By Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Understanding (or not) Our Values
If I asked you whether you know how a bicycle works, most likely you wouldn’t hesitate to respond with some variation of: “Yes, of course. There are two wheels and a chain, and you sit on the saddle, peddle with your feet, and the bike moves forward.” But if I asked you to explain to me the exact details of the mechanics of a bicycle – where the chain meets the gears and the wheels and exactly how the pedaling works – you may be surprised to find that you have to think long and hard to answer the questions. Perhaps only drawing a picture, or actually examining a bicycle up close, will suffice to illuminate the question.
The same is often true for our values. If I asked you right now to tell me whether you are conscious of your values, most likely you would again answer quickly with some variation of: “Yes, of course. I value harmony and peace.” But if I asked you to explain to me the exact details of the mechanics of how you live by your values – how you systematically and consciously use your values to plan for your work and relationships, and to make the hundreds of small and big decisions that you face daily – you may once again be surprised to realize that your conceptual idea of “values” is actually somewhat or rather disconnected from the more mechanical and practical knowledge of how to use those values in each moment of your life.
This isn’t overly surprising when we consider how little we are educated and mentored on the topic of values, more specifically, on the topic of our own personal values and how to live by them. Most of us didn’t have teachers or classes devoted to helping us identify, consciously choose, fully understand, take responsibility for, and build a dynamic adult identity based on our highest values. Rather, most of us were taught to more or less “follow the program” and adopt the values of the dominant group. If our dominant group had (or has) great values, this is a good start. However,externally derived values often keep us from choosing and committing to internally chosen values, let alone being able to systematically live by those self-chosen values. Put another way: if your parents give you a bicycle, you know it works, but you may not really understand how it works. If you build the bicycle by hand, you’ll know both that it works, and how it works. Of course, as a bicycle isn’t built overnight without prior knowledge and skill, neither are our values. They require time, study, dedication, instruction and practice. And this is one of the first and most important tasks in coaching: helping clients discover their values, learn how they work, and understand how to consciously use them as guides and inspirations for their daily life and choices.
When we are strongly rooted in our own self-chosen values, we know what we are looking for, what we want for ourselves and our world, and we have a stable and strong guide for our thoughts and behaviors. If we value gratitude and courage, we will keep on toward our goals, realistically and with self-compassion, even when things get hard. However, if we are not explicitly aware of having gratitude and courage as high values, or have never reflected on the question, sometimes we may react to life circumstances with gratitude and courage and sometimes with bitterness, selfishness, or laziness; and we struggle to understand why we are so inconsistent and unpredictable.
Discovering Your Values Exercise
So, how do we go about discovering clients’ highest values in the coaching process? With discussion and some key exercises. I’ll share one of them here.
I ask clients to make a 2-column list. In the first column, I ask them describe several situations in which they have felt at their best, that the world around them was in harmony with their own priorities and they felt supported by others. In the second column, I ask them to describe situations in which they have felt at their worst, that the world around them was in disharmony with their priorities and they felt frustrated, blocked or invisible.
One client, Colin, answered like this:
Describe situations in which you have felt at your best, that the world around you was in harmony with your priorities and you felt supported by others.
What did you feel?
When I played soccer on my high school team – camaraderie, teamwork, belonging, celebrating together, overcoming challenges, constant improvement
When I walk alone in nature – time and space to observe and feel, time to reflect without interruption, connection with something bigger, ability to see the wonder of the big sky and small insect all at once
When I taught English in a little village in Cambodia – connecting to the children, seeing them learn, feeling like I was doing something meaningful to help others, feeling connected to the world and the people around me, learning about their culture, being challenged and having the opportunity to make a positive difference
Describe situations in which you have felt at your worst, that the world around you was in disharmony with your priorities and you felt frustrated, blocked or invisible.
What did you feel?
When I work 9-5 in an office – artificial environment, too much social “chit chat”, not serious enough, too scattered and not able to concentrate, lack of meaning
In some of my personal relationships, when I was trying to grow together with the other person, but they didn’t seem interested – lack of sharing, lack of initiative, lack of curiosity and interest, lack of appreciation for my enthusiasm, feeling like a bother
When I watch too much violent or meaningless TV, film and news – feeling like life is hopeless, like people are crazy and untrustworthy, feeling threatened and unsure of my place in this world, feelings of uncertainty and panic, feel like I can never make a positive difference, social withdrawal
I usually ask clients to give at least 3-5 examples of each, and in the coaching process, we do a meta-analysis of their lists, looking at how all of their various experiences and feelings weave together into a united tapestry: a personal hierarchy of values. Since I work with gifted clients, these lists can sometimes take on a length and complexity that is remarkable. However, the essential point is to have at least three examples from which we can do a meta-analysis, in order to answer these key questions:
-What are the various situations all pointing to?
-What meta-theme do they have in common?
In Colin’s positive experiences list, we see: harmony, sharing goals and accomplishments, belonging, a connection to something bigger, space to contemplate and being in natural environments. The meta-themes seem to point to connection and belonging: whether he is with others or alone, this is what he searches. This is probably his highest value.
