What are my values?

Posted October 2 2007

How do I work out what my values are? We are not encouraged to think too much about our values. It is easy for an employer to want us to just get on with the job- that's their values. Working life is often busy and hard enough that we seem to use all our energy just keeping up from day to day. Add a relationship and kids, and who has time to reflect on values? "Many of our concerns are a cause of worry and anxiety. Each concern tends to become tyrannical and wants our whole heart, our whole mind and our whole strength. Each concern tries to become our god. The concern about work becomes a god for some, as does the concern for pleasure for others." Charles L Birch, A Purpose for Everything Chapter I

Values do not cease to exist just because we are not thinking much about them. If we ask ourselves what is really important to us, and what we really care about, we will have an answer. It may take a little while to get our minds into gear, but we all have a list of ideas about the things that really should be happening in the world, and what we would like to be doing.

My sense is that a fair amount of our dissatisfaction about life comes because we have drifted away from the things which are really important to us. I don't mean the things we feel we should say are important but the things that really do matter to us. The things we would talk about after two or three worry free nights round a camp fire. I think our values inevitably drift towards the things we actually do, but our aspirational values, the things we would really like to do, and which are truly important to us, do not give up the fight for our life easily, as it were. The tension between what we really want, and what we are doing, makes us unhappy, or sick, or worse. Indeed, the reason we sometimes end up wondering "how we got here," and scarcely recognising who we are, is because we have been so busy, we have not realised how far we have moved from where we were, and how much we have lived as a different person, with different values. Charles Birch says, "As the chasm between our inner intentions and outer acts, our pretensions and our practice, deepens, so does our hunger for wholeness." Charles L Birch, A Purpose for Everything It hurts.

How do I get in touch with my values? How do I find what is really important to me, and what I really care about? What do I really think should be happening in the world? And given that what I think is unlikely to influence too many people, is it even worth the effort?

I think it is. Knowing our valves, and trying to live by them, introduces a certain balance in our lives. Even if we cannot achieve all that we wish, we will at least be living our life moving towards some inner harmony, rather than being defined by the wishes (i.e. the values) of others.

To begin is very simple. We only need to ask ourselves, "What is really important to me, and what do I really care about? What do I really think should be happening in the world?"

The trick is to do this in a way that lets us hear our "inner self." It does not work well to sit down and work on our values, if we have the values of Coca Cola and Hungry Jacks blaring in the background. Without being melodramatic, we need to remember that the big companies of our day are trying to convert us to their values; specifically that one which says we will be happy if we buy their stuff. The key value of most of what we see around us and hear on TV and radio is that happiness, meaning, and satisfaction come from acquiring and consuming. We need to make space and quiet to think about what really matters for us, and to decide for ourselves whether we want to buy into the consumerism around us, or live another way.

It's also important to give the process time. If we've not had time to think about what's really important, because the last two years have been frantic, then we will not produce a ten page thesis on our core values in five short minutes. We need, usually, to revisit the questions over time, distilling and refining, reconsidering and testing.

Questions to ask in this distilling process, might include some of those below:

There is a kind of balancing trick to do with these questions. It is important to get in touch with our feelings; they reveal much about our values. But we should not simply equate our feelings with our values. It is not that simple.

Is our reaction, our feeling, because we truly believe in a thing, or because we are feeling guilty, for example? Are we reacting to something our father always said, rather than something that is important to us? Sometimes our reaction to old parental values indicates we must move on. They were wrong- (for us, at least.) Other times we need to deal with our irritation and hurts about them, before we discover we can claim a particular value for ourselves, as our own.

There is a moral dimension to our values. Some aspirations are simply unworthy of our time, if not downright bad. But the beginning of the process, is to avoid pre-judging our values as we are rediscovering them. The important thing is to find out what we think and feel, and why. That kind of honesty is much more revealing than saying what we think we should say, or not owning up to deep desires, because we think they are wrong. It is important to begin by seeing just who we are. Even what, at first sight, we feel are unworthy longings, may reveal much deeper valves which are like gold. The conflicting voices within us are actually alerting us to our life issues, and our real values. Listen, don't just do what someone else said is the right thing. Don't discount the feelings.

So here is the beginning: what really matters to us once we have shut out all the noise around us? What do we find we feel? What do we struggle with?

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