Updated: Jul 16
Author: Bari Rothfeld, LCSW, CADC
Edited: Julie Raymond, LCPC
What Are Values?
Values are foundational beliefs that dictate behavior and decision making. Think of them as principles, morals, and/or standards that give your life purpose and worth. Their growth and development are both conscious and unconscious as life experience and self-awareness builds. One important differentiation to note is that values are not synonymous with goals. Goals are to be achieved, completed, and/or checked off a list, whereas values are timeless. They’re constantly working towards and regularly evolving - just like you! Values help us to shape the way in which we treat ourselves, others and/or the world around us.
You may think that values should be obvious and easily identified, but the truth is, most people don’t fully know what their values are without engaging in some form of reflection or self-discovery. It isn’t enough to just adopt the norms of the culture you live in—norms refer to compliance, social expectation and fitting in. If we all shared the same set of values and just molded to societal norms, life would be pretty boring and all of our paths would look exactly the same. It‘s easy to come up with a list of things that you should value, but actually discovering what you truly value takes some effort.
Why Are Values Important?
Value identification is important for personal development as well as informed decision making. These informed decisions dictate behaviors that have the ability to work in your favor by playing into your strengths, wants, and needs. When you’re unclear or unsure of what your values are, it is not uncommon to feel lost or as if you are “just going through the motions” as life passes by.
For example, let’s say you get offered a job several hours away from home and you immediately relocate and take this job, because of the salary increase. You don’t consider any other factors or implications; you just assume that a salary increase will equate to a better life. Three months into the job, you realize that the cost of living in the new city is much higher, your commute is twice as long, and you really miss seeing your family and friends throughout the week. Without stopping to consider if this job was in line with your values before accepting the offer, you unintentionally took a big step backward in terms of personal development. Although a wonderful learning opportunity, this decision was not well-informed, nor did it play into your strengths, wants, or needs.
When we’re aware of our values and regularly assessing if our behavior is values-driven, the road to personal development feels easier to navigate. You innately know what factors in your life are worth focusing on in order to feel fulfilled. Goals are easier to make as the reasons for creating them feel clearer. It is easier to recognize passion and identify what makes you happy, because there is clarity regarding who you are and who you want to be.
How Do I Discover My Values?
Step 1: Reflect
Think about moments in your life that have been especially meaningful to you, or experiences that you would consider to be highlights. What was going on during those times? Who were you with? What were you doing? What stands out?
Alternatively, think about times in your life where you felt angry, frustrated, anxious, unhappy or disempowered. What was going on during those times? Who were you with? What were you doing? What stands out?
Now think about what gives you a sense of fulfillment or purpose? Do certain activities, people or things make you happiest? These are your values, or at least helpful information that will helps identify them.
Step 2: Consolidate
Identify any noteworthy themes that emerged from your reflection. If your reflection led to a large list of words, it may be useful to create smaller, more digestible groupings. For example, if you identified “loyalty,” “respect,” and “honesty” as meaningful or important, consider grouping those values into one, like “relationships” or “connections”. Or, if you found “hope,”, “motivation,” and “inspiration” relevant to your reflection, maybe consider grouping those values into “progress” or “growth.”
Step 3: Choose
Now let’s break that list down even further. Ideally, you’ll be left with 5-10 core values. If you have too few, your roadmap won’t be specific enough and you’ll still be left wondering “who am I?” However, if you have too many, it’s impossible to put equitable effort into each and every one.
Here are a few more things to consider in choosing your 5-10 core values. Ask yourself which values are a fundamental part of your life? Which ones define your everyday actions vs long-term pursuits? Don’t underestimate yourself. You know your strengths and weaknesses and you know when you feel most proud. You know the areas you’ve been given feedback in and you know the areas you couldn’t care less about.
Remember that this is a live document. You are always welcome to revisit your values and analyze how they are making you feel and/or how they’re driving your decision making. To ensure that you’re living a life that is values-driven, make an effort to refer to the document at least once per month. What thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are you engaging in that are bringing you closer to your identified values. Alternatively, what thoughts, feelings, or behaviors are you engaging in that are pushing you further away?
If your level of satisfaction with one of your identified values declines over time, consider making some changes—either to your life or to the value itself. Create action steps that will deliberately bring you closer to living in line with your values, even if those values change.
Identifying values can be overwhelming- the directive is broad, the list is limitless, and the journey is bumpy. It’s ok to ask for help in the process! Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, and/or therapist.
Examples of Values (please note that this list is not exhaustive- there are more values in existence than what is listed):
DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition, Marsha M. Linehan