What Do You Value?

The process of examining values often pops up in sessions with my clients. Many clients are stumped by the question, “what are your values?”

I don’t see how anyone can work through issues without knowing what is really important to them – and looking a little deeper into how and why they’ve embraced those things that can give our lives meaning.

I’ve developed a fairly simple process that can help. All you have to do is answer a few questions.

What are my values?
Am I putting my energy towards the things I listed above?
Where did my values originate?
Do they still fit for me?
If there are some that no longer fit, what else might be more appropriate for the life I want for myself moving forward?

Let’s look at each of these steps a little more in depth.

  1.  What are my values? To determine what your values are, just ask yourself, “What is important to me?” Some examples might be family, spirituality, religion (yes, they are different), friendships, alone time, financial security, honesty, trust . . . You get the picture.
  2. Am I putting my energy into what I say is important? I suggest writing every value down, then look at each one and ask yourself “Is this where I spend my time and energy?” For example, if you say family is your number one value, do you really put them above all else? Or do you spend more hours at work, going out with friends, looking at social media or watching sports or Netflix than you do enjoying your family? If you say honesty is extremely important to you, are YOU always completely honest, or do you just expect others to be honest with you? It’s important that you not expect something from others that you wouldn’t also apply to yourself. (This is especially true for parents and their children).
  3. Where did my values originate? Many of our values originate outside ourselves; from parents, religion, society, friends (ie, what everybody expects of me). Upon examination, some of those might still fit for you, but some may not have been your choice in the first place. In this step, I want people to really look at whether they have just taken on values they were told were important, and are living their lives to please others. If so, sometimes those values are no longer appropriate for them personally. I can’t count the number of times a client has come to therapy because they feel they’ve disappointed a parent or someone important in their lives. (It’s my belief that my job as a parent was NOT to just expect my children to take on the values I’ve embraced. Their path in life is very different from mine. I’ve tried to expose them to various perspectives on things so they can eventually choose for themselves what works for them).
  4. Do they still fit for me? This step is kind of like cleaning out an old closet that you’ve ignored for years. Some of the pieces of clothing might be too small now or have holes in them. Some might never have fit, and you just shoved them in that closet and forgot about them because you didn’t want to confront what they might mean. This is your opportunity to really examine each piece and determine if you want to hang onto it, or if it’s time for the dumpster. For some items, it might be that you’re not sure yet, so it’s OK to hang onto them, but set an intention to continue to evaluate how/if they benefit or handicap your life in some way.
  5. What might be more appropriate for me now? Now that you’ve examined all the values you’ve lived by (or ignored) for years, maybe there are some cavities left in your value structure. You may decide that ridding yourself of some of your old values helps you feel lighter, and you don’t need anything in their place for now. Sometimes we load ourselves up with rules that actually restrict our energy. But for others, now is the time for exploration. If you found several areas that don’t fit anymore, maybe you need to start looking elsewhere. Study different philosophies about that part of your life; talk to or observe people who have different views or who have led very different lifestyles than yours in order to see whether another value might fit for you. But do this as research – with curiosity. Do not simply take on another value just because someone else you know believes in that. That would defeat our purpose here.

This can be scary, but it can also be a very exciting time. It’s important that whatever you choose will become a foundation for your life. It has to fit into YOUR life; don’t try to squeeze into something just because you think it’s the thing to do. We all get to choose who we become, but most of us just put blinders on and go down the path of least resistance. It feels safer somehow. It’s not. Life is not supposed to be safe. It’s supposed to teach us lessons.

I examine my values occasionally, and I encourage my clients to do the same. It helps solidify our sense of self. When we know what we stand for, we begin to love ourselves more because there’s more of a purpose behind every choice we make. And we are being true to ourselves, not dependent on pleasing or fearing disappointment of anyone else. Therein lies true peace.

A ship in a safe harbor is safe, but that is not what a ship is built for.

-William Shedd