Every one of us humans has a set of core values that make us who we are. These core values are like the DNA of our soul. Our values must be expressed, or bad things happen to us and others around us. And when they are expressed, we feel deep fulfillment. The emotions are often joyful, but not always. Caring for a terminally ill loved one may be an expression of a core value of connection and caring, but the emotions that accompany that might be far more complex than just joy. Still, there is a deep-seated satisfaction that goes with living one’s values. You know it when you feel it.
So how do you know what your core values are? It is enormously helpful to be conscious of what your values are so that you can measure alternatives and make choices for yourself based on your values. But beware, our values are not always what they seem: our parents, our culture, and our circumstances growing up often impose values that we take on, feel they should be important to us, and we go on with life as if they were our own. An example: a bright young girl whose parents, both medical professionals, instill in her the desire to become a doctor. Through college pre-med classes she has done well, but in medical school she has a breakdown and can’t go on. She’s been pleasing her parents (honoring one value), but denying her creative side (stepping on another value). Later, she finds expression of her real value as an artist, and genuine fulfillment.
How do you uncover your core values? There are many ways to do this, but here are a few questions and methods that really get to the heart of this:
- Think of one or two peak experiences in your life. Times when everything was flowing. What made that experience special? What values were you honoring? Keep probing. There may be just one important value operative, but likely there were more.
- What are some things without which life would simply not be meaningful? The answers will lead you right to your values.
- What is it that you can’t stand, that makes you really mad? These things are clues to values you hold dear that are getting stepped on. For instance, I hate it when people interrupt others (doesn’t have to be just me). My value of deep respect feels dishonored when I hear people interrupting one another (the Hindi word “Namaste”, recognizing the divine in one another is how I like to express that value).
- Who are your heroes? Think of people whom you deeply admire; what is it about them that you hold dear? Their courage or connection, sense of justice or artistic expression? We frequently project onto others the values we hold for ourselves.
Once you have your list of values, you can start examining your behaviors and your choices in this light. It’s useful to rank them in importance to you at this point in time for you. Are you living your values when you take a certain action? Which choice will honor your most important value right now? What values have you not been honoring? What can you do to express that value in your life, work, or relationships?
Finally, notice what changes for you when you are more fully expressing your values. Are you feeling more fulfillment? Are other parts of your life going better as well? Is your heart at peace? Are you more generous, less crabby?