Author’s note: I’ve struggled for several months with writing a post about discovering and living your personal values. Not because it was a personally-difficult topic, but because I think it is so important that I wanted to get it “right.” Finally, though, I decided not to let the search for perfect be the enemy of good, and what you see below is the result of that. Discovering that I should have personal values, and then uncovering those values, has been the most pivotal experience in the past six months for me, and I hope this post helps you in your own search.
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Last year was a rough year for me. Between a series of changes at work and at home, I was miserable. I was also slowly realizing that what other people seem to deem as signals of “success” (promotions at work, major relationship milestones, saving towards large financial purchases) were actually bringing me zero excitement or life satisfaction. It was like finally reaching a castle you’ve been told about all of your life, only to realize the castle is made of sand as it falls apart in front of you.
At one point I was crying on the phone to my brother and asked, “Why can’t I just want what normal people want?” His answer: “Lindsay, you’ve never been ‘normal.'” What he probably should have said was, Lindsay, there’s no such thing as normal. As soon as you fall into the trap of worrying about what’s normal, you’ve lost sight of yourself and what’s really important. Instead, it’s about finding out what you want, and then going after it.
Is this scary? Hell, yeah, it’s scary. It’s like setting out for the biggest adventure of your life with no map or even idea of your final destination.
Part of me was also afraid that once I discovered what I really wanted out of my life, I’d learn that it was too late for me. I had spent 10+ years on the path that the world had told me was the “right” one. What if I discovered that what I really wanted from my life was now impossible? The possibility of traumatic disappointment loomed large before me, and living my life with my head in the sand seemed like the safer bet. You can’t be disappointed in your life if you never figured out what you really wanted.
Speaking as someone who is now traveling this path of self-discovery, however, I can tell you this: that self-talk (like most of my self-talk, actually) was complete bullshit. It’s never too late to live your life.
Discovering your own personal values helps you solidify your own understanding of who you are and what you want. It won’t bring you more unhappiness. It can’t. Instead, it will help you eliminate the friction between you and the life you live every day. It will bring you a peace you didn’t know you were lacking.
What are Personal Values?
In Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, Susan David describes personal values as “the compass that keeps you moving in the right direction.” They can help you make everyday decisions to guide you toward the life you want to live. If you truly value being healthy, then acknowledging that as a value and making decisions to support it is easier than telling yourself you “should say no” to that piece of cake.
According to David, values relate to the quality of the time you spend on certain areas of life, not the quantity of time. She describes the following characteristics of values:
- They are freely chosen and have not been imposed on you
- They are not goals; that is, they are ongoing rather than fixed
- They guide you rather than constrain you
- They are active, not static
- They allow you to get closer to the way you want to live your life
- They bring you freedom from social comparisons
- They foster self-acceptance, which is crucial to mental health
Why You Should Discover Your Personal Values:
For me, the best part of discovering and acknowledging my own personal values has been that they have helped me let go of some of the “shoulds” I have spent my life pressuring myself with. It has helped me accept that some things that “society” tells me is important are not important to me, so I can let go of the fear of judgment–because at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter to me if someone else is judging me for not doing something that isn’t important to me.
One example of this (for me) is the matter of personal appearance. Beauty isn’t one of my core values. Working in a professional environment, there is a certain amount of truth in the saying “dress for the part you want,” but I will never be the woman who starts her day spending two hours on her hair and makeup, or who spends thousands of dollars on her wardrobe.
In the past, however, I would compare myself to other women and beat myself up for “not making the time” to look as amazing as they did… or I would fall into the trap of wanting to look just like them and spend hours planning my wardrobe each week, which I would then resent after-the-fact because I didn’t actually get any personal enjoyment or improved quality of life out of it.
Now, however, I can accept that a “good enough” personal appearance is “good enough” for me. Having perfect skin and the perfect outfit and the perfect accessories would be nice, but not nice enough for me to dedicate the time to the activity. And because this has been a mindful, deliberate decision, I no longer worry about other people judging me for not dressing to the nines–because that is not an important part of life to me.
How to Discover Your Personal Values
You might be tempted just to look up a list of core values and pick the ones that sound the best. After all, if you have the “best” core values, you’e more likely to have the “best” life, right?
Your core values are not the things you think you should value. They’re the things you actually value. As soon as you start using words like “best,” you’re introducing judgment into the mix, and you’re less likely to identify those things that will ultimately bring you happiness.
For me, discovering my personal values has been a process:
- Abandon self-judgment. Stop using the word “should” when thinking about your life. Stop judging yourself for your own needs and wants and feelings, and allow yourself to explore who you actually are. For me, this was the hardest part that took the longest amount of time. (We’re talking months, folks, and it’s still a work-in-progress. This was not an overnight process.)
- Look inward, not outward. Don’t worry about what other people are doing with their lives. That’s their business, and if they’ve found their own happiness, that’s awesome. It doesn’t have anything to do with you or your happiness, though. This means not worrying about what your parents think, not worrying about what your friends think, not worrying about what your boss thinks. (This is called self-differentiation, by the way, and it feels awesome.)
- Foster self-awareness. When are you happiest? Or, if that’s too hard to figure out, when have you been unhappiest? What makes you feel as though you’re balanced? What makes you feel as though your life is stressful and difficult?
- Start to mindfully lean into the things that make you happy. Explore those spaces in thought and in practice, feeling the difference in the quality of your life as you do. Accept these aspects of yourself as good things, not bad things, and embrace them.
- Put words to your values. Try to name your values and tweak your understanding of them. You may even want to make a list. At this point, you might consult a list of values to see which ones fit your new understanding of yourself… or just wing it. 🙂
- Use your values to guide your everyday choices and decisions.
My Personal Values – A Work in Progress
For me, discovering my personal values has been a months-long process, and I’m still working on it. I’ll add a value to the list, feel it out, see how identifying with it changes my perspective on myself and my life, and decide whether it’s a “real” value of mine or just one that sounds nice. I haven’t made any major life changes as a result of this exercise, but I have made little tweaks to my day-to-day life.
I’ve also discovered that there are incongruities with the way I’ve been living my life. Wanting to be open-minded while also being a stubborn SOB are diametrically opposed, and so my next task is to identify when I’m being stubborn and try to let it go. Valuing authenticity while being dishonest with yourself and others about certain parts of my life is a major source of discomfort for me, and one I can now mindfully work to avoid.
So, without further ado, here is the current version of my own personal values, and what each means to me. This is not meant to be a suggestion of values for you. Instead, it’s just an example of my own values so you can see what is currently working for me:
- Authenticity – living a life of honesty and integrity and being true to who I actually am.
- Bravery – facing fear head-on.
- Personal Growth – constantly striving to learn who I am and how I fit into this universe.
- Self-Reliance – having the financial and emotional security to be able to generally take care of myself.
- Trustworthiness – being the kind of person other people can depend on to do what she’ll say she’s going to do.
- Creativity – expressing myself creatively through writing, crafting, etc.
- Joy – experiencing moments of happiness and excitement; the ability (hopefully) to help other people feel these too.
- Open-Mindedness – not allowing my own past experiences to limit my ability to try new things.
I hope this post has been helpful to you in your own quest for self-discovery. Personal values are so integral to who you are and how you live your life, the exercise is definitely worth the time. Comment below if you have any other advice for others who are in a similar situation as you. 🙂