Your values are the foundation of everything you do—and are. As author Jennifer Leigh Selig, PhD, said, “values are the essential core of a human being… My values—and my struggles and successes in attempting to live up to them—tell you who I am.”
Our values are “like an inner compass” that helps us navigate different experiences and transitions, said art therapist Sara Roizen, ATR-BC, LCAT.
Similarly, when Selig doesn’t know which direction to go, she noted that her values guide her. “They are an essential touchstone, reminding me of who I am and how I want to live my life.”
“When aligning with our values we tend to feel more energetic, positive, and live with clarity,” Roizen said. On the other hand, “when we are misaligned from our values we may feel out of sync, confused, and disconnected from our deeper self.”
Karen Benke, author of four creative non-fiction books for readers and writers of all ages, views values as “standards of excellence,” a term she borrowed from her friend Maria Nemeth. They “help guide us to being the best versions of ourselves—standards that are beneficial, helpful, and important to our leading a life worth living.”
Benke’s values also help her feel ready to face challenges, obstacles, and frustrations. She noted that these values include: joy, wonder, creativity, kindness, generosity, beauty, truthfulness, trust, abundance, dedication, calm, loyalty, and analog over digital.
Selig’s most important value is love: “love for myself, for my family, friends, and neighbor, for the creatures we share the earth with, and for the earth itself. Love is the root and the stem, and from that value emerge petals like service, like connection, like generosity, like attention, like loyalty.”
One of the best ways we can discover our values is by connecting to our creativity (which also might be a value!). As such, below, you’ll find eight creative activities for discovering your values—which include everything from drawing to penning poetry.
Create a values tree. According to Roizen, a values tree can illuminate the origins of our various values and how they’ve shaped our perception overall. She suggested gathering any materials you’d like, and drawing a big tree on a piece of paper. The tree should include roots, a trunk, and branches. Next, at the roots of the tree, jot down any values that you’ve taken from your family or childhood. “Think about your family culture and the values that your parents, guardians, grandparents, and other relatives embodied and passed on to you.”
Then shift to the trunk of your tree. Jot down any values that have come from friends, your partner, parenting, work, religion, school, travel, books, and any other sources. Finally, go to the branches, and write down any values you’re wanting to grow in your life. After you’re done, reflect on whether there are any overlapping values on your tree. “Circle or highlight any values that seem particularly important to focus on at this time. Which values are most needed for the tree to thrive?”
Roizen suggested returning to the tree to add more values as they arise; and doing this with a partner or family to explore differences and similarities in values.
Explore your memory. This 5-minute exercise comes from Benke’s newest book Rip ALL the Pages! 52 Tear-Out Adventures for Creative Writers. She suggests starting with the words “I remember,” and letting your memory jump around, noting all kinds of moments. These moments might pop up as fragments in your mind, such as several sentences of dialogue or a hodge-podge of scents.
See if these memories reflect a value or standard of excellence that you’d like “to guide you into your future,” Benke said. For instance, you might realize that your value is safety, curiosity, or cooperation, she said.
Practice “the mountaintop experience.” Selig, co-author of the book Deep Creativity: Seven Ways to Spark Your Creative Spirit, does this exercise with her students in a course called “Deep Vocation.” She asks them to describe a time they felt “high on life, when they were having a peak experience.” Then she asks them to draw the experience. “Even if they’re terrible illustrators, as I am myself, something often comes out of the drawing that is different than the written description,” Selig said.
Lastly, she asks students to observe their experience and reflect on what values were being expressed during that time. “It’s a fail-proof method to uncover core values.”
Host a give-away party. For this exercise, Benke noted, “all you do is answer questions, skipping those questions that you don’t want to answer and dropping deeply into detail for those questions you do want to answer.” Your answers serve as hints “to what values you have.”
- What’s your ultimate birthday meal?
- What’s your favorite coin and the side (heads or tails) you most often call?
- What’s your most prized possession?
- What’s a sound from nature that calms you?
- Where do you feel the safest?
- What four things would you want if stranded on a desert island?
- What was your favorite place to play as a child?
- What article of clothing is your favorite?
- What’s your favorite game?
- What are five things in your bedroom or closet?
Next, using your responses, write a short poem or letter to someone you love (addressing that person as “you”), Benke said. Notice whether the idea of giving things away feels tough or fun. Because this, too, can be a clue to your values.
For instance, one of Benke’s students said it was easier to give things away if she knew she had two of everything, because giving away her favorite things was upsetting. “Turns out, she valued abundance.”
Another student, Benke said, discovered that she valued spirituality, love, and trust. The student wrote: “I give you the distant god in my soul. Here, take it. I give you my voice as a token of love and trust…”
Let your emotions lead. Selig noted that emotions are an excellent way to discern our values. She suggested flipping through magazines, and looking for images that stir your emotions. Use those images to create a collage. Then, explore the final product: “What’s happening in each of the images? What values are being expressed?”
Take a “surprise survey.” To identify another value, Benke suggested finishing the following lines, remembering “to feel your way in.”
- My hands reach for…
- My feet run toward…
- My eyes search for…
- My soul wonders if…
- If you open the trapdoor of my heart, you’ll find…
Connect to your soul. Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D, co-author of Deep Creativity, suggests reconnecting to the personal classics that have spoken to you when you were a child or teen. Because, as Selig said, these classics “express values that are deeply embedded in our soul.”
Your personal classics might be books, movies, music, images, and works of art. Jot these classics down on a large piece of paper, and play connect the dots to identify what values have been important to you since you were young, Selig said.
Create tangible reminders. When Selig bought her first home in her early 30s, she painted her values in Latin above her entry way “so when I walked in, I would remember what was most important to me.”
Another tangible reminder, she said, is to use a Sharpie to write your values on a stone, “carrying it around in your pocket, a literal touchstone.” Or, she added, you could use your phone to send yourself reminders at random times of the day or week: “How are you expressing your values right now?” or “What value are you expressing right now?”
Roizen suggested creating a coat of arms to reflect your current core values. Start by drawing, painting, or cutting out a shield. (You can find templates online.) Create four or more divisions in your coat of arms, and fill each one with a core value. You can include a symbolic image that represents each value. Once you’re done, keep your coat of arms in a prominent place.
Benke suggested writing down your values on five to 10 index cards. Then, she said, place each card somewhere you’ll regularly see it, such as your bathroom mirror, car dashboard, breakfast bowl, nightstand, in the pocket of your favorite jacket, or taped to the back of the front door.
Even though our truest values originate from our most authentic selves, they aren’t permanent. As Roizen pointed out, our values can shift and develop over the years. Which is why it’s important to regularly return to the creative exercises that resonate with you, and make sure your compass is still correct.