Our values shape our choices and decisions. The way we behave, how we live and work, our relationships with ourselves and with other people, are guided by these fundamental concepts.
When your life doesn’t reflect your values, or you feel that the ideas which form your behaviour aren’t right for you, you can feel unhappy about yourself, that you are not the person you think you are or would like to be.
Knowing what is important to you and, as far as you can, living your life according to your own guiding principles, gives you stability and increases your self-esteem and self-confidence.
Recognise your own values
This can be more difficult than it sounds, because in the usual run of things we don’t examine or put labels on the principles that govern our behaviour. Here are a couple of approaches that might help.
a: Take a period of a week, and identify:
- Times you felt good about something you did
- Times you felt bad about something you did
- Occasions when you admired someone else’s behaviour
- Occasions when you disliked or disapproved of someone else’s behaviour
What qualities are you responding to? For example, if you were satisfied with your choice to spend time keeping a friend company when you had planned to do something else, it could be that you value friendship, or compassion, or relationships. If you were impressed by someone’s promotion or pay rise, you might value financial security, or career achievement.
Perhaps you were annoyed with yourself for giving up on a personal or work project, which could reflect on your level of diligence, or commitment, or perseverance.
b: Go through a list of qualities and mark those which resonate with you. A typical inventory (some of which give hundreds of ideas) might contain the following suggestions, which you could add to:
money — honesty — spirituality — creativity — fairness — excitement — trust — religion — achievements — beauty — respect — friendship — family — work — success — power — love — security — loyalty — courage — knowledge — personal growth — community — independence — integrity — curiosity — citizenship — diligence
What matters most
Choose about six principles which you feel represent your feelings about principles you hold particularly dear. Then you could select the three which matter most to you.
It might be that everything seems important, and it’s hard to choose. You can test the level of your identification with an idea by asking:
- Would I defend my expression of this value?
- Would I risk losing something (a job, a friendship, security) over an issue connected with this concept?
Does your life reflect your values?
It may be that our claims to value a principle are genuinely felt, but, in practice, go no further than that.
There are often contradictions in the way we and those around us behave. We say we value the environment, but are seen to make lifestyle choices which suggest the opposite. Someone may think that being loyal matters a lot, but will ditch a friend when it suits them (yes, it happens).
If there is a consistent mismatch, you could re-examine what you thought were your values, and re-assess what matters to you.
Be aware when values change
Your core values probably don’t alter with circumstances, but they might assume different priorities.
Financial security might become important when you take on family responsibilities. At some point in your life, you might develop a new longing for excitement and adventure. At various stages, you may become more or less fired up about matters of social justice. Reviewing your beliefs
Don’t lose sight of your core values
A change in your life situation may necessitate a shift in your value system, but it might be worth checking in with your feelings to see if you have given up on something which actually still matters to you.
If you feel restless or dissatisfied with yourself or your way of life for no particular reason, as far as you can see, it could be useful to reconnect with the values that you held dear.
Identify three things, say, that you used to do or that used to matter a great deal to you. Listen to your gut reaction. It could be that you are happy to accept the change, or to experience a mild regret only. But if you have a sense of loss, of having abandoned an essential part of your being, you could think about making some adjustments and compromises.
Make some lifestyle changes
Yes, some people throw up everything and take off round the world on a Harley-Davidson, or become a farmer, or an artist or whatever, and good luck to them, if they can do so without causing havoc and heartbreak for the people in their lives. But you can find ways to align your values with your way of life without going to extremes.
Think about how you could incorporate what matters into your personal situation. You could do this without making big changes.
If you are frustrated or unsettled because you feel that your job, say, or your personal situation prevents you from behaving in a way which expresses your true values, find a way of staying in touch with what matters to you.
It could be making a donation to or joining a cause you believe in, or volunteering, or starting up a side enterprise to make money, or joining a choir or amateur dramatic group, or making a commitment to yourself regarding friends, family or social life, or deciding to speak up in situations where you usually keep quiet…
Examine your compromises
Sometimes there’s a choice to be made. Maybe honesty is important to you, but for whatever reason, you make a decision which goes against this precept. Perhaps you break a family commitment which matters to you because a work demand intervenes, or you lower your personal work standards to meet the needs of family or friends.
It’s important not to beat yourself up about what you might see as these ‘failures’. Trade-offs and adjustments are part of daily behaviour. Just keep an eye on how often these occur and how you feel about it.
If your response or action becomes more than the occasional divergence from how you like to behave, it’s worth asking why. Maybe your priorities have changed. Maybe you feel unable or unwilling to behave in the way that reflects your own choices and preferences. If that’s the case, you could think about developing the personal and communication skills which would help you to express your
A life lived in accordance with what you value — that’s wellbeing.