Updated: Jul 13, 2022
In therapy, I often talk about what deeply matters to us, or our values. Values are a compass, a direction we want to move to. They are different than goals, because we can never truly meet them. Figuring out what our values are is hard work, and living in alignment with these can bring a deep sense of peace, meaning, joy, and groundness that few other things in life can compete with.
Before I even start talking about living in line with values, a lot of work has to happen to figure out what these are to begin with. This is often harder than it appears. Society tells us a lot of things that should matter, that we should do. Get good grades, go to college, get a great job, make a lot of money. Get married, have kids, be a good partner, a good parent. Take care of your parents. Look good, be thin. These shoulds often crowd out what we want in life.
So here are a few ways to start beginning to understand what our values are:
Explore a time in your life when you felt intense vitality, contact, presence, and purpose. What were you doing? Why was it meaningful?
How would you life your life if all obstacles were removed? Don't worry about practicalities for now
What do other people that you look up to do?
What would you do if no one else found about it? Don't worry about what you should be doing
What can cause a lot of pain and suffering in your life? This is often very telling. If something is causing you distress – it’s probably because it’s important to you!
Think about when you are sitting on your deathbed. What do you think your life would have been like if you had lived according to your innermost values?
Think about the various domains in your life (e.g., intimate relationships, parenting, friendships, career, leisure, health/well-being, etc.). What kind of person do you want to be in the context of your relationships/friendships? What would you like to be about in your parenting? What do you want your work to stand for? What would you like to have manifest in your life regarding hobbies, vacations, etc?
Try this worksheet - one of my personal favorites.
You also don't have to commit at this point. One way to figure out what you value is to "try a value on." Pick something you care about, build a life consistent with that value, and then test if it gives you vitality and a sense of meaning.