How to discover your personal values to improve life satisfaction

When we ignore our personal values and rely instead on external validation to confirm our worth as humans, we tend to struggle with all kinds of dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. This is why it’s so important to explicitly clarify your values and then engage in behaviors that align with those values. I hope that in sharing some of my own values-clarification processes, I can help you think about the process for yourself and commit to the things that matter most to you, regardless of what others think you “should” be doing.

“Values work” is a major component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Values are the qualities that are most central and important to you. They’re the characteristics that you most want to uphold and embody in your life. Think of the type of person you’d want to be described as by a loved one at your funeral (i.e., caring, adventurous, spiritual, family-oriented, cooperative, loyal, creative, etc.) or the things that bring you a sense of reward (i.e., learning, love, friendship, variety, financial security, health, etc.) They are not goals; they are priorities. The purpose of clarifying values is to give us direction, but not a destination. After all, how can you ever “achieve” a value of friendship? You can’t. You can just do things that are friendship-oriented every day, over and over, and by doing so you enhance your everyday life satisfaction.

I like to think of personal values as the “true north” on your internal compass. You can recognize them if you listen deeply to yourself. Remember that the things that excite you are not random.  They are reflective of your passions and if you follow them, they will give you purpose in life. The things that get you riled up are also not random—they upset you or stir up angry, uncomfortable emotions because they directly conflict with your values.

Personally, some of my values were brought to my attention because I was riled up. I had been low-key angry for a long time about things I believed I “had” to do to be worthy as a woman. Thanks to the mainstream media and of course, good ole’ social conditioning, I essentially had bought in hard from the moment I was born female to the belief that I needed to look a certain way (slender and delicate) and act a certain way (sweet and agreeable) in order to be worthy of love or acceptance. This led me to engage in behaviors that weakened me physically and mentally, and took me further away from who I wanted to be. I struggled because I was acting in accordance to what I thought would get me validation from outside sources, but I was ignoring my internal compass.

Until I could articulate my values, though, I couldn’t figure out how to reject those expectations of what it meant to be an acceptable, worthy human and create my own standards for how to be. As I reflected on what bothered me, I realized some of my biggest values: authenticity, compassion, balance, acceptance, and strength. Yet I was inadvertently moving through the world in ways that brought me farther away from those qualities. Instead of being assertive, compassionate to myself and others, and genuine, I was dependent on the approval of others, passive, and exhausted. I also realized how many social rules existed that undermined my pursuit of the qualities I valued, and thus my inner #socialjusticewarrior was awakened to fight them.

Once you recognize what you value, you have the freedom to structure your life and daily actions around those values. So for example, when I discovered that I valued strength, I questioned how I was defining physical and mental strength. I re-evaluated my relationship with fitness, and made some big changes. I began exploring activities that helped me feel strong both physically and mentally: high intensity interval training, lifting heavy weights, and yoga. I let go of the belief that I couldn’t build “too much” muscle or I would be “too bulky.” Thinking about it now, it seems pretty bogus that I was buying into a belief that made me averse to getting stronger, but hey, hindsight’s 20/20.

Changing my mentality around exercise from using it to control and manipulate my body shape to an attitude of getting stronger so that I can move through the world with confidence profoundly impacted my ability to internally validate. Being able to pick up heavy things, stand straighter, bend more flexibly, and run faster brought me immense confidence in my physical abilities and helped me see my body as an instrument. It means I can be more patient and gentle with myself and others. It means I can lift my suitcase into the overhead compartment on an airplane by myself, catch the bus from a block away, pick up a sleeping child, carry moving boxes, and schlep home a week’s worth of groceries. It helps me appreciate my body for what it does and not just how it looks. I try to give myself credit for the way I nurture myself intuitively now (even though it’s hard in a culture focused on “eating clean” and looking “cut” as primary measures of health), and feel proud of myself for doing so.

Similarly, when I recognized that I value authenticity, I began to share my writing. I began to ask curious and sometimes uncomfortable questions and share my thoughts, feelings, and ideas with loved ones, which has made my relationships richer and more meaningful. In my clinical work, authentically feeling my emotions has helped me model humanness and empathize with my clients on a deeper level (i.e., have more compassion, which is extremely important to me). It feels vulnerable every time I choose to show up authentically (especially when I’m not saying or doing what others might prefer me to say or do), but it also is incredibly rewarding to put myself out there in an honest way, and be unapologetic for doing so.

The thing about behavior is that it is almost always multi-purpose, so we don’t always acknowledge every reason we might be doing something. In fact, we cannot possibly know every single reason behind our behavior, since there are always some unconscious factors motivating us. So for instance, while I value strength and don’t value superficiality, I truly believe I exercise to be stronger and NOT because I want to look a certain way. But if you dig down deep, I totally still have remnants of that old belief in there telling me to exercise to “look good.” And while I value compassion, I also secretly still care about being liked (don’t we all?), which might unconsciously motivate me to do favors for people, even if I tell myself I’m just doing it because I’m a compassionate person. And that’s okay. We can’t totally erase old conditioning or become conscious of everything in our psyches, nor do we have to. The important thing is to recognize and challenge it when it doesn’t serve us, and find the priorities that do serve us so that we can focus our energy on them.

It’s a mixed blessing to realize that no one in your life will ever be able to understand you better than you understand yourself. It means you’re your own best friend, advocate, and advisor. Values are subjective, and nobody else can tell you what you “should” value, which also means there are no “right” or “wrong” values to hold. If you reflect intentionally on your priorities, you will build a deeper trust in yourself to know what you need on a daily basis and you will be able to contribute to the world in a way that feels satisfying to YOU. If you’re looking for some guidance in values clarification, there are some excellent books and exercises out there specific to this purpose. Here’s one from “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris and here’s another one from a coaching group, Co-Active Coaching. You can also click here for an overview and links to a variety of values-clarification activities that can help you flesh things out for yourself. It’s also a great topic to dive into with your therapist.

So what do YOU value most, and what will you do today that supports your values? What will you STOP doing because it does not serve your efforts to embody personal values? Let me hear from you in the comments below, or share with me and our community on Instagram (@mindful.drpaula).

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