How to Define your Values using a Values Clarification Exercise

The Austrian neurologist, Holocaust survivor, and Man’s Search for Meaning author, Viktor Frankl, said that man is “pushed by drives and pulled by values”. It is absolutely, one hundred percent, true. Define your values; have a better life.

But before we can let our values illuminate our paths, we need to know what they are. That should be straightforward given we have access to our own brains, but for a variety of reasons, it isn’t! Therefore, taking the time to define your values becomes quite an urgent matter.

During my twenties, the values driving my life and lifestyle – mainly security and responsibility – were not my own. In truth, I just didn’t have the self-knowledge. It meant that the life I was living was fundamentally unsatisfying to me. I was into my thirties before I began to reorganize my life around my values. What this meant was that until that time:

I was drifting.

Most things I did felt empty and meaningless.

I made bad choices.

I lacked confidence.

I’d fret over decisions.

Now that my lifestyle is built around my foremost values, I am a lot more content, happier, more secure and confident. This isn’t just my experience- it is the same for a lot of us. The psychologist Martin Seligman, who pioneered the Positive Psychology movement, says that a life where we get to exercise our ‘signature strengths’ (related to our values) each day is a better life.

But as I said in the introduction, it isn’t necessarily easy initially. This post is about how to go about constructing life around your core values, and some pragmatic challenges you face when you do it.

What exactly are values?

Even the terminology can seem a little alien.

You can think of values as like guideposts. They are words that describe the things are the most important to you. They are the things that your heart says are important, as well as your mind.

Values are like lampposts. Define them clearly, and you'll always know what to do. Click To Tweet

And unlike goals – much more familiar terrain – they exist in the present moment. Compassion, for example, is a value. A goal based on that value might be training in counselling or therapy. From a personal fulfillment perspective, our values should inform our goals. The author Danielle La Porte has created a process or sorts for this, called ‘desire mapping’.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of values. We are going to use it later when it comes to the clarification exercise, but for now, just cast your eye over it. Alternatively, you can download the word version of these.


Authenticity, Achievement, Adventure, Authority, Autonomy

Balance, Beauty, Boldness, Belonging

Compassion, Challenge, Citizenship, Community, Competency, Contribution, Creativity, Curiosity, Collaboration, Change, Communication

Determination, Decisiveness, Democracy, Diversity

Equality, Excellence (personal), Excitement, Expertise, Effectiveness

Fairness, Faith, Fame, Friendship, Freedom, Fun, Family

Growth

Happiness, Honesty, Humor, Harmony,

Integrity, Independence, Innovation, Intellectualism

Justice

Kindness, Knowledge

Leadership, Learning, Love, Loyalty, Leisure

Meaningful Work, Mastery

Nature

Openness, Optimism, Order

Peace, Pleasure, Power, Prestige, Privacy, Productivity

Quality

Recognition, Religion, Respect, Responsibility, Relationships

Security, Self-Respect, Service, Spirituality, Stability, Success, Status, Self-Awareness, Self-realization, Serenity, Self-expression

Trustworthiness, Truth, Teamwork

Variety

Wealth, Wisdom


Our standards are an extension of our values. For example, if you have a core value of truth, then like me, you may have a standard that you tell the truth (or as close as possible) to the people in your life, and that you always seek to understand the deeper meaning of things that confuse you. Someone for whom truth isn’t such a high value is unlikely to have that same high standard.

Although we tend to have high personal standards for the things we value, not always. We can feel powerless to live by our core values, resulting in personal standards that are low or non existent. We can only raise our personal standards once we are committed to living life according to our top values.

How we end up getting lost from our values

If you haven’t taken time to define your values, then like me in my twenties, you may find you are living according to other people’s.

It isn’t just our parents who influence us. We may wind up assuming the values of our closest friends or the culture we grew up in.

Getting lost and disconnected from our values is one thing. To stay lost and disconnected is within our control.

What happens when you reclaim your values

A value-led life is a happier and more fulfilling life. Or as Ghandi said ‘Happiness is when what you think, say and do are in harmony’.

Basically, the maladies that I listed at the beginning of this piece aren’t so apparent anymore. When you define your values, you are more confident and you don’t struggle so much to make decisions. Here are a few more specific benefits I notice.

You’ll become more self referential/ self-validating. When you define your values, it is like having an internal validation system. A lot of your insecurity will fall away. When we are externally validating (which just means going to others for approval), we tend to be unhappier.

They put you as the master of your own ship. When you define your values, you are no longer a passive bystander in your life.

They act like a useful yardstick against which to measure your progress.

