What does it mean to live a values-driven life? How can we tell if we are or aren’t?
Do me a favor. Take a moment. Ask yourself a few simple (but admittedly difficult) questions and answer them honestly.
1) What are my priorities right now? Where have I been putting my energy?
2) What kind of person do I WANT to be? What kind of relationships do I want to have? What would make my life most meaningful?
3) At the end of the day, what is MOST important to me?
4) Are my priorities and choices right now in alignment with what matters most to me, the kind of person I want to be, the relationships I want to have, and the life that would be most meaningful to me?
First, let me make a case for doing this exercise.
Living by our values is inherently clarifying, liberating, and empowering. It is truly life-changing. It also requires ongoing effort and intention. Many of us, especially at a younger age, can find ourselves living according to the values of others - parents/family, friends or groups of friends, our partner, or simply the culture we are surrounded by - without questioning whether those values truly align with our own. We are rarely even encouraged to clarify our core values for ourselves, so we rely on external validation or the approval of others for a sense of security and meaning in the world. This is totally human - we all want to feel loved and like we belong. But when we end up looking for it in the wrong places without examining our own values, we lose touch with ourselves and compromise our own integrity and true sense of self in the process, often without even realizing it. And then we ask ourselves, why am I so unhappy?
You may notice yourself struggling with indecisiveness or distress over certain choices. You may experience chronic anxiety and a general lack of trust in yourself and your reality. Maybe you tend to overextend yourself for the sake of others’ approval, at the expense of your self-respect or boundaries, and solely relying on the guidance or validation of others to feel at ease in yourself. You may never feel at ease in yourself at all. You may feel disempowered and unmotivated, and out of control of your own life. You may feel resentful, jealous, or bitter towards others. Clarifying and living by our values has the power to change all of this. It promotes freedom, empowerment, security, authenticity, and a sense of real meaning. Deeply knowing ourselves and what is most important to us is transformative in itself.
Clarifying our values makes navigating our lives - choices large and small - much easier. Values are not goals. They exist in the present moment and act as a road map, and are likely to move us in the direction of our goals and true potential in the long run. Defining our values means that in any given moment, we can make an authentic choice without shame, insecurity, self-doubt, or regret. It puts us completely in charge of our own lives. Through the use of mindfulness - slowing down to observe our thoughts and feelings - we can assess a situation and respond to it from our core values rather than from a place of reactivity or old habits. We can ask ourselves, “does this reflect what matters most to me and the kind of person I want to be? Does this contribute to or take away from the kind of relationships I want to have? Can I fully own this choice, knowing the impact it will have on myself, others, and the world at large?” With enough practice, this can become so natural that it becomes a felt sense and may take no time at all.
We are also human, and sometimes can get caught up in an energetic exchange that pulls us away from our values and that can feel overwhelming or scary. I definitely know what that’s like. But having clarity about our values and knowing what it feels like to live in alignment with them will help us catch ourselves when we depart from it. We will feel it in our gut. And we always have the power to bring ourselves back - it’s never too late. Intentionally living by our values also requires us to be comfortable taking accountability for the moments when we have lost our way. We must own whatever needs to be owned and then come back to ourselves.
It takes tremendous courage and resilience to actively and thoroughly clarify our values, and then reevaluate and restructure our lives accordingly. Sometimes it means we have to let go of some of the most familiar parts of our lives and rebuild from scratch. Sometimes we have to grieve those losses and recognize that it is supposed to be hard, and that is the point. Hard things are the things worth doing. And in the long run, it really pays off to feel good about the choices we make. It changes our quality of life.
So, I know the questions I outlined in the beginning of this post are very broad. It can be hard to answer them without some context or reference.
One way to clarify our values is to answer those questions thoughtfully and thoroughly on our own, but keep it succinct (we can’t overwhelm ourselves with a dissertation about our values, it will defeat the purpose). We can also spend some time reflecting on what makes us feel alive, what promotes impassioned responses in us, what memories we have when we have felt most comfortable, content, and clear and identify the essential qualities of those things.
It can also be very helpful to look at a list of values and choose our top 10. It is a really difficult exercise but worth really focusing in and listening to your gut until you are able to identify them. Don’t half ass this! Copy and paste this list. Start with eliminating the ones you know right away are not relevant. Then, continue to sit with and reflect on each one, and slowly go from there.
Here’s a list of possible values (or you can come up with your own and do this same exercise).
Authenticity Achievement Adventure Autonomy Balance Beauty Belonging Boundaries
Compassion/Empathy Community Competency Connection Contribution Creativity
Curiosity Equality Friendship Freedom Fun Family Growth Happiness Honesty Humor Harmony Integrity Independence Innovation Intellectualism Justice/Fairness Kindness Knowledge Leadership Learning Love Loyalty Meaningful Work Morality Nature Peace Power Prestige Productivity Reason/Logic Recognition Respect Relationships Security Self-Respect Service Spirituality Stability Success Status
Self-Awareness Self-actualization Self-expression Trustworthiness Truth Teamwork Vulnerability Wealth Wisdom
Once you choose your 10, here are some possible next steps:
1) Give each one a simple and clear definition for yourself - what does this mean to/for you?
2) For each one, consider and write down how you would want to embody them in your life.
3) Consider if your current lifestyle, relationships, and self-understanding reflect these values.
4) Identify where they are in conflict and where they are in harmony, and what choices you can make to shift what is out of sync.
5) Refer to this regularly and reevaluate as needed.
Isn’t it true that the most common refrain we hear from people about regret at the end of their lives is that they did not choose to live in a way that was true to themselves? Living by your values, and continuously evaluating and affirming your values (even if they change) is the clearest, steadiest path to an authentic life. I promise it’s worth it.