Define Your Personal Values

Personal values are reflections of our needs, desires, and what we care about most in life. Values are great cohesive forces for our identities, and can be thought of as decision-making guidelines that help us connect to our true selves.[1] Defining your values will help you figure out what to pursue and what to avoid. You'll go through life with a strong internal compass. And, personal values can serve as reminders of what you cherish while in tricky situations where you might be pressured to act according to some other standards. In this way, knowing your personal values will help you stay true to yourself as you move through life.


Tracking Emerging Values

  1. Clear space for some "you" time. Because defining your personal values require you to really tap into yourself, make sure that you have your own space to think about them.[2] Try turning off your phone, listening to soothing music, or doing anything else that helps you relax and focus on the present moment.
  2. Write down times of your greatest happiness and sadness.[3] Recall the peaks and valleys within your experiences, making note of the details and feelings surrounding each memory. Only include memories that had the most impact on your life and sense of well-being rather than those that earned you the most praise or recognition from others.
    • For example, a time of great happiness might be when you had a spectacular night of bonding with a close friend. It may not have been a crowning achievement, but you may have learned a lot about your personality and how to bond and share with another person.
    • Look for the themes that run through your most charged memories, good and bad. These may also be informed by your spirituality or political leanings. In all likelihood, you will find a few things that provoke extreme feelings of injustice, sadness, anger, or all of these. Notice what was missing and try to find this value in your happiest moments.
  3. Consider values found throughout humanity. We all have relatively similar, very basic needs that come from our bodies' constitutions and the evolution of human culture.[4] The things that we value ultimately stem from our needs--this is why we are so passionate about and committed to our values! Examining human needs will give you a powerful push to tap into your own personal values. More or less universal needs include:
    • Physical well-being (i.e. food, rest, safety touch)
    • Autonomy (i.e. choice, dignity, self-expression)
    • Peace (i.e. acceptance, hope, ease of mind)
    • Meaning (i.e. celebration, participation, understanding)
    • Connection (i.e. warmth, respect, consideration)
    • Play (i.e. adventure, humor, joy)
  4. Outline an initial list of personal values. Include the values that most deeply strike you as impossible to live without honoring. Here, you can bridge your personal experiences with your culture's values, as well as the universal human needs defined by our biological makeup.
    • Make sure your wording holds strong personal resonance for you. For instance, if you value being able to motivate yourself and complete tasks without help, you might want to write this as "I value the strength of independence and individuality." Similarly, if you value helping anyone who needs it, you may instead want to say "I value being of service to my fellows unconditionally and without judgment."
    • Try starting off with 7-10 values, knowing that it may eventually be more helpful to narrow these down to 3-4 primary decision making guides.
  5. Journal about how you typically enact these values. Values are different from the strategies you use to see them through. Oftentimes, these strategies come from your family of the faith you were raised with. By knowing how you are inclined to enact your values you will have greater insight into the values that lead you to do things you are most proud of.
    • For instance, you may have the value of being appreciated in your society. But, do you enact this value by wearing designer clothes to increase your status or by becoming a human rights activist? If you value a deep sense of peace and order, do you organize your home and diffuse essential oils? Or, maybe you resolve conflicts that arise in your family? Make these connections between your values and your daily life.

Testing and Balancing Personal Values

  1. Watch what makes you tick. One way to confirm your sense of what your values are is to spend a day watching what makes you tick. If you have a high priority value and enter a situation in which that value is threatened, you will feel anxious, vulnerable, or even angry. Something that you hear about or see on the news may also make you tick.[5]
    • For example, you might be told by your boss that your new tank-top is inappropriate to wear at work. Instead of simply moving on after a brief moment of frustration, you might feel very angry or on edge. If this is the case, you may reason that two of your most cherished personal values are acceptance and autonomy.
  2. Test your values by looking at the decisions they produce. This test will work in either real or imagined decision-making situations. Say you value independence, and you're considering moving in with your significant other. What sorts of options are available to you, given your value? If you value rest and spontaneity, but you work a job that requires 70-hour weeks, how will you avoid stress and internal conflict? In these types of situations, understanding your values can really help make creative decisions that reflect your own self-care[3]
    • Be aware that you will be able to see your value in action most powerfully while making a real decision. Sometimes we are so enamored with a particular value that we imagine it will always lead us to the best decisions when this is not necessarily the case.
  3. Decide what you will speak out against. If you are in certain situations make it difficult for you to uphold a personal value, think carefully about whether or not to speak out. Are you unable to live according to your value because of something that can be changed, or must you leave the situation altogether? What value is being threatened, and why?
    • Say you are in a relationship with someone who does not appreciate your hard work, and you strongly value being acknowledged for your efforts. Is this something you can resolve by talking? Can you enact your value of being acknowledged in other parts of your life? Is it possible to expand your sense of being acknowledged to include the unique way your partner expresses appreciation?
    • Another possibility is that you are moved to speak out against an issue or cause in your community. Perhaps you are disturbed by funding cuts to public schools--is this something you'd like to know more about or get involved with in some other way? It may be that your value of care for future generations is one that calls for action.
  4. Create a final list of personal values. These values should be rooted in your initial inclinations about what's important to you. In addition, integrate what you have learned from journaling about and testing your values in various settings. Aim to list and clearly define 3-4 main values.
    • Remember, these values are powerful tools for getting you through this portion of your life. Personal values can change from one part of life to the next. This is because your values are powerful components of you, meaning that they should change and grow as you do!
  5. Make note of conflicting values. Unlike norms and attitudes, values form an ordered system of priorities. [5] This means that you may find that you have values that compete for priority in your life. Not only is this not problematic, but it can even make life all the more interesting. By looking at your list of values and drawing lines connecting the ones that could potentially conflict, you are gaining insight into what creates fruitful tension in your life.
    • For instance, you might value having your own space and unconditionally supportive relationships. If this is the case, you'll know that ensuring your own space must be carefully managed alongside your other value to support friends or loved ones whenever the need arises. While balancing these potentially conflicting values can be tricky, knowing this in advance will help you make better decisions.

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