6 Ways to Discover and Choose Your Core Values
Knowing your values can guide your actions and give you inner peace.
Posted November 4, 2018 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
“What Should I Do?” Everyday Values Dilemmas
You’ve planned to have dinner with your friend on Friday night. On Friday morning, the guy you’ve been crushing on asks you out for the evening. Do you say yes and break the date with your friend?
You just got a raise. Should you bank it for retirement or make your life more comfortable now?
You wanted to get a head start on an important report for work later this evening. But your child has had a tough day and could benefit from your attention. Should you prioritize work or family?
Life presents an endless series of decisions, large and small, that require you to make difficult choices. While many factors are involved, the critical factor in deciding may be your core values. These values tell you what kind of person you are, or want to be, and provide guidelines, or even imperatives, for your actions.
But how do you know what your core values are? This blog post will reveal six ways to discover and choose your core values.
Values: A Definition
First, what is a “value” anyway?
Values “are the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity,” according to psychologist Barb Markway and Celia Ampel in The Self-Confidence Workbook. I love both parts of this definition—that values stand for our most meaningful ideals and also that they inspire us to keep going when the going gets tough.
You’ve probably learned many of your values from your parents, your teachers, your religious leaders, and the society around you. You’ve also probably rebelled against some of those values at times or changed your mind as you’ve learned more about yourself and your world. But it can be helpful to decide—or re-decide—the top six to eight values that mean the most to you right now and to have a shorthand label for those principles. That’s where the information below comes in.
Choosing Core Values
If you are not sure about your own core values, or if you would like to clarify which of your values are top priority now, here are six options.
1. Choose your top six to eight values from a wide-ranging list of values.
To do this, you need a good list.
Dr. Russ Harris, the author of numerous books about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), has provided such a list in his book, The Confidence Gap. You could also use a similar list from The Confidence Workbook or just use the mini-list that follows, making good use of the “other” option at the end of the list:
Financial Security; Compassion; Health/Fitness; Nature; Accomplishment; Creativity; Dependability; Loyalty; Beauty; Bravery; Gratitude; Love; Connection/Relationships; Learning; Leadership; Survival; Self-Preservation; Security; Adventure; Family; Work; Success; Calm; Freedom; Other___; Other ___.
Now use one of these lists to select your top six to eight values. Yes, you can change your mind. In fact, it's natural to modify some of the values on this list as you face new and challenging situations. However, other values represent enduring ideals that you would only change under duress.
I did this activity recently using the Harris list, despite thinking beforehand that I already knew my values pretty well. It turned out to be enormously useful to put specific labels on my vague ideas of my core values. Among other things, I learned I put a high value on many of the “C” values, such as "compassion," "creativity," and "connection." Sometimes when I make a choice, I now say to myself, “Hmm. You decided to write a new blog instead of going out for coffee. That was creativity winning out over connection.”
Note that sometimes your choice is not between right and wrong but between two cherished values, as in my situation above.
2. Think of three to six people you most admire or love. Consider why they are so important to you.
Values can be personified in people that you love and admire. You can use this simple two-step process to uncover the values that you associate with your significant others and role models:
Step 1: Identify and write down six people who are important role models or valued connections for you. Step 2: Think of the values they embody. For example, your list might include: “my grandfather for his acceptance and love,” “my wife for her honesty,” “my colleague for his listening skills,” and “my friend for his loyalty,” to name a few.
Dr. Steven Hayes, the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, suggests that you uncover your values by naming your heroes. For example, why do you admire, say, Martin Luther King, Jr.? Is it because he fought for social justice? Is it his commitment to non-violence? His kindness to others? Identifying the specific values embodied by your heroes can inspire you to adopt those values for yourself.
3. See a career counselor.
Your values are a major determinant of career choice, work decisions, and career transitions. For example, you may value “financial security,” “helping,” or “being my own boss (autonomy).” Each of those values might lead you down a different career path. That’s why career counselors have a large toolbox of strategies and inventories (self-report tests with no right answers) including values inventories to help match their clients to a compatible career area.
