Your values are a guiding light that lead you to a more meaningful, fulfilling life. Here’s how to identify your personal principles.
Want to connect to your deeper self? Wish to live a richer, more meaningful life?
The answer, which you may find hard to believe, doesn’t lie outside yourself. Rather, it dwells within, in discovering your values. That’s because your values define what a meaningful life looks like to you.
Your values are the justification for who and how you are — at your deepest, most personal level.
Your values can even help you heal from different conditions. Several evidence-based treatments use values as the basis for treating depression.
In today’s fast-paced world, it’s completely understandable if you feel disconnected from your values — or like you’re at the mercy of everyone else’s personal agendas and desires for you.
But here’s the great news: You can find your way. The key is to pause as the business swirls around you and reflect on the qualities that are most pivotal to you alone — not to anyone else.
Identifying your values and living them out loud helps you build a fulfilling, satisfying life in a range of ways:
Not letting negative emotions or thoughts run the show
When you know your core values, it’s easier not to allow fear, anxiety, or negative thoughts to hold you back from pursuing deeply important, inspiring projects, activities, or adventures.
Your values can draw out the best (internal) pep talk for giving that poignant speech, writing a book that helps someone through a painful time, or traveling to a fabulous, bucket-list location. Your core values are the fuel that keeps you moving in the direction you set out to go, even when jitters or self-doubt show up.
Here’s how to reduce anxiety right now.
Similarly, your core values serve as resistance bands to how much (if any) anger, frustration, jealousy, or other potentially overwhelming emotions can build while resolving a conflict or mending a relationship. Your core values guide you in taking action on what you hold dear.
In real life
If you’re someone who values candidness, living by mantras like “keeping it real” or “no filter” might leave you showing little resistance to containing your negative emotions.
If you’re someone who values harmony with nature and views fellow humans as your “brother,” you might keep a tighter rein on negative emotions and spend more time on mindfulness.
Here’s how to deal with difficult emotions.
Here’s how to navigate especially stubborn negative thoughts.
Keeping you rooted in your boundaries
Your core values help you to stand firm when declining not-so-meaningful requests, invites, and activities. Saying “no” to less-important things gives you the time, energy, and resources for what really matters to you.
If you still have a hard time saying no, though, know that it’s a skill anyone can sharpen and master.
In real life
You might value closeness despite growing up in a traumatic home environment. Right now, that core value may manifest as codependency, but there are steps you can take to heal and adhere to your nature.
Or, being viewed as someone who helps others could be one of your guiding principles. It might help to discover emotionally intelligent ways to show care while still preserving your boundaries and avoiding being drained as a people-pleaser.
Giving you a sense of purpose
Articulating your values helps you to wake up with a sense of purpose that carries you throughout your day, no matter what hiccups or stressors arise.
Research has found that having a purpose in life can lead to a variety of benefits, including reducing anxiety, depression, and stress. Maintaining a sense of purpose in midlife can even
Navigating sticky situations
When difficult situations or ethical dilemmas arise, your core values may guide you in your decision making. Your core values can give you clarity during possibly chaotic, confusing times. They lead you to make wise, healthy decisions that could set you up for success in the long term.
In real life
Perhaps you have a core value of personal excellence, spurred by past experiences. You may discover that you’ve been acting this out in ways that are narcissistic or with grandeur.
By reflecting on your guiding principles and maybe even seeking therapy to get help recalibrating your thoughts and behaviors, you could get back on track in a way that builds up your relationships and fortifies your success.
Online, you’ll find plenty of values lists. For example, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics lists these five core values to help athletes thrive in all areas of their lives:
- Integrity: knowing and doing what’s right, including being honest and learning from your mistakes
- Respect: treating others the way you’d like to be treated, including being accepting, considerate, and encouraging
- Responsibility: embracing opportunities to contribute, including being helpful and reliable
- Sportsmanship: bringing your best to all competition in life, including being humble and gracious
- Servant leadership: serving the common good, including working hard and helping others to grow and succeed
On his website, author James Clear features a list of more than 50 core values. He warns to only pick a handful to focus on, because if everything’s a core value, then nothing’s really a priority.
There are so many ways to discover your values, which is why we’re sharing an assortment of strategies. You can pick the exercises that resonate with you.
Also, because your core values aren’t set in stone, return to your favorite exercises periodically to rediscover what’s important to you.
Use your peak experiences
Your most meaningful experiences can be clues into your core values. To tap into your peak experiences, Dr. Jennifer Leigh Selig, co-author of “Deep Creativity,” suggests this exercise:
- Describe a time you felt “high on life.”
- Draw this experience, even if your drawing skills start and stop with stick figures; this simply provides another perspective.
- Reflect on this peak experience, considering the values that were being expressed at that time.
Use your emotions
Similar to peak experiences, our emotions can help us answer the difficult question of “what are my core values?” Selig also suggests this collage exercise:
- Flip through different magazines, looking for images that stir your emotions.
- Create a collage using these images.
- After you’ve finished the collage, ask yourself, “What is happening in each picture? What values are being expressed?”
Do a self-audit
According to Gary Chapman, author of the seminal book “The 5 Love Languages,” before we can love someone, we must learn what we personally value. And those values can actually show up in our less-than-positive feelings and experiences. Done right, we can use these seemingly frustrating parts of our lives to pinpoint our core values.
Using Chapman’s words as inspiration, perform a self-audit, considering:
- What do I get mad about?
- What do I most complain about?
- What do I wish I had more of?
Look to your classics
Connecting to your younger self can actually reunite you with values that are deeply embedded in your soul, says Selig. Here’s how, with an exercise from “Deep Creativity”:
- Think back to when you were a child or teen.
- Think about your favorite personal classics — books, images, movies, music, or works of art that spoke to you then.
- Write these classics down on a big piece of paper.
- Reflect on the values that these classics illustrate, which may still be important to you today.
Pack up your values
Exploring objects you can’t live without may just help you identify the values you can’t live without, either. According to psychologists Diana Hill and Debbie Sorensen in their book “ACT Daily Journal,” start by penning answers to these three questions:
- If you had to immediately evacuate your home, what important objects would you pack?
- What do these objects reveal about what you most love?
- How can you act on this love today?
Use these questions
To further discover your values, author Karen Benke suggests asking yourself these questions, skipping the questions that don’t resonate with you and diving deep into the ones that do with a simple “Why?”:
- What’s your most prized possession?
- What’s a sound from nature that calms you?
- Where do you feel the safest?
- What was your favorite place to play as a child?
- What’s your favorite piece of clothing?
- What’s your favorite game?
Living a rich, meaningful life starts with discovering your core values. Your core values are qualities that are both the starting blocks and home base for you. These guiding principles help you to prioritize activities, relationships, and projects worthy of your attention and intention — and to know how to respond in challenging times.
To make the most of your values, make them tangible. List your core values. Snap a photo and use it as your phone or computer background. Paste the list around your home and workspace.
And, of course, once you know your values, start living them.
What’s one value-inspired step you can take today? Right now?