QQ: What Are My Values and What Do I Do With Them?Turns out, they’re basically the! key! to! everything!
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by a therapist’s social post (or let’s face it, every self-actualized human on the internet) telling you to honor your values followed by a quote that essentially boils down to “you can do it…maybe.” All of us? Great, same page. But, sorry, what are values again?
More often than not, we hear buzzwords like values (or toxic or boundaries) and keep on moving because the internet expects us to know what the hell that even means. And in this case, values are pretty important and worth understanding before reposting that ~enlightened~ meme.
So what are they? According to psychologist and leadership coach, Maike Neuhaus, PhD, “values are our core desired feelings—the things that we deem most important. In other words [our values are] what we’re hoping to get out of this life, and what we think is important in this life.” Those could be as broad as authenticity, dependability, and generosity. Or specific like friendship, health, or wealth.
Yeah, they’re big deals. And because values are so, um, valuable, understanding what your specific set looks like, can help you live your best damn life. They can act as our North Star, says Dr. Neuhaus, guiding us through decision making, goal setting, boundaries, relationships, and almost every other aspect of life.
These priorities stem from lots of places, says Dr. Neuhaus. Some we’re born with, some come from how we were raised or society in general, and the rest come from our life experiences. For example, if you grew up in a family that often struggled with money, you might be a person who really appreciates financial stability. Or you might have learned that you don’t need to make a certain salary to live a life that makes you happy. It could go either way!
How to Find Your Values
Unfortunately, values can be tough to pin down without setting aside time to really think about the things that are most important to you. Because of that, it can just feel easier to choose your values based on what you think should be significant or what others say is meaningful to them. That can lead you to make decisions that don’t feel very fulfilling, like deciding to live closer to your family because you know it’s a big deal to them—even if you’d like to do more exploring.
That’s where some quality time with your journal (or Google doc or Notes app) can be a super helpful tool. Start by asking yourself, When was I most proud of myself? You can also noodle on moments when you felt the most fulfilled or when you were the happiest. If you’re able to work through these prompts, you’ll begin to notice common themes through each memory, says Dr. Neuhaus. Spend as much time as you need free writing until you pinpoint the non-negotiables in your life.
Looking at your past decisions can also be a helpful marker, says Dr. Neuhaus. Think about some of the big decisions you’ve made in the past that you felt really good about. Ask yourself what was “at the crux of your decision,” she adds. “If you can distill that down to one word, there’s the value.” Say you recently decided to end a relationship because your ex didn’t like your friends. In that case, you prioritized your friendships ahead of your romantic relationship. So maybe friendship is one of your values.
If you’re at a loss of where to start, the internet can be your friend too. Dr. Neuhaus recommends this printable worksheet that lists different values for you to reflect on. (Just keep in mind that this list or others like it aren’t totally exhaustive since values are highly specific to you.)
Whether you used the digital worksheet or found values on your own, you can narrow your list down further by grouping certain values that you feel naturally combine. For example, if you value commitment, discipline, and consistency, you could say that you ultimately value dependability.
To narrow your list further, you can reflect on a hypothetical situation that challenges two of your values. Say you value both speed and accuracy. If you’re working to get a report to your boss by the deadline they laid out, but it’s getting close and your work isn’t quite ready, would you feel better about getting the report in on time with some typos or turning it in later but polished as hell? Keep putting your priorities to the test until you’re left with a tight list that aligns with you.
From there, ask yourself questions to help reaffirm your list. Do the values match up with the ways you spend your time and money? Would you stand by these even if your friends and family didn’t? Do they make you feel excited and happy? Are you proud of the list you’ve created?
How to Use Your Values
Once you’ve got your list, you can use it to make decisions and set goals and boundaries you’ll feel good about.
1. Make a decision
Weighing the pros and cons of a big choice (or even a small one, TBH) can get you caught up in the details. But if you weigh your options against your values, you’re able to zoom out and see the bigger picture—so it can feel simpler.
When you’re trying to make a decision, ask yourself, Do any of these options align with my values? Do they conflict with any of my values? If they do, think about whether you’re OK with compromising.
2. Set a goal
Goal setting can feel like negotiating. Aim too high and you can end up disappointed. Aim too low and you’re probably lowballing yourself. That’s why goals derived from your values are much more meaningful than ones focused solely on achievement. Because values-driven goals stem from the things that are already important to you, you’re more motivated and, in turn, more likely to achieve them.
For example, say you want to run a marathon and your biggest values are friendship, pleasure, and balance. Sure, running a marathon is a great achievement, but maybe joining a running club that meets once a week or finding a marathon training group that focuses on the joy of the run rather than achieving a certain pace would be more your vibe.
3. Set a boundary
Boundaries are the lines we draw to determine what we’re willing and not willing to do, tolerate, or accept. Just like decision-making and goal-setting, creating boundaries that stem from your values are the most effective.
That’s because setting boundaries that are in line with what’s most important to us feels less scary, says psychologist Jessica Stern, PhD.
Let’s say you value independence and routine, so you set a new rule for yourself that Sunday is your do nothing day. So even if you have to decline an invite to brunch, you’re OK with it because it’s in line with your need to recharge by yourself (and thus show up as a better friend in the future).
When to Reassess Your Values
Because we’re human, it’s extremely normal for our values to change. At some stage, we’ll have moments where we start feeling like something is off in our careers, relationships, lives, spirits, or community.
When those feelings come up, that’s your sign that your values changed, but your habits haven’t, Dr. Neuhaus explains. Maybe you’re feeling really depleted and uninspired at work lately. And while you might have taken that role when it aligned with your values, like making a great paycheck or working in a specific industry, it’s possible the things that matter most to you now are self-expression and curiosity.
Take inventory of how your values may have changed by asking yourself, How have I changed in the past few years? What areas of my life make me feel energized? What matters most to me right now?
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.