice to lean into these values. As a child, you take in what is given to you without really questioning. By adolescence, you start to challenge rules and push back on limitations put on you. This push back is you starting to figure out if your learned values fit for you. Through this process, and a continuation into young adulthood, you start to choose your values.
A common chosen value is political or religious beliefs. Most children will happily go to church on Sunday or pray to Allah without thinking about it. However, as you get older, it’s common that you start to wonder why you are going to church or praying and asking yourself is this what I want? If you go away from your parents for college/university, you start to explore even more values that you may not have been exposed to when you lived under your caretaker’s roof. Now, with a bit more freedom, you start to learn what feels true to you.
Chosen values can be difficult to implement. You may find yourself saying things like “I don’t want to be like my parents in *insert something regarding your caregiver’s mannerisms*” Yet, when push comes to shove you often mirror some of your caretaker’s same ideologies or behaviors. Choosing different values than the ones given to you growing up is a very intentional practice that may take years to master.
Identifying your core values
Your core values can be a combination of both learned and chosen values. To identify core values, we have to be reflective and look back through our life to point out the events, people, and memories that influenced or helped shape our core values. Keep in mind both your implicit and explicit values. Implicit values may not stand out to you as easily as explicit values do. Think back to a time when you were the happiest, proudest, and most satisfied, and the choices and paths you followed to get to that place. Try to identify these in your personal life, intimate relationships, friendships, and career. Answering these questions can better help you identify your top values.
- What was happening at this time?
- What were you feeling at the time?
- What factors contributed to these feelings?
- What were you proud of?
- Who helped you along the way and shared these feelings/moments with you?
- What was the meaning you assigned to this experience?
- Why did this experience or moment give you such happiness or meaning?
- How did this event impact you?
- If you could categorize this experience, what category would you put it in (e.g., social, familial, job, social justice, religious, etc.)?
- Did you feel connected to yourself? (on the contrary, if the experience informed you of what you don’t value, did you feel disconnected to yourself?)
- What about this experience felt genuine to you? Felt disingenuous to you?
Some other questions for values exploration:
- Are there family, friends, or other people that you look up to? What do you think are their biggest strengths or qualities? Would you want to model those values?
- Remember that as we grow and change through life, our values may also change or not look the exact same. So we have to be able to check in with our values system at different stages in our life to see how we want these changes to help us align better with our new values or role in life. How are your values the same or different now than when you were 10 years old? 15 years old? 21 years old?
- Think of behaviors that you dislike or disapprove of in others. How are your values different? How would you behave differently?
- Do your actions align with your values? This could be the difference between learned values (which drive your actions often subconsciously) and chosen values (how you want to act but sometimes feel disappointed in yourself for not living up to a certain value you’ve chosen for yourself).
- If you think about the larger topics in life, how do they resonate with you and which ones are you drawn to? For instance, based on your upbringing, you may have learned over time that family is not something to value, that it is your friendships you’ve created that are worth valuing. Or maybe your family has been super supportive and you feel a lot of loyalty and connection to your family members. Therefore, you might value time spent with family over time spent with friends. Where do you spend most of your time, energy, and what takes up the most thoughts and feelings? Chances are, these are the things you value the most or find most troubling as they do not align with your values.
It can also help to pick your top values from a common values list and ask yourself the above questions to really solidify your top core values. You can then compare and see if you can shorten your list to maybe your main 3-5 values and check in with how you are really applying them to your life. Try picking the top 10 from this list below and doing this exercise:
|Accountability||Community||Empathy||How others look||Loyalty||Self-love|
|Achievement||Compassion||Enjoyment||How you give support||Motivation||Self-Reliance|
|Altruism||Confidence||Equanimity||How you look||Physical touch||Selflessness|
|Animals||Connection||Fairness for all||How you receive support||Pleasure||Social justice|
|Humility||Political beliefs||Social life|
|Boundaries||Drinking||Giving back to community||Intelligence||Religion||Tolerance|
Ways to explore the importance of each value
Some helpful ways or questions to identify importance of your values:
- Rating scale: Place your values on a 1-10 scale and identify the importance of them. It’s okay if they fall on a similar or the same scale but try to see if you can give an honest assessment. This will also help you understand what values to place more intention on. It can also help you see the less important values that you may want to improve on.
