Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny. ― Mahatma Gandhi
I was at the end of my emotional rope when I walked into the office of the man who was to become my counselor. And he asked me about my core values. After battling depression for almost a year, considering my values wasn’t a top priority; I was more concerned with getting out of bed in the morning.
I had turned into someone morose and anxious and was allowing those feelings to define who I was. The line between my authentic self and the one I now believed myself to be was disturbingly blurred.
Values? I just wanted to feel better.
But during that initial session, I learned something critical: my behavior and feelings do not frame my identity. My core values do.
This was the beginning of a journey of remembering who I once was. Underneath all the mess and the hurt, that depressed girl was actually one who oozed confidence, commanded respect and loved to be creative.
It had been a while since she and I were close.
In fact, I’m not sure we had ever been close.
It was time to separate my behavior from who I was and find my true self. This meant figuring out my core values—remembering the things that made me happy. Realigning my compass.
Doing this changed my life.
It wasn’t easy to figure out those values at first. I could reel off certain words that I thought were important to me, for instance, joy, but I quickly second-guessed myself.
How could joy be one of my values when I woke up every morning not wanting to face life?
But again I was confusing my behavior with my authentic self. The real me actually craved joy and I wasn’t prepared to go on with life without it. Hence my presence in that counselor’s office.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t seen a joy in a while. Joy still had a hold on me.
In exploring my values, I thought about the different parts of my best self—the things that make that girl strong and joyful. The things that without which I would be lost.
I knew love would be a big one. As a wife and mother being loving and receiving love meant everything. I couldn’t live without love.
I added words to my list such as kind and caring. And by the time I was done I had at least twenty values on my list—far too many to hold in my brain and live by.
So I reviewed them all and realized that kind and caring—two words on my list— are actually both facets of being loving. They would fall under the heading of love. And so I sculpted my list, deleting those words that to me were traits of one umbrella word.
And finally I whittled my list down to six words that truly resonated with me, that defined what mattered to me in life.
Joy. Love. Spirituality. Creativity. Respect. Confidence.
During my battle with depression, I didn’t believe joy was possible. I walked away from that value. I also walked away from confidence and spirituality. And I even walked away from respect. Respect for myself.
I ask myself, which value is being challenged?
Now when I feel anxious or upset about something I ask myself, which value is being challenged? During a fight with my husband, I try to move past the surface issue and ask which of our values we are trying to defend. Respect and joy seem to come up a lot.
How to Define Your Core Values in 4 Easy Steps
1. Make a List of Values
Make a list of as many values as you can think of—from community and compassion to honor and adventure. Those words you feel an emotional attachment are the ones you should further explore. If you need help with this, you can find worksheets and word lists online.
2. Downsize the List
Try to keep your list between five and eight. Too many values make it hard to stay focused and to honor your values when making important decisions.
3. Consider Umbrella Words
Consider umbrella words. For example, you may value sympathy and empathy but both of these could be considered aspects of compassion. Pick the one value that means the most to you.
4. Try out your values
As you go through life and brush up against situations that require decision-making and elicit emotional reactions, observe your behavior. Are you living out a core value that’s on your list or a different one? How important to you is the new value that shows up?
Once you define your core values it’s important to hold them close and honor them. For when we give up on those values, we lose sight of ourselves.