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Identifying Your Core Values

Identifying Your Core Values
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You can listen to the audio of this post here:


We’re starting to see a shift in the self-development industry towards an emphasis on authenticity and integrity.

Some people are finally starting to see that chasing validation, achievements, wealth, sex and beauty isn’t as rewarding as it’s cracked up to be.

I hope everybody could get rich and famous and have everything they ever dreamed of, so they will know it’s not the answer” – Jim Carrey.

All those things we chase have something in common: They are external. Pursuing “happiness” is an attempt to use something outside of ourselves, our bodies, and our control, to make us feel a certain way, about… ourselves.

We use money to feel secure. We use validation and social approval to feel worthy. We use sex to feel loved.

We seem to seek confidence and love by going the long way around. We need a more direct route to self-worth.

But if chasing the dream isn’t the answer, what is? If the pursuit of the impossible – never-ending happiness – is all a load of bullshit, what are we supposed to be doing with our time?

The answer: Live by our core values.

A way of living that is commonly referred to as having integrity, or authenticity.

There’s something you’ve had all along, something you were born with, that doesn’t require anyone else’s approval, money or achievements. Let’s explore what that is.

WHAT IS A VALUE?

The word “value” has different meanings for many people, so allow me to describe my translation of it. (You can get a run-down of how values are different from things like virtues, goals and outcomes in an older post of mine, here.)

Core values are the different facets of your integrity; the different parts of what makes you truly You. They are both flexible and consistent, in that they manifest with a vast range of different behaviours, but the intention of achieving integrity is always the same.

You can run a mental experiment to know whether you’re looking at a value or something else. For you to know something is a value, check it against these…

The 3 Values Criteria:

  1. You could theoretically live by it in any physical situation, even being locked in a prison cell or tied to a chair. For example, you could choose to be honest in any restrictive situation, but you couldn’t choose to be athletic. So, honesty could be a value but physical fitness cannot be.
  2. Living by it does not require approval or participation from anyone else. The whole world could turn on you and you would still be able to live by your values. For example, you can be courageous without needing anyone’s permission, but you can’t be popular without social approval, so popularity cannot be a value.
  3. You must be able to apply it both internally and externally simultaneously, meaning you can do it for yourself and for others at the same time, without making a sacrifice. For example, being a martyr – hurting yourself to save others – cannot be valued behaviour, because you’re not compassionate toward yourself.

To help you get started, here are some examples of value words. These are by no means a complete list; you don’t even have to use these words. But they are examples of concepts that fit the above criteria:

  • Honesty.
  • Respect.
  • Courage.
  • Acceptance.
  • Responsibility.
  • Curiosity.
  • Patience.
  • Determination.
  • Assertiveness.
  • Compassion.
  • Giving.
  • Leadership (note: leadership does not require someone else to follow, it simply means to initiate).

And here are some common examples of concepts that cannot be values because they violate at least 1 of the 3 Values Criteria. Be wary of these, because pursuing them often leads away from integrity, not toward it. These are often the things that come up when you look at what you’ve been conditioned to believe a “good person” does.:

  • Family connection (requires other people). Try living by honesty instead.
  • Financial security (requires an external situation to go in your favour). Try being courageous about money instead.
  • Marriage (requires social approval and another person). Try focusing on connecting deeply with yourself and others instead.
  • Physical strength (requires situational freedom and comparison to others). Try measuring how determined you are instead.
  • Emotional unaffectedness (requires social agreement as to what this means and control of something essentially beyond your control – situations triggering emotional reactions). Try seeking to forgive yourself through acceptance instead.
  • Travel (requires external things like money and permission from country officials). Try playing with curiosity or adventurousness instead.
  • Charity (requires other people to receive it). Try giving freely and anonymously instead.

None of these things are “wrong” in any way, they are just not pure values. They are external things that you may engage in, sometimes in an attempt to live by your values, but they are not the values themselves. Knowing the difference is crucial.

So, let’s move our focus on how to figure out which values you have, and – more importantly – which values you need to be focusing more on.

WHOM DO YOU ADMIRE?

I believe our ability to experience admiration serves a single purpose: To identify which values we need to live by more to become satisfied with our integrity.

The trouble is, we often confuse admiration with envy (which I’ll go into more later in this post), and we don’t always recognise what exactly it is we admire in someone. It’s easy to think you admire the a successful business-woman for her wealth, but in values-terms it’s actually her courage, determination and resourcefulness that you admire (and are not living by yourself). A person who is strong in those values does not need money.

Also, know the difference between admiration and respect. Respect is when you recognise someone living by your values in the same way you are. It’s a feeling of mutual recognition. Admiration is looking up at someone, because their behaviour is shining a light on what you’re lacking.

Who do you admire, and why? What types of people are you likely to look up to? Answering these questions is vitally helpful for figuring out your values.

I found that I looked up to people who were socially shameless, the ones who’d speak their mind no matter who the audience was. When I dug into this and asked “What values do I perceive them to be living by?” the answer was courage, honesty and respect. My behaviour was severely lacking in all three of these at the time.

I looked up to people who appeared to have succeeded with their businesses. But it wasn’t just everyone who made lots of money; some of those people obviously harmed others to do so and I despised them for it. I looked closer. I saw that the people I most admired were the ones who made their fortunes through providing a valuable service. I was admiring values like compassion, determination and giving. I sometimes lived by these values, but certainly not as much as I could in my career.

