What are personal values, and how can you establish your values?

What are personal values, and how can you establish your values?

Personal values are a vital source of direction and guidance for leading a purposeful, fulfilling, and authentic life. Values act like a compass to help us navigate life’s various decisions, transitions, and challenges, shaping our behaviour and influencing our life trajectories.

Personal values are the fundamental principles and beliefs that guide an individual’s decisions, actions, and interactions. Despite their importance, many people never take the time to pause and tune into what matters most to them. 

Whether we acknowledge them or not, our values form a core aspect of our identity, reflecting what we deem essential or meaningful. Your values serve as a moral and ethical framework, helping you navigate the complexities of the world around you.

One common mistake when considering personal values is using the term interchangeably with core beliefs. Core beliefs and personal values can be interconnected but are also distinct concepts that affect our lives differently from one another.

Core beliefs are not always consciously chosen and may be true or false, harmful or helpful.

We can have core beliefs that appear to contradict our values, creating internal conflict or dissonance. For example, you might value authenticity and strive to show up as your most raw, genuine self. But somewhere deep in your psyche, you may also have the core belief that conforming to social expectations is vital for your safety and inclusion in your community.

Core beliefs often stem from childhood, sometimes so early that we don’t have conscious or verbal memories of when we first developed them. In contrast, personal values are usually positive (at least in theory) and are most often something we purposefully choose and strive to live by.

How do our values influence our lives?

Whether we realise it or not, our values impact us in various aspects of life, from routine decision-making to significant life choices about our careers, relationships, finances, health, or how we spend our free time.

We all have limited time and energy in our schedules to attend to multiple and competing demands on our attention.

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it’s easy to succumb to the pressure of immediate incoming tasks, often at the expense of what truly matters to us. What is urgent is not always synonymous with what is most important.

Staying in touch with our values guides us to make intentional choices that align with our deeper priorities. Amidst the clamour of immediate demands, we must carve out time for the aspects of life that bring us joy, fulfillment, and peace.

Consciously integrating our values into decision-making creates a roadmap for navigating the tension between the urgent and the important. This conscious process allows us to resist the temptation to perpetually postpone what matters most, fostering a more purposeful and fulfilling life.

What are examples of personal values?

Here are five examples of common values and how they may present in your behaviour and decision-making:

1. Integrity

Many people have a core value of living with integrity. Integrity shows up through behaviour consistent with our moral and ethical principles. People who value integrity strive for transparency and a commitment to ethical behaviour. They often take responsibility for their actions, admitting mistakes and working towards resolutions with humility.

2. Family

Family is another common personal value, often manifesting as a commitment and prioritisation of relationships with relatives and loved ones. Those who hold family as a core value invest time, effort, and emotional energy in nurturing and maintaining strong connections and fostering a sense of belonging and support.

3. Authenticity

Authenticity manifests as a dedication to being true to oneself, embracing individuality, and expressing genuine thoughts and emotions. Authentic individuals often embrace their uniqueness and individuality, demonstrated by their personal style, creative pursuits, or self-expression. They are less concerned with conforming to societal norms and more focused on being true to their identity.

4. Security

Someone who values security may seek stability, safety, and a sense of predictability in various aspects of their life. In their career, this individual may seek job opportunities that offer a stable and secure environment, valuing positions with a dependable income and long-term prospects over more volatile options.

5. Freedom and adventure

On the other hand, the value of freedom and adventure propels individuals towards novel experiences, risk-taking, and the pursuit of excitement and personal growth. Someone who values freedom or adventure may be drawn to professions that allow flexibility, creativity, and the opportunity to take on new challenges. They might be inclined to explore entrepreneurial ventures or unconventional career paths that align with their adventurous spirit.

Values are not mutually exclusive, and conflicts may arise when, for example, the desire for freedom and adventure clashes with the need for security. Striking a balance and understanding your personal hierarchy of values can help to navigate these tensions, ensuring a more harmonious integration of your core principles into your life.

How to establish your personal values

For various reasons, some of us are less in touch with what matters most to us. Perhaps we weren’t encouraged to think for ourselves early in life and are now more likely to adhere to the values or influence of those around us. Maybe we spent much of our formative years in a state of survival, where we didn’t have the mental space or safety to explore what kind of life we wanted to lead.

Or perhaps we are still learning to tell the difference between the types of values we want to embody and core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us that no longer serve us.

Connecting with your childhood hobbies or passions may be helpful for reconnecting with intrinsic values and interests. Many of us had a strong inclination towards a particular pastime or way of living before the opinions and expectations of others made us feel that we had to change ourselves to fit in.

For others, inspiring stories help to open our minds and broaden the horizon of what we think is possible. Pay attention to books, movies, or personal stories that strike a chord with you, and reflect on how they make you feel and what they say about your goals, passions, and value system.

Some questions to help clarify your values could include:

  • What drives me?
  • When in my life have I felt peaceful, purposeful, and so immersed in what I’m doing that I lose track of time?
  • When have I felt miserable or unfulfilled? What about these experiences felt out of alignment? (Sometimes, determining what you don’t value can help determine what matters most).
  • What do I keep wishing I could do but avoid because of a lack of time or confidence?
  • What makes me excited to get out of bed?

You can reflect on or journal about these questions, creating a visual or written representation of your values. Remember that there is no wrong way to define your values. It’s normal if they change throughout your life in response to new experiences or learning new information.

Living by your own principles isn’t about being perfect or better than anyone else. It’s about staying connected to yourself and being conscious of how you want to live and the type of impact you hope to have on the world around you.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.