- What do your family or friends highlight or notice about your values? Curiosity about how others perceive you or what they see in you may be a good indicator of your learned values that may be less conscious to you. What others see in you can be a good cue towards the more important values you hold and help you to recognize values you may not see clearly.
- How have your values changed across your stages of life? This isn’t to say we can’t keep our same values, but the significance of them may differ when we’re in childhood versus adulthood. If they have changed, which values are still important and impactful to you? Why are they important? Did something happen? Did you realize the values you once held were adaptive for the time but now maladaptive?
- When going through the list of values from above, how does each one sit with you? Do you feel it in your body? Are you excited, nervous, traumatized? Paying attention to the cues your body and thoughts give you is going to be super helpful in identifying chosen values you want or learned values that no longer serve you.
Begin to implement ways to align your life with your chosen values
As we talked about above, it’s important to identify your core values and then determine the importance of each value set. Then using these steps below, you will work on mapping out support steps to improve values and align your life with these values.
Dr. Russ Harris, a medical practitioner, and world renowned trainer for the therapy model Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (called ACT) created a very helpful values worksheet that aligns with ACT training. The core intent of ACT is to understand your values and align your life with them in order to achieve joy, fulfillment, happiness, and overcome your own personal challenges or blocks in life. Check out this worksheet titled “VALUES WORKSHEET (Adapted from Kelly Wilson’s Valued Living Questionnaire)”. Try to answer these questions honestly as they can better help you determine the importance of values in these life areas below and also how to improve on them. They go over 10 different value areas that include Family relations, Marriage/couples/intimate relations, Parenting, Friendships/social life, Career/employment, Education/personal growth and development, Recreation/fun/leisure, Spirituality ,Citizenship/ environment/ community life, and Health/physical well-being.
Some questions the worksheet asks you to think about include –
- What sort of brother/sister, son/daughter, uncle/auntie do you want to be? What personal qualities would you like to bring to those relationships?
- What sort of qualities would you like to bring to your friendships? If you could be the best friend possible, how would you behave towards your friends?
- What do you value in your work? What would make it more meaningful?
- What do you value about learning, education, training, or personal growth? What new skills would you like to learn?
The worksheet then has you go through a Values Assessment Rating Form that helps you identify the importance of each value and how successfully you have lived this value during the past month. It can give you great insights into how well, or ineffectively, you are using and implementing these values.
Some steps to follow include:
- Setting an intention with each of these values. Knowing the importance or rank of them in your life, you can then decide which values hold more immediate value or purpose and ask yourself the following check in questions.
- What is my reason for using this value?
- How does this value serve me and help me? How does it not?
- If I follow this value today, how will it benefit me tomorrow?
- How do I want this value to show up in my life?
- Recognize how you go through your day to day using these values. Are you allowing genuine time to really engage in this value or are you cramming it into your day to try to make it work?
- What comes most easily to you vs. what feels like more work? Are these your chosen values or your learned values? Remember, stepping away from learned values and into chosen values can take time and effort.
- After you leaned into a value, how did you feel? Does that value seem genuine to you or misplaced?
Living your values
When thinking about your values, it’s important to also pay attention to how they make you feel. If you notice a discomfort, ask yourself is that because it’s a new value you’re trying to lean into and it’s a bit foreign and therefore uncomfortable or is it uncomfortable because it’s not genuine to who you are? This delineation is important to finding the right values for you. If you’ve tried some of the exercises above and you’re still struggling to feel confident in what your values are, feel free to give us a call at 267-495-4951 to work with a trained psychotherapist that can help you feel grounded in your values.