4. Use an online values inventory.
You can find various values inventories online. One free online values inventory is located here. The authors, R. Kelly Crace and Duane Brown, are experts in wellness and career development. Although I’ve never worked with this particular inventory before, I agree with the authors’ idea that clarifying your values can “serve as a blueprint for effective decision-making and optimal functioning.” (The inventory looks so intriguing that I intend to take it myself—it's actually on my list.) By the way, if you are concerned about confidentiality (and I hope you are), the website states that the information you supply will be used for ongoing research, but your name will not be linked to your data.
5. Observe yourself and learn.
As you live your life, be mindful of the choices you make. For several days, consciously put a label on the values behind your key decisions at work and at home. Pay particular attention to whether the values you chose above are reflected in your daily life. If not, what values are you expressing or living by as you go through your day? Are there patterns? What can you learn about what you want, what you are willing to give up, and what is non-negotiable in your life? If you experience a lot of dissatisfaction with your choices, you may not be living up to your values or you may need to re-evaluate what is most important to you.
6. Focus on the bitter and the sweet in your life.
Dr. Hayes suggests that you learn about your values by thinking back to both the sweetest and most painful moments of your life. These moments could direct you to what you care about most. For instance, what were the peak experiences that might reveal key values? If you won an award for teaching, consider that "leadership" or "motivating others" might be significant values. What were the most painful experiences? If you know the pain of being excluded by others, you might realize that "compassion" is one of your primary values.
Difficult Choices and Difficult People
As mentioned above, there are times when two cherished values will be in conflict. Knowing why you are choosing Value 1 instead of Value 2 can be helpful in resolving any inner conflict you may feel. And certain values may rise to the top in particular situations. For example, during an emergency, “survival” may become the value that guides your actions. Values will also shift over time as you fulfill your various goals—for example, once you achieve a comfortable degree of "financial security," that value may recede into the background and other values may take its place.
Sometimes you’ll have to defend against difficult people—such as psychopaths, extreme narcissists, and master manipulators—who seem to be guided by negative values. With such people, it can be a challenge to stick to the positive values highlighted in this blog. Then there are the people who pay lip service to “core values” and “family values,” but whose choices betray their words as just empty rhetoric.
Observing yourself and being honest about what you see might keep the phrase “core values” from becoming a cliché. You can’t be perfect and you’ll often need to compromise, but you can aim for the integrity that a values-driven life can provide. As Dr. Harris sums it up in The Confidence Gap: “True success is living by your values.”
Know Your Values, Know Yourself
“Values” is one of six key elements to knowing who you are, as I explain in this blog. The others are interests, temperament, biorhythms, life goals, and strengths. But of all these, knowing your values is the royal road to self-knowledge because values choices both reveal and build character as you act on them. Your values are even more important than your goals, as Dr. Harris points out, because you might not reach your goals, but you can almost always choose to live by your values.
A Preview of Coming Attractions
This blog has focused chiefly on identifying your values so that you can make better life decisions. But there's much, much more. Although it's hard to believe, knowing your core values can help you reduce stress, communicate with more compassion, increase your self-confidence, and power up your willpower. The next blog will reveal the research behind those benefits and how you can utilize it for yourself.
Meanwhile, experiment with living the "values-driven life." Does living by your values increase your sense of satisfaction with yourself and your life?
© Meg Selig, 2018. All rights reserved. For permissions, click here.
Harris, R. (2011) The Confidence Gap. Trumpeter Books: Boulder, CO, p. 146.
Markway, B. & Ampel, C. (2018) The Self-Confidence Workbook. Althea Press: Emeryville, CA, p. 28.
Selig, M. “Know Yourself: 6 Specific Ways to Know Who You Are,” psychologytoday,
Hayes, S. C. "10 Signs You Know What Matters," Psychology Today, Sept/Oct 2018, p. 53 ff.