The clarity seems to create opportunities. This benefit is more subtle, but I have found that something magical happens when I revisit my values: I notice opportunities to bring myself into alignment with them.

They help you make better decisions. When you define your values, you know what to say yes or no to.

You’ll attract those with similar values to you. You’ll be a clearer beacon for your tribe of like-minded.

How to figure out what values you are currently living your life by

If there are painful elements of your life right now, and you identify with the list right at the top of this article, then I would suggest to you that your life has become out of alignment with your values.

I’d encourage you to look at that life area and ask yourself what the underlying value is that represents it.

How to define your values using a values clarification exercise

A values clarification is a really good idea if you have yet to define your values. I did such an exercise myself when I was 29, and I have been doing them periodically ever since. You will need the list from above.

  • Start by crossing off the items that are not important to you.
  • Then go through the list again, circling as many of the items that are very important to you.
  • The remainder of the list would essentially be things that are important but not very important. Review the very important items. Consider whether there is a value missing that matters a lot to you and hasn’t been listed; add it. Then from this group, select 7 that are most important.
  • Then rank order these 7 most important values. Number one is the most important value.

It can take some thought energy to do this, but give it a go. Even if you feel like it isn’t exactly right, the act of doing it is powerful.

Other ways to come to know your values

It can take time and reflection to know what you really care about. And using lists like the one above doesn’t always help, as you will notice that you have values on a lot of those things. It’ll be difficult to single out six or seven.

In getting my own answers, and as well as reflection, I have found it useful to learn as much about myself as possible and to become a better self-observer. This website is full of articles about that (search under the tag ‘self-awareness’).

A more 24/7 technique is just to be in the habit of noticing what really gets you passionate in life, or what makes you angry or disappointed. I feel saddened when I see people moving unconsciously through their lives and avoiding introspection, and when my love affairs don’t work out. Also, I can feel angry and frustrated when I feel like I haven’t got to the truth of a situation. I prefer to live a fairly minimalist, responsibility-free lifestyle. These are all clues to my core values of truth, spirituality, love, learning, wisdom.

You could try asking yourself questions – here is a list of 20 I ask myself a lot.

Finally, you could also try recalling or visualizing what would be a peak experience for you. This can help to show you your values.

You don’t need to get this exactly right, but I would avoid being vague or spacing out when doing this exercise. Don’t underestimate the power of clarifying your values. As I said above, the magic in doing so is that opportunities to live them start to shine in your life.

Practical issues with living our core values

Figuring out what your values are can feel a wonderful relief, but that’s only half of the battle. We need to be able to live our values out in our lives; knowing them isn’t enough.

So what might stop us?

A few things, but really the main thing is that it can take courage (not to mention resilience) to reorganize your life around your core values. This is especially the case if you have dependents.

After defining your values, find the courage to live them. Click To Tweet

I know that for me, it took a lot of courage to reorganize my life around my core values. I made some big changes that were quite radical departures from my family’s core values. When we are overly invested in what others think of us, that can also stop us.

There isn’t anything I can say here that will help you to find the courage to change your life. We all hold fear differently. I would say that things get a lot easier once you’re aware that your actions are being defined by your fears. I wrote about how I cultivate courage here.

The importance of being mindful

Mindfulness is basically the tool we use to bring our values into life.

Being mindful means paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. When we pay attention this way, we can’t fail to notice our true values. Eventually, mindfulness is what gives us the ability to respond from our values rather than react from old conditioning.

I wrote more about why and how I practice mindfulness here. If you aren’t familiar with mindfulness, then I really encourage you to begin now. It is very straightforward and after a short while becomes habit.

Summary

The most common regret of those on their deathbed is: “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” This is what we avoid when we seek to live a life where our actions and values are aligned. In my experience, even in challenging times, such a life is content.

It is interesting to reflect that your values are one of the only reasonably steady (i.e. consistent) aspects of you.

Although they will shift a little bit as you progress through life, and different values temporarily will have a higher priority, your true values are unlikely to be that different to what they were ten years ago.  And so you could say that our values are our unique access to an aspect of your true or ‘essential’ nature.

Whatever your beliefs, on a practical level, living your life according to your own rules is going to feel much freer and happier than the alternative.

To inspire your journey with defining your values, you may wish to read these articles too:

Finding your Passion and Purpose.

How to Tread the Lonely-but-Rewarding Path of Essentialism

7 Ways to Avoid the Common Life Regrets

Also check out my new book which is all about how to ‘find yourself’ (hint: you don’t find; you remember).