We actually see this mirrored on his negative experiences list: we see that he gets frustrated when feels disconnected from others, unable to share common goals, and has insufficient space to contemplate. When he feels bad in most situations, it probably links back to this primary value remaining unfulfilled.
Connecting Your Emotions to Your Values
This exercise allows us to connect our emotions to our values: How we feel emotionally about a situation is very closely linked to whether our experiences are in harmony with our highest values. When we feel good, it’s most often not random pleasure we’re experiencing; it’s because we’re experiencing a situation that aligns with and confirms our highest values. When we feel bad, it’s most of not random pain either; it’s more often because our highest values are being ignored or unfulfilled by the situation at hand.
This is a huge step toward a deepening self-awareness, because as we understand our values, we become much more aware of what makes life experiences so meaningful and precious to us, or on the contrary, so difficult and frustrating. This increases our sphere of control as well, as we can then actively search to create situations in which we are able to live, express, and see our highest values reflected back to us meaningfully.
For clients working toward the discovery of their “true calling”, or simply trying to discover “who they want to be” in their adult lives, understanding their highest values is a direct path; and this sorting out of values is extremely efficient and effective with gifted clients whose interests, emotions, values and so on can be very complex, divergent and intense. It also helps put painful experiences in a constructive light, showing us how we can channel our negative experiences into a positive promotion or advocacy of our values in the world.
Promoting Your Values via Your Actions
In my own case, I grew up in a rather “obey and be a good girl” culture, where authenticity was subservient to obedience and social conformity. Yet, whenever I’ve done the values exercise, my results have always pointed to one top value: authenticity. All my “negative” experiences center around moments when others are not authentic, or when I feel I am not able to be. Instead of turning inauthenticity into a “big life problem” as I used to, I have learned to devote my work to promoting authenticity and to helping others to find their authentic expression. That is why I love my work, because the more I do it, the more I see what I value in the world, and the more I create opportunities to express my own self authentically.
In Colin’s case, he can also promote belonging and connection in his work, wherever he works, and whatever task he is working on. Instead of feeling disconnected, he can suggest creative ways of connecting. If he feels he cannot do so, he may need to seek a more fitting situation in which his values are appreciated, however much courage that may take. We all deserve to work and live with people who appreciate our values.
From my years of experience in this coaching, I can say that this is what makes work and life feel meaningful and relevant: when you promote your values via your actions, and these actions are appreciated by others who benefit from, and mirror back to you, your dedication to your values. Essentially, you create more of what you love. You extend the best of yourself out into the world.
One final note on the benefits of discovering and ordering your values consciously: decisions can be challenging. And for gifted people, priorities very often seem to conflict in the mind – priorities over “who am I?”, “what do I love most?”, “what should I do with my life?” and so on. Having a “highest value” helps immensely to resolve these enigmatic questions. At any moment, you can be guided by a brightest light, the light of your highest value. Colin has found this very helpful as, prior to doing the exercise, he believed he highly valued financial success and social recognition. Via reflection and discussion, and seeing his answers on paper, he realized that these were his parents’ values, and he had been trying to satisfy himself with a life based on them! Now he is rethinking his orientation and daily decisions. Knowing now what will ultimately bring him joy, pleasure, meaning, and purpose – based on his unique values hierarchy – he is able to make all kinds of decisions, big and small, much more authentically and efficiently than ever before.
Give the Exercise a Try for Yourself
Make your lists and try to do a meta-analysis to find your highest values. What do you discover? If you need help in this analysis, feel free to get in touch for a values analysis session with me. If you want to deepen the exercise on your own, reflect on these questions after you have completed your lists of positive and negative experiences:
- Are your primary values the same as you expected them to be? If not, how are they different? And how will this knowledge help you to change the way you’ve set up your life, work and relationships?
- Do your primary relationships allow you to sufficiently express your highest values? If so, in what ways? If not, do you need to communicate your values more clearly to your family, friends or partner? How could you do that?
- Does your work allow you to sufficiently express your highest values? If so, in what ways? If not, do you need to communicate your values more clearly to your boss, coworkers, or collaborators? Or if you work alone, do you need to make changes in the way you work? How could you increase the opportunities to express your highest values in your work?
- How do your values match your parents’ values, or the values of your culture? Are there conflicting values? Has it been difficult at times to feel free to live by your values? How have you freed yourself to be able to be true to your own expression? Are there other positive steps you can take toward feeling free to express and live out your unique values?
- What about the values of the others in your life? Are you able to see what the highest values of your family, your friends, or your collaborators are? Understanding others’ values is a major help to communication and mutual empathy and support. Is there someone you’d like to share this exercise with, in order to discuss your values together?
- What life changes are you ready to make based on what you’ve learned about yourself via this values exercise? And what kind of help and support do you need in order to make these steps?
Bicycle Drawing by Aaron Kuehn