For me, it feels like the click of a seatbelt, snapping perfectly into place and offering a sense of safety and assurance.
I feel right. I feel peaceful. I feel alive. I feel whole.
These are signals that our how we are living our lives — the choices we are making, the behaviors we are engaging in — are aligned with our most central and precious values.
It feels so, so good.
But notice that I never said that it feels easy. Pro tip: easy and good are often not aligned.
What I hear from those I work with is that aligning behaviors and values doesn’t feel nearly as hard as the step that must come before it — discovering what in the world those values even are.
First, we need to clarify one thing. When we talk about values here, we are not talking about what our culture considers “right” or “good.” We’re not referencing a moral code or some political agenda (though I hope your political agenda aligns with your values). The concept of values gets a bit bastardized in our society. “What kind of values does he even have to have done that?” we ask from atop our high horses.
Here we’re talking about something that is deeply individualized and personal. We’re referring to a set of core concepts that center us as human beings and give us profound information about ourselves.
These kind of values answer the questions, who are you? And, what are you about?
That’s not to say that our culture doesn’t influence the development of our values. We don’t grow up in vacuums, after all. We’re shaped by our caregivers, our environments, our early experiences, and, yes, societal norms.
That’s why discovering our values can prove to be a difficult endeavor for some.
What really is important to me?
What if my values don’t line up with how I’m living my life? Am I fraud?
I’ve been in this job/relationship/role/environment for so long, I don’t even know who I am or what I want.
Let’s take it one step at a time.
Step 1: Get really quiet.
My belief is that we can’t hear the tune of our core if the band is drowning us out. The band might be endless soccer practices, your boss’s voice, the nonstop deadlines, or the weight of your partner’s expectations.
Values discovery really does take dedicated time, energy, and solitude. Because this a personal exploration, it can be helpful to literally be as far away from people and demands as possible. I’m not suggesting that you have to enroll in a 10-day silent retreat to do this work. It might look like locking your bedroom door for thirty minutes or leaving your office and sitting in your car on your lunch instead of going to the break room.
If you meditate, that’s a great tool to quiet your brain and get centered. If you don’t, try at least taking five deep, enriching breaths with your eyes closed, over and over until you feel your heartbeat start to slow your chest.
However you find your peace, getting real still and real focused is a must.
While our values may evolve with us over time, they are usually rooted in core themes that have existed within us since we were quite young. In fact, it’s often been the chaos of life that has cloaked or distorted our most central values.
So doing a little time travel can be helpful to realign.
Start by grabbing a notebook and writing down five stories or experiences from your own history that you feel helped shape the person you are today. While this sounds like a tall order, try not to spend a lot of time over-thinking the stories. Often, these are the stories that get told over and over again in your family about you, or where your mind immediately goes. There may be stories that have been a bit more buried, which is where the stillness of step one is necessary.
You can document these in your notebook in whatever way feels right to you. You might write out the experiences in detail, or you might jot down key words and phrases. You might focus on what every person was doing, or being more in touch with the emotions that were present. You could draw symbols or pictures to represent these stories if your brain works better that way.
I recommend now taking some time away from your stories. Distance is a great gift. Come back the next day to them and reread or look at what you have documented. Start to jot down what we’ll call themes. These could include things like, honesty, family, perseverance, social justice, or wellness. Just notice, non-judgmentally, what your stories are each about.
Are you helping a neighbor, hiding in a closet out of fear, writing a high school newspaper article, consoling your grandfather? Think about the role you are playing in each of these scenes, or even, the role that you wish you could have played. Perhaps you longed to be able to do more to help that family you saw sitting on the side of the street hungry, or you wished you had the confidence to try out for the college musical.
The themes you detect are often clues to your values. They may or may not be fully formed values, but we’re getting closer.
Now I want you to shift to the opposite end of your life — the future.
In your notebook, you’ll write out a eulogy. Morbid? Maybe. But there is nothing like and impending end to help us get really clear really quickly on what carries the most weight in our lives.
What you’ll do is to think about a dear friend or family member, someone that you would love to share some of the truest things about you with others once you are gone. Start writing out what you would like them to read at your funeral. If your religious or culture tradition doesn’t have this kind of practice, you can adapt this to a speech or testimonial that might fit. For example, some people choose to do this as a “Lifetime Achievement Award.”
It’s fine to have the person read off your list of accolades, but then have them get to the good stuff. “My friend was about…. She lived her life in order to….. She loved…. Everything that she did was because…”
Once you finish, read what you wrote and underline the themes. These are more clues to your values.
Now it’s time to consolidate your lists. What values shaped you and what values do you want to be remembered for?
Try writing out a list. There may be 10 or there may 40. Either way is fine. There might be two, and that’s cool too.
In fact, we want to get the list down to two or three, ideally. That does not mean that there aren’t things also important to you in your life. There are likely lots and lots of things. But values are our compass. And if we have 27 compasses, we’re always going to be spinning around in circles.
Take the list and look for overlap. There may be words that serve as an umbrella for others. For example, if you listed humor, playfulness, and enjoyment, one value might be pleasure or fun. Again, try to whittle this down to two to three values.
You might want to come back to this process on a different day. It’s common that our values list become influenced by the situations we’re facing in the moment (e.g. peace goes way higher on my list when no one will stop talking to me!), and you want to make sure your values still stand when you’re in a different mindset.
You can also test your values by asking yourself a few questions:
Is this something that I want my life to be about?
Is this the kind of person I want to show up as?
Does this resonate deeply in my gut?
Do I get energy and lightness sitting with this value?
The answers you receive may not come in the form of words. Tap into your emotional experience. My belief is that you’ll know if you’ve hit on the right values if you feel a sense of contentedness when reflecting on them.
Create a super tangible reflection of your central values.
For the wordy ones among us, that may be a statement that summarizes your values. For example, you might reflect, “I am the kind of person who lives every day with integrity, in service of offering my full and authentic self to others so that no one feels alone or abandoned.”
Your reflection might take the form of a vision board that you create. This can be as simple as browsing magazines and personal photos and selecting pictures that stand for the values you identified.
It might come in the form of a personal story that for you highlights each of your central values perfectly.
Or if might be that you stick to big, bold words that you write in sharpie on a post-it, stuck to your laptop.
Whatever it is – a song, a piece of pottery, or a manifesto – make it real and visible. You want to be able to go back to this again and again to recenter and ground.
Sorry, the work is not over…
So here’s the thing. This process is certainly not over. It’s one thing to get clear on your values, but once you’re clear, it’s hard to pretend to be unclear. Meaning, realizing you are living out of alignment with your values is actually pretty painful.
So our future work involves assessing your behavioral alignment with your values and working to pivot if your discover misalignment. I’ll share further thoughts on this in upcoming posts.
And if you’re interested in doing this work one on one, diving deep, and coming up with a solid plan, get in touch with me.