What’s the secret to finally feeling satisfied with your life? It’s not money, and it isn’t the perfect spouse. Nope, the secret is knowing – and being true to – your personal core values. It’s detrimentally important that you honor your own values in your professional life and personal experiences.
But, how do you figure out what your own core values are? And – even harder – how do you stay true to them at work? There is a lot to unpack here, but we can do it. In this guide, you’ll discover the easiest ways to define your personal list of core values and finally live a fulfilled and meaningful life.
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
– Henry Ford
Before I help you define your important values, I need to share my story. Because I learned all of this the hard way.
My Life Before Values
I like to think of myself as free-spirited – I’m a ‘live in a van, travel around the world, quit my job on a whim’ kind of gal! I embrace changes and I get a kick out of doing new things (I’ve lived and worked in five countries, changed careers several times over, and I’m known to take big risks in new relationships.)
On the surface, I think some of my friends and family think my life is romantic and exciting. And often it is! But underneath the shiny surface, the truth is until a few years ago, I was often deeply dissatisfied with my life.
I spent a lot of time feeling really frustrated and restless. It is hard to explain but I never felt like I was living the life I was meant to live. When the feeling got to be too much, I would change jobs, go overseas, or move to a new city; I was always looking for something, for purpose and direction, and for something to feel right.
But inevitably, the buzz of change would wear off and I’d feel restless again, without any answers. I was stuck in a cycle and by the time I turned thirty, I started thinking seriously about my choices and why I felt so empty.
Let’s travel back in time to 2013. I’ve just made a ton of changes and ‘quit’ my life: I left my (first) husband, I left my job, I left my home in Australia (where I’ve lived for most of my adult life) and I went home to my mum in the States. I felt completely stripped bare, almost reborn, and I was preparing to make some big decisions about my future.
Let me be honest. I was scared and a mess (there were a lot of tears and even more wine.) But deep down, there was also a part of me that felt empowered. I knew Ihad been given a clean slate and I had a chance to create a fresh start. It was a pretty powerful feeling.
But with great power comes great responsibility; I had so many options and questions! Should I return to Australia? Or should I stay in America? And what about that handsome Englishman I had just met? I was suffering from a severe case of decision paralysis, which wasn’t helped by my bad record for making decisions.
Then one day I was browsing through Pinterest and I read this quote about values … and suddenly I started to realise what I had been doing wrong for so many years. I realized that it was nearly impossible to live my life authentically and intentionally without a set of values to guide my choices.
What Are Core Values?
If you had asked me about my values at any other point in my life, I would have yawned and politely changed the topic. But at this point in my life, it was an eye opener. I started Googling and reading more about values and things started to click; I slowly started to see why I was struggling to find happiness.
I learned that, simply put, your values are what matter most to you. They are different for everyone and they can also change over time. They act as a compass to help you determine if something (a friend / a potential job / a new pair of shoes) will be a good fit in your life.
It was really strange and a total eye opener to realise I didn’t really know my values. I guess I always just assumed I wanted what everyone else wanted – to be happy and successful (right?) And I assumed that went something like: getting married, finding a good job and buying a house, filling a big closet full of designer shoes, and going on overseas holidays.
But I knew that at one point, I had all of those things. And I hadn’t felt happy or successful at all.
I had no idea what my real values were – and if I couldn’t define what made me feel happy or successful, how could I ever hope to feel that way?
I was on a journey to establish them – and you should too – because they are extremely important.
Why They Matter
Meaningful core values will affect your entire life. They will carry you through the peak experiences and help you make the hardest decision you’ll ever have to make. If you’re still on the fence about writing down all of your values, then look closer at how many different ways they can change your life.
They Give Purpose
The first thing that values do is that they give your life purpose and meaning. When you know exactly what’s important to you, you can set your goals with confidence! You’ll know that your goals will lay the foundation for the life that will serve you.
You won’t be running aimlessly, pleasing everyone else. Instead, you’ll know what you want to accomplish, experience, and who you want to share it with.
Hard Decisions Become Easy
If you were ever crippled by decision-making, you’ll discover the freedom of finally knowing what to do, every single time! Values make the decision-making process so much easier.
Here’s how. Every time that you’re faced with difficult decisions, you don’t have to worry about what to do. You just ask which of your fundamental beliefs applies to the situation, apply it, and you have your decision. For example, if you have a new job offer that you weren’t necessarily searching for, and it would mean a better title and much higher salary but also a lot more time away from your family – what do you do? If “work-life balance” is on your list of personal values, then this is a no-brainer; you turn it down!
See? You will know what choices to make because you can just apply your values to each question.
Peace Of Mind
When you really know yourself and what is important to you, it gives you more peace of mind in the long term. Often, the first step to emotional healing is to understand yourself – your triggers, your pain, your joys, your deepest fears, and your needs. When you answer these hard questions and do the work, you’ll discover the values that you should live up to.
Then, living according to them erases cognitive dissonance and brings you so much peace and tranquility.
Improves Mental Health
This leads directly into the last benefit – supporting and healing your mental health. Our own thoughts and actions deeply affect our emotional health. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? The top of the pyramid is confidence and then acceptance and purpose.
Paying particular attention to your values is the starting point to meeting your deepest needs. When all of your needs are met, you’ll feel more confident, self-assured, and safe.
Now that you know why they’re so important, how do you figure out what’s important to you?
How To Discover Your Values
I discovered my values by reflecting on my life – specifically moments when I had felt proud/happy/satisfied or angry/hurt/frustrated – and looking for the true cause of these feelings.
Generally, we feel good when we are living and acting in line with our values and we feel bad when we violate our values.
