When times are tough, like they are in 2020, it can be natural to look at your life and decide things need to change. This year has been so much more complicated than most of us expected, and if you’re out there questioning a lot of things, just know that you’re not alone and you’re not overreacting. If this period of chaos has made you want to reevaluate what is important to you, that’s okay. When life is uncertain or scary, it can make us take a look at our values and decide what’s really important to us. Our values aren’t static – they don’t stay the same throughout our lives. And they shouldn’t! As humans, it is natural that we grow and change as the world changes around us. Many of us have gone through our lives without paying attention to why we do the things that we do. We just do them. There are lots of factors that go into behavior, like genetics and environment and racial injustice and socioeconomic status, but one part of it is the values that we hold. Getting clear on your values is a great first step in starting to live a more authentic life.
What Are Values?
Values are beliefs that everyone has, that motivate us to act a certain way. Our principles guide our decisions and our behavior because they are a foundational part of who we are. We all have values, whether you realize it or not. Most of us grow up with the same principles as our parents until we are old enough to start to come up with our own. Some people don’t really question their values – they just keep going through the motions based on their same old values without ever questioning if those values represent the anymore.
Instead of going through the motions, when you’re in touch with your values, you can make choices from a balanced and thoughtful place. When you understand what your principles are and why you feel that way, you feel less need to justify yourself for every little choice you make. You know that you’re doing what is right for you because you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about your values!
When your actions are in line with your principles you will feel more balanced, and you may feel more at ease. This is because you know what is important to you, you know why it’s important, and you know how to incorporate those values into your everyday life. You know that even when things are hard, you are backing up your values with your actions and vice versa. You can feel confident knowing that you are doing the right thing for you. When you are connected to what you really want and what you really prioritize, you will make choices that are better for you in the long run because they’re serving your values, not a passing interest or trend or peer pressure. You are listening to the wisdom within, instead of listening to the pressure of everyone around you.
How to find your values
One place to start is to think of what makes you feel happy, proud of yourself, and/or fulfilled. It can also be enlightening to think of what made you happy as a child – what did you used to do that made you feel good? Who were you with? You can also go through a list of common principles and circle the ones that speak to you. You don’t want to have five million values you want to uphold, so it’s best to just pick 5-6 to work on. Your values don’t all have to be prioritized the same way, and remember, they can always change if they’re no longer serving you.
Here’s a list of common values to consider:
- Inner Harmony
- Meaningful work
- Social Connection
If you’re looking for more ideas for values, here’s a good list.
Okay, I Know What I Value, Now What?
Once you decide on your principles, think of a few things for each that you can fit into your life. Come up with a list of practical ways you could actually fit this value into your life. For example, if you value self respect you can make it a habit to gently correct negative self-talk when it comes up. If you prioritize honesty, you can make it a practice to be honest, even when it’s hard or awkward.
It’s also valuable to think of times when you didn’t live in alignment with your values. One way we know something isn’t in line with our principles is how we feel about it. When we do something that isn’t in line with our values, we usually feel rotten – full of shame or indecision or guilt or regret. Think about times when you didn’t follow through on your principles. How did you feel after? Remembering the negative way we feel when we don’t follow our values is a good way to motivate us to follow them in the future. We’ve all had times where we didn’t live our values. The good thing is that in the future, we can choose to live our values every time.
It’s easy to live your values when no one is challenging you on them or giving you a hard time. Think about situations that might come up where you have trouble living your principles. Are there people who will push your boundaries? Are there situations where you feel at odds with your values? What are they? The more you can prepare yourself, the easier it will be to stick to your values.
When you know your principles you can understand the meaning behind your behavior and you can get intentional about your actions. That’s why regularly taking the time to reflect on your principles is a valuable practice.
Values tell us who we are, but they can also tell us who we want to be in the future. Your values won’t stay the same for your whole life because you grow and change and so do your priorities and that’s a good thing! You can’t change the past and the values you used to prioritize, but you can work on what you value in the here and now and in the future. If you need support in deciding what your values are, our clinicians can help.