- How do we best listen to ourselves?
- How do we know what we want in life?
- How do we know what we really believe?
- How do we decide what is the next, best thing to do?
- How do we DO it?
First, you must know your own core values.
In my last post, Life’s Most Important Skill, I stated the truth that most of us do not listen well to ourselves. To listen to ourselves better, we must understand our core values. Core values are what most deeply matter to you. These are your fundamental beliefs, behavioral “musts” and main life desires. Most often we learn these from our experiences, our family, or other influential people in our lives. Your core beliefs are key viewpoints you have about life, others, and yourself that you believe to be factual and real. Sometimes they aren’t really truth—but echoes of “tapes” which have run for too long. Perhaps there were unwritten rules in your family home which you had to follow.
“All men are pigs.”
“The secret to happiness is having money.”
“Don’t ever let your feelings come out.”
A healthy person has reviewed their values and chosen to own some of the values as true while purposely discarding others.
The cost of not understanding your core values
Over time, almost all of our core beliefs become unconscious. They control our life’s direction, and influence our growth and success, but they do it from backstage, like a play’s producer or director. Unless we recognize them, name them, and sort them, they run our unconscious and inform all of our decisions. And they often stop us from really hearing ourselves. They can make our personal behaviors deeply unsettling or painful. When we don’t understand our values, we are divided or at war with ourselves. We are more likely to escape into bad habits and regress into childish behavior to “fluff” ourselves up. We stay stuck in the swamp.
Knowing our core values is the first step to listening to our own heart.
They form the Christmas tree on which we hang our own ornaments of self. They are a deep-rooted part of us, and act like a rudder on a ship. They highlight what we stand for. They represent our unique, individual core. They tell the world (and our own brain) that this is my substance, my lifeblood, my personal code of conduct.
Knowing our core values is crucial for us to know ourselves. When we honor our personal core values consistently, we experience fulfillment. Clarifying what we value most can help us shift many things in our lives. It can influence what we eat, what we read, who we visit, or what we pursue. It can instill different habits. We find we have new options in life. We find peace. We experience new joys. We become more whole.
Some examples of core values
Core values usually touch on major topics or principles like:
- Faith—a core belief in God or religion.
- Relationships—a core belief that supporting family or friends is of the most important value.
- Making a Difference—a core belief that sacrificially helping others makes life joyous.
- Work—a core belief that only hard work and long hours will gain me my goals.
- Success—a belief that to maximize possibilities, “waiting is always better than deciding.”
- Education—a belief that school is critical, and formalized learning is of primary value.
- Money—a belief in being a frugal or saving for tomorrow.
- Experience—a belief that you must seize life, and drink deep of every experience you can.
- Risk—a belief that self-protection is paramount, and that trying hard to avoid risk is most wise.
- Safety—a belief that the world is always a dangerous place.
- Emotional vulnerability—a belief that we must be honest with others about our own strengths, weaknesses, and fears.
- Intimacy—a belief that we can only trust ourselves in the end.
- Character—a belief that honesty is always the best policy and that trust has to be earned.
- Balance—a belief that we must work for balance in all things, including work and play.
So, how do I know my own core values?
It takes work to honestly discover your core values. You might have to dig them out slowly, or jot down notes during a quiet morning walk. Often talking with a close friend, mentor, or counsellor is helpful. Writing them down really helps, too. I have my students, mentorees, and patients use the following four-step exercise to discover their core values.
STEP 1: Make a master values list.
To help identify your core values, create a rough “master values” list. Look at your current and past life and ask:
- “What do I think is absolutely true in this world?”
- “What do I think is most important?”
- “What are my peak, best experiences in life–and why?”
- “What statements should be on my personal code of conduct?”
- “What choices bring me peace, undeniable joy, a deep sense of accomplishment, excitement, anticipation, or contentment?” They feel or are “right” for you.
- “In contrast, which choices seem to bring sadness, discontent, anxiety, disgust, anger, restlessness, disbelief, or insecurity?” They feel or are “not right.”
STEP 2: Combine like values together.
You now have a master list containing most of your values. Often, there might be up to 50 values on your list; this is too many to be useful to live by. You now need to cluster them together by similarities. Values like accountability, timeliness, and responsibility are all related. For example, “I will live a life that is highly responsible in my time, my words, and my actions.” Learning, growth, and personal development relate to each other. Relationship, connection, intimacy, and belonging go together. Rewrite or combine those which say the same thing.
STEP 3: Measure the truth of the values.
Our values change over time as we growth and mature. What may have been true for a six-year-old, might be untrue now. For this step, go back through your list and ask yourself the hard questions. Be aware of your inner-critic, truths which are over-stated, and old wounds. Then remove, pray about, or put question marks besides those you are unsure of or don’t desire to carry any longer.
- Is this really true? Are there exceptions?
- Where and when did I learn this?
- Has this value added or subtracted from my life?
- Do I want to live the rest of my life under the banner of this core value?
- If I lived my life with only this value, would I feel complete or happy?
STEP 4: Choose your personal “key core values.”
Now comes the most difficult part. After completing step 3, you still may have a sizable list of values. We need to come up with the fewest possible essential values. How many should we come up with? While the number of core values can differ, in most cases coming up with 5 to 10 top values is helpful. Too few limits and misrepresents you, and too many are hard to remember and follow.
Here are a few questions to help you synthesize and focus your list:
- What values are essential to my life?
- What values represent your primary way of being?
- What values are essential to supporting your true self?
After following these steps, you should have a group of key core values. You should know yourself better. It takes commitment to listen to yourself. It’s hard to differentiate between the things you’ve been taught to believe and the core values you personally choose to live by. Some core values from our past remain rock solid. Others fade during a new season of living. Some we may question and then return to with joy. But the effort is worth it because when you know how to listen to yourself, you make choices that lead towards the life you actually want. You know better which paths to take, and which to avoid. And this inevitably increases your emotional health, and lowers your stress levels. When you know yourself, your contentment and effectiveness soar. You become more the real you.