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Understanding Your Values: 5 Ways to Identify Yours So You Can Make Better Decisions


Understanding your values is such an important life skill.

We’ve all been there. We’ve agonized over a decision, or set a goal, only to later realize that it was the wrong one. And to make matters worse—we knew it all along! There was that niggling doubt, the emotional seesaw, that gut feeling . . . but we still let outside factors or other people influence our choice.

Then there’s those unexpected twists of fate, political bombshells, or societal disruptions that everyone is suddenly ranting about, but we find ourselves unsure how to react to. That’s another reason why understanding your values is important to making the right choices. No matter what the eventual outcome of any major upheaval is, you will be at peace because you know your views about it align with your values.

In this post, I’m going to define values and share five ways I’ve come up with to identify your core values when you aren’t sure of what they are. 

So, what exactly are values?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary tells us they are “something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.”Values can also be described as virtues, distinctions, excellences, graces, or merits. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato believed that all values hinged on four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. These qualities were adapted by Christian theology to form a virtue theory of ethics.

In simplest terms, your values define what’s most important to you. They’re your driving factors in life, what makes you want to get up in the morning. Without values, there is no “value” in life.  

Your core or personal values establish who you are, reveal your individual identity, and define your moral compass—that internal set of guidelines that govern your belief system and ethical behavior. That’s why it’s essential to know what your values are. Not only will understanding your values help inform the decisions you make and the goals you set, but also determine a greater direction in life, whether you’re just starting college or about to retire. 

Understanding Your Values: 5 Ways to Identify Yours So You Can Make Better Decisions

1. Review what beliefs and standards you’ve had throughout your life.

There are many ways and tools to get clarity on your values; one that I have found particularly effective is reviewing the principles, ethics, and philosophies that were most present throughout the different stages of your life. Think about the traits and qualities that you respected in your childhood, teens, adulthood, and so on. This will help you see how your moral principles have changed and evolved with your life experience and maturity.

2. Create a list of things that make you feel happy or satisfied.

While many of us tend to believe that happiness comes from material goods such as fancy cars, hefty salaries, or beautiful bodies, you may be shocked to realize that lasting happiness is more apt to build on positive experiences in your life that have nothing to do with shiny objects, money, or physical beauty. Think about the challenges you have overcome, lasting friendships you’ve formed, your spiritual growth, and the kindnesses you’ve shown and received.

3. Reminisce about who you have looked up to and why you admired them.

As children, we tend to be awed by storybook depictions of princes, action heroes, or wise wizards. What is it about these characters that appealed to us? What about the historical individuals we may have revered later in life, be they past presidents, community leaders, sports stars, or spiritual gurus—what commendable principles or morals did they possess? 

4. Remember the key moments in your life—especially the difficult ones.

Challenges teach us where our strengths and weaknesses lie; they build confidence and coping skills. What lessons, strengths or wisdom did you learn from the obstacles in your life? What false beliefs or attitudes did your discard?

Once you have a better idea of how values have guided you in the past, you can see how they affect you in the present. Have they changed, are they no longer relevant, are there others that might have helped at some point in your life if you had prioritized them?

5. If all else fails to help you identify your values, look online.

The Internet abounds with definitions, traits, and characteristics of values. (Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification) But choose wisely. Your goal is to help yourself grow as an individual and to accomplish that you have to be true to yourself.

Final Thoughts

These exercises and questions will help you identify the values that are currently driving your decisions, the ones that might be missing, and those that might get you where you want to be. Once you understand your values and know what ones you would like to include in your life you can prioritize them and use them to make all your future decisions.

~ Zelena

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