Our Personal Values: The Architects of our Life and Behavior

Personal values shape and drive our behavior and therefore our lives. The only question is this: are we consciously aware of them? Have we done work on ourselves to consciously identify and focus on what is truly important to us? Or, have our values been chosen unconsciously, by our parents, or by other people or events in our lives? Are we operating on 'auto-pilot' according to what we learned as children?

Let me explain.

Many people that I’ve seen in counseling haven’t ever really taken the time to consider their values in an extensive manner. Yes, almost all of us have a sense of what we believe is right or wrong, but often times we’ve never really gone into any depth about this (in terms of introspection).

On the other hand, some people are very diligent about thinking this through. Either way, my experience tells me that a conscious, written exercise where we define and prioritize our values is an incredibly valuable exercise. When you consider how important our values are (in our decisions, our relationships, our moral/spiritual makeup), then it makes sense to spend some time looking at this every so often.

Even if you decide not to engage in this exercise, please consider journaling about things in your life that are most important to you and why. Doing so is a simple, effective way to step out of your normal perspective and see things in a different light. 

If nothing else, make sure you take the time--on a yearly basis, if not more often--to take stock of what is important to you in your life and make the necessary adjustments in your life, so that your life aligns with what you identify as most important. 

What happens if I don’t inventory my values?

When we lose touch with our personal values, we lose a sense of who we are. To not understand our values means we don’t understand what drives us, what motivates us at a deep level. Even worse, when we don’t take stock of our values, they can and will drive us in ways that we don’t understand, on a subconscious level.

Furthermore, lack of awareness of our personal values system puts us at risk of being completely unaware of major value conflicts in our lives. In my experience, this is a major cause of guilt and inner conflict for people. 

It should be said that, being human, we all have some tension between various values and priorities. However, when people aren’t aware of their values, they often wind up in terrible dilemmas, sometimes without even understanding what the problem is!

For example, when not in touch with their values, people are much more likely to

  • Accept an offer of employment without fully considering whether or not the position and duties are something that we will feel good about (in terms of our conscience)
  • Feel a sense of unease or that something isn’t quite right, but can’t identify it
  • Have a sinking feeling that something bad is going to happen to us, and/or a sense that we’ve done something wrong, but we cannot figure out exactly what it is
  • Make a decision that we deeply regret later on. This is a particularly painful one, as I’ve found that regret causes a great deal of suffering for people in the long run

An Example of a Conflict in our Personal Values

Let me give you an example: Someone comes in to see me, and their stated problem is relationship issues and anxiety. As I listen to them describe what is going on in their lives, I learn that he is someone for whom adventure is very important. As I continue to listen to them, it also becomes apparent that this individual places great importance on loyalty and dependability. Furthermore, this person tells me that they’ve been arguing a great deal with their intimate partner about some of the adventurous, or ‘high-risk’ activities that he does.

Being able to understand this situation from a values perspective, I am able to see that at least part of the tension here is between his sense of loyalty and dependability, and his desire for freedom and adventure. Without recognizing this internal conflict, I (and he) are missing a big part of the equation.

Another example: Someone decides to accept a job offer because the pay is good. However, the individual fails to consider how much he/she values job security and loyalty. Thus, he/she doesn’t examine these aspects of the company before accepting the job, only to find out (after being employed) that their new employer lacks one or both of these qualities. Bad deal!!

To some degree, this happens to all of us in our lives. To have some conflict/tension between our primary personal values is to be human. The problem emerges when we don’t recognize this conflict, OR we know but we don't do anything about it. As in the first example above, people often come to counseling with a values conflict, but they don’t necessarily call it that.

How do I go about Examining my Values?

Obviously, there are many different ways. The simplest is honest self-reflection, thinking about what’s important to you in various areas of life: Spiritual, financial/career, social/familial, physical, mental/emotional. It’s also crucial to think about what you do not want. This could be as simple as making a list of what you do and don’t value (or do and don’t want) in particular areas of your life.

However, for many of us, it’s helpful to do a deeper self-inventory. This brings me to the Values Card Sort.

The Motivational Interviewing Values Card Sort is an exercise that can usually be done in an hour or less (you could certainly do part of it at one point and come back to it later). This is a simple exercise where you print out and sort a set of cards found here. Then print out the instructions and proceed.

Completing this exercise is usually very insightful for people, especially if considered in light of one’s goals and current circumstances. More on goal setting here

If I do the Values Card Sort, what am I looking for?

First of all, the process of going through the exercise will cause you to think about what’s important to you. That’s valuable in and of itself. However, when you’re finished, think about decisions you need to make in your life, and consider the results of the card sort in that light.

Second, if there are any major conflicts in your personal values (such as the one I described above), it’s good to bring this to awareness so you can make conscious decisions about any inconsistency. There’s nothing worse than being on auto-pilot about major values or decisions in our lives--I have been guilty of this one, so I know! Having conflicting values come out in a particular situation is like being pulled in two different directions at the same time!

Finally, it may be helpful for you to do this exercise (or go back and do it a second time) with a specific part of your life, such as relationships, career, etc. Feel free to do it as many times as you think would be helpful. I can tell you that this has been very helpful to me and also to the many clients I’ve encouraged to do the card sort.

The Importance of our Personal Values

I’m hoping that your main takeaway from this page will be a greater understanding and appreciation of the role of your personal values in your actions and your everyday life. Given their importance, please take a little time to go over them and examine how well your current life circumstances fit with your important values. Doing so can provide you with focus and harmony that can propel you forward in a very powerful way!

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