For example, I’m usually really happy when I start new job, but inevitably I always end up feeling restless and unhappy. When I thought long and hard, I realised that I always start to dislike my job when I stop learning new things. I started to reflect on other parts of my life – my hobbies, my studies, my travel habits – and I could see that I was most unhappy when I felt that I wasn’t growing and learning.
I spent an afternoon writing in my journal and repeating the above process until I came up with a list of my core values:
- Care for myself
- Care for my relationships
- Always be learning
- Freedom (money, possessions, time, mobility)
- Be creative and make things (art, writing)
- Appreciate beauty (music, nature, design)
When you’re defining your values, there are no right or wrong answers, but it is important to be honest with yourself.
If you’re feeling stuck or having a hard time writing down your true core values, it might help to look at a values list. The words in the following list of personal values might spur a thought or reaction that resonates the most with you:
- Financial Security
- Hard Work
- Strong Relationships
Another way to discover your core beliefs is to go off your life experiences. Think about your past experiences. When was a time that you did something that felt so wrong, so awful that you never want to repeat it? Consider the core value that you were violating at that time. Now think of a time when you were the most at peace – what core value were you matching up with?
After you have a good list of values, you’re ready to put them into action.
HOW TO USE YOUR VALUES
Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do, are in harmony.
The next step in your personal development is to put those core values to work. Live by them. Allow them to be the guiding principles in your daily life. You’ll quickly discover that when you follow them, you’ll experience more personal freedom than ever before!
Here are just a few ways that we can use our values in our daily lives.
Set Work and Personal Values
If you have a job, then it’s really important to establish different values for your work and your personal life. Your co-workers and boss will require different things from you than your friends and family. A professional core example might be “work hard play hard.” This might look like you are focusing completely at work so that you can leave work at work and enjoy life off the clock.
These values might reflect your personal values. You can definitely work hard and play hard in real life too! The reason I suggest separating them – even if they are almost identical – is so that you can make sure that you’re not becoming someone you don’t like when you’re at work. Your authenticity is what will give you peace. Sometimes we have to put on a mask at work – but in real life with our family we can be ourselves. It’s ok to establish boundaries between work and life – especially if that separation is one of your core values.
Work With Your Family Members
Another way to use your values is to have a family meeting and work together to set family values. This opens the door for communication about everyone’s personal values. Let your partner (and kids if you have them) tell you what their values are.
When everyone shares their values to each other, they will feel supported and heard. This goes a long way to express inner needs and allow you to be there in ways that you really need. For example, if one of your core values is “allow myself to rest when I need it” and you’re too tired to cook dinner, you might feel more comfortable telling your spouse, “I need to rest, can we order in or can you help cook?”
Expressing your needs is so much easier when everyone knows what their values are.
Hang Up Your Values Statements
It’s also a good idea to write down your values and place them where you can see them often. This is especially helpful if this is your first time creating a list of values. Hanging them up in your office or in your bedroom is a great way to remind yourself what’s really important.
This will also serve as a public reminder to other people what’s truly important to you. Then, when you face difficult situations, you can point to this list of principles. They say so much in so few words!
Make A Conscious Decision To Follow Them
This might seem basic, but it’s just so true. The best way to use your values is to do it on purpose.
These core values should be a driving force behind making the right decisions. Even so, sometimes, you have to intentionally remember to follow them. Don’t just go with your gut emotional response. It might be a reaction from a past trauma. Instead, take a step back and remember the values you set. Be loyal to your true self and follow them, no matter what.
Work Through Negative Feelings
If you’re someone who has a hard time letting people down, then it might feel like a bad thing to stay true to your specific values. While it’s true that negative feelings are often a sign that something is going against your values, it’s not always the case. Sometimes, things like people pleasing or unnamed/unworked trauma show up and give you some really bad feelings as you try to put yourself first.
That’s why it’s so important to do the hard work of asking yourself some really hard questions. If something triggers you, what about the even was the trigger? Dig deeper. The more questions you ask, the closer you’ll get to the things that are vitally important to you.
For example, you might think your core value is “speak up for myself.” But if you were constantly hurt as a child every time you spoke up, you might be really scared and speaking up might make you feel super anxious. So focus on how you’ll feel after you work through that initial hump. You’ll feel heard, valued, and brave. And that’s worth it!
How They Changed My Life
Knowing and living according to your principles is truly life-changing!
That is what your values are all about – making sure what you do on the outside is matching up with what you heart is saying on the inside. Once you know your values, you can use them like a roadmap to help you plan a life that you love.
I first wrote down my values nearly three years ago and I read over my values at least once a week. Everyday I try and make sure I include a few activities that support my values, even if I don’t have much time: 15 minutes to do yoga or meditate, taking time to write or paint in the evenings, or spending a few extra minutes cuddling my Bf in the morning. These little actions help me feel happier and more positive everyday.
My values have guided me and helped me make much bigger changes as well and I feel my life has changed completely.
- I embraced minimalism and broke a lifelong shopping habit. Along the way paid off all my debt and for the first time in my life I have savings, because I know I value my freedom more than having things.
- I quit my ‘grown up’ job to become a professional office temp, because I value learning new things and flexibility to choose my own hours over security.
- I sold my house and I have been living in short term accommodation. I have plans to travel and spend more time overseas with my family (
more details to come soondetails here.)
- I launched this blog and I’m sharing my stories, because I know that being creative and sharing ideas brings me joy (plus I’m learning so many new things along the way!)
My life didn’t change overnight and I understand that your’s may not as well; it’s not always possible to up and quite your job or pick up and move. But, what you can control, are the little decisions you make everyday. You can choose to do more of what you love and to let go of all the rest.
Have you ever thought about your values? Do you use them to guide your decisions in life? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you x