You cannot create your own values. Values impose themselves on you independent of your will.Jordan Peterson
Core values are intangible, guiding principles based on our personal ideals. When we become consciously aware of our unique set of values, we can use them to make better decisions, helping us to live a more authentic, fulfilled life.
This is a guide to what core values are (and what they are not), how to discover them and how to use them.
Why is it useful to know your personal values?
Understanding core values is all part of getting to know who you are.
In a nutshell, being consciously aware of our innate values helps us live more authentically. When we don’t act true to our values or allow ourselves to be guided by them, we suffer to some degree or another because we’re going against the grain of ourselves.
When you compromise on your core values you feel like you’ve betrayed yourself.
If you want to live your life with integrity, your actions need to align with your values instead of what society or others tell you. According to Bronnie Ware, the most common regret of the dying is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
Life coaches love values exercises because it helps them understand the essence of their clients, which makes for an effective coaching relationship from the beginning.
Awareness of your core values helps in all areas of life
Communicating your values is a powerful way to connect with the right career opportunities or life partners.
Sylvia Nicolas, career coach and HR professional says “the number one issue for job candidates is not knowing who they are and why they do what they do”.
Falling off the wagon
When big life changes happen, like divorce, redundancy or moving abroad, we can suffer an identity crisis and feel lost. Knowing our values, we can put our finger on what we need to get back on track.
Defining ‘values’: Are values the same as needs?
Morals, beliefs, needs, priorities… all of these things overlap and they could all be interchanged with the word ‘values’ in some way or another.
To make things more confusing, Friedrich Nietzsche believed that you can make your own values but Carl Jung disagreed. So to avoid the philosophical labyrinth of what values are in general, we have to define what we mean by values for the purpose of this exercise, in the context of life coaching.
- Firstly, values are intangible, they are not ‘things’.
- They are not personality traits.
- Values are long term and consistent, whereas needs and priorities can change depending on context.
- Values can be identified by thinking about needs but they are not needs.
Is ‘happiness’ a value?
Nobody would disagree that happiness is important, but is it a value? Happiness could be seen as the ultimate goal, but achieving it is going to be different for each person. Therefore we end up back where we started, looking at personal values. My conclusion is, for the purpose of the exercise, it’s not a value.
Going shopping for values doesn’t work
Looking at what we admire about the way others live, or going through a list of values can be helpful if you’re stuck, but can also throw you off the scent.
You could end up ‘taking on’ the values you think you ‘ought’ to have. You already have your values, you just haven’t uncovered them yet.
An exercise to discover your core values
Discovering your top values is an intense process. It’s definitely worth taking a periodic rest and coming back to it, maybe several times, with fresh eyes.
Here are the steps:
- Step 1: Gathering
- Step 2: Crunching down
- Step 3: Giving context
Step 1: Gathering
Start collecting a list of values, firstly, remembering what we mean by values:
- They are long term, consistent personal ideals
- They are not wish lists
- They are intangible
Here are some ways to gather your list…
Go through your life history and note the defining moments. The timeline exercise in this blog post can help you here.
Note the events where:
- You were most proud of yourself
- You were most in your element
What personal values were at play?
Similarly, look for moments where you betrayed yourself. What value was being suppressed?
One of the best jobs I ever had was when I was 17. On Saturdays I worked in the cafeteria of a municipal sports centre serving ham sandwiches, sausage & chips and tea (this was the 80s, no healthy options back then!). I also worked in McDonalds around that time and loathed it with a vengeance. On the surface they both looked like crappy jobs but I loved working at that sports centre café so much. Why? The manager would let me into the premises at 8:30 am and leave me to my own devices. It was just the customers and me. Nobody was bossing me about like they were in McDonalds. From this, I recognise ‘independence’ as one of my core values. And that’s why they didn’t let me join the army… I think they could see it in my eyes!
Your day to day experiences
- What conversations energise you?
- What eats away at your conscience?
Look for clues around you
- Your photo stream
- Your bookshelf
- Your favourite films
What common themes do you see, and what values do you think are driving them?
Step 2: Crunching down
Look at your list to see which words are similar and can be grouped into one single value.
Also, it may be worth scanning the values list again, to see whether a synonym would be a more accurate fit for the value you are describing.
Now rate each value by scoring them on importance (say between 1-5). Sort them by the top scoring values.
Grab the top 5-8 values, and keep the rest aside.
Step 3: Give them context
In order to successfully apply your core values, it’s useful to give them more specificity and context. For example, ‘freedom’ can mean many things. Is it freedom from something or freedom to do something?
Using this sentence structure can help:[Value x] [to/of/in/with] [context] is important to me.
- Freedom to choose how I work is important to me.
- Freedom to live in any country is important to me.
- Freedom to express my creativity is important to me.
- Freedom of speech for myself and others is important to me.
Using your core values
In goal setting:
Every three months, ask yourself how well you are honoring your values, and set goals accordingly.
In your decision making:
Your values will come in useful with life changing decisions such as choosing a new career, where to live, a life partner etc. Simply ask yourself, “by deciding to (x), will I be honoring my values or suppressing them?”, checking through each of your top core values.
In moments of crisis:
When life knocks you sideways, perhaps with a divorce or redundancy, reminding yourself of your values can stabilise you and help you move forwards. In these moments, look at what values you may have lost sight of, and make a plan to add them back into your life.
Living incongruent to your values is like swimming against the tide. When things are going rough, or you’re at a crossroads in life, you now have a clearly defined set of values to check in with and get into the flow of authenticity.