Use the examples of values provided earlier to investigate the people you admire, and ask yourself which values are they living by? Once you’ve done that, notice that admiration is reminding you to live more by these values yourself.

MOMENTS OF SATISFACTION, WITHOUT RESULTS OR VALIDATION

Even for someone who has spent a lifetime seemingly without integrity – like the Nice Guy People Pleaser I used to be – there will still be a few moments where values won through.

One such time for me was when I first started studying at university. I had originally gone to university because I was on autopilot and just doing what everyone expected of me, so no values to be found there.

However, though I started with a bland Communications Degree, I realised after my first psychology class that I was genuinely passionate about the human brain. Impulsively, I raced to my dean and changed to major in psychology. For a brief, important moment, I did what was right for me.

Compassion. Respect. Honesty. Curiosity.

Another time, I was entering a supermarket and noticed that a guy in an electric wheelchair had managed to get himself stuck in one of those metal fish-trap style entryways you often get at supermarkets. While he was getting more and more stuck in his lane, people were walking past him with feigned ignorance in the other lane. I went up to him, faced the possibility of embarrassment, and asked if he wanted help. He had cerebral palsy and slurred his words, but his face told me Yes. So, I reached down, lifted the front of his chair and redirected it to free him.

Courage. Giving. Connection. Responsibility.

You’ll have moments like this in your past too, rare as they might be. Times you still look back on with pride. These are not to be confused with things you did to please others and felt validated by, like winning the school district long jump competition. Look for the moments where you did something just because it was the right thing to do, even if no-one else approved or noticed it happen.

Then try to figure out which values were at play.

LONG-TERM GUILT

When you neglect values, they will punish you. And their favourite way to do this is with long-term guilt.

This is different to what I call socially conditioned guilt – which is when you feel bad for letting other people down, for failing to live up to society’s expectations of you. What I’m talking about is authenticity guilt.

I’ve already written about this extensively here.

In brief, if you have to convince yourself that you’re a good person, you’re probably not living by your values.

If you have to talk yourself into going to work because you “need the money”, that job doesn’t match your values. If you have to convince yourself about why you should take abuse from your partner, your relationship is in breach of your values. If you feel bad about what you eat but tell yourself that you “deserve it” or that “there’s no point anyway”, then you’re not living by respect or compassion.

Sit still for an hour every week and let your guilt tell you what you need to know about your values. It will hurt. It’s supposed to.; that’s how you’ll eventually learn.

I do it every day, and every day it hurts a little, but the lessons this practice teaches me are often more valuable than my entire 5 year stint at high school.

FEAR REMOVAL HYPOTHETICALS

Quite often fear – in the form of irrational insecurities – will fight against your integrity. Fear wants you to feel good right now, while integrity often requires sacrificing short-term instant gratification for longer-term rewards. They’re doomed to clash with each other on a regular basis.

If you’re unsure of what your values are in any given situation, run through the mental experiment of asking yourself what you would do if you were completely fearless.

If you’re not sure your job is right for you, ask if you’d still be there after winning the lottery (remove fears around financial insecurity). If you’d quit, then your job probably doesn’t align with your values.

If you’re not sure about your friends, ask yourself how much effort you’d put into seeing them and pleasing them if you felt totally connected all by yourself, or had the ability to make new friends anywhere at any time (remove fear of abandonment).

If you suspect that putting pressure on yourself and being nasty to yourself about failures is not living by your values, ask how you would treat yourself if you were brave enough to face anything and had full self-acceptance (remove the fear of not being good enough).

You’d be amazed at how clear the answers are, like they’ve been obvious the entire time. It’s not exactly fun to face these answers, of course, but even questioning yourself like this engages the values of curiosity, courage and honesty, so you’re already on your way!

ENVY

One final place I’d recommend you look is into your own envy and jealousy. There’s a part of your brain that works tirelessly to avoid you having to put in effort. It does all it can to persuade you to avoid discomfort, pain and the unknown.

This part of you is often presented as I’m Not Good Enough.

It’s fuelled by envy. Envy is the process of looking at someone living more by your values than you are, and then systematically “proving” to yourself that they have an advantage over you.

Telling yourself someone has better luck, more money, better looks, less hassles, more free time, stronger support and other advantages is how you avoid taking responsibility. Instead of trying to find out what values they live by, you look to undermine their efforts and find a way to justify your presumptuous belief that they have it easy, compared to you.

When you notice envy happening, pay attention! You are falling for a guilt-removal process that will sabotage your long-term future. Your brain is trying to find a way to prove that it’s too hard to live by your values. If you don’t consciously intervene, you’ll end up feeling like a victimized spectator who has no power. It’s an illusion bought on by fear.

When someone has what you want, instead of allowing yourself to fall for the temptation of blaming it on some imagined disadvantage, try asking yourself, “If they achieved this through living by values that I’m currently too scared to live by, what might those values be?”

LIVING BY VALUES

Combine  all of the above exercises a little each day and you’ll slowly discover your core values over time. It won’t happen quickly, but with persistence you can achieve an understanding about what your values are and what it would mean to live with integrity.

Then it’s simply a matter of following through with action.

For more on how to live by your values once you’ve discovered what they are, check out this podcast episode (and of course, if you want to go deep on this topic, pick up my latest book Nothing to Lose):

   

 

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