When I was maybe eleven or twelve years old, I stole a pencil sharpener from the local K-mart. It was the easiest thing to do; my mom and I were out shopping (as we did) and walked through the art supplies aisle, where I admired a particularly glossy kit. You know the kind - the one that has watercolors, pastels, pencils, brushes, markers, and those fancy white erases that only true artists use? Yeah, that kind. I was in love. My mom, ever sympathetic but also mindful of the family pocket-book, acknowledged my creative hunger and said something about the set making, “a good Christmas gift.” I could get on board with that. It was late fall at the time, after all. One of the cases was opened, and a little silver pencil sharpener had fallen into the aisle. Mind you, this was the most basic kind of sharpener you could make; unprotected razor, one-size fits all opening, with jagged edges where the factory mold had separated. It likely cost all of .002 cents to make.
My mom told me to return the sharpener to its corresponding kit and moved on to the next aisle. But, like Frodo and the One Ring I found myself sneakily pocketing my new 'precious' rather than returning it to the fires of Mount Doom, as I had promised. I then promptly forgot about it. It wasn’t until a few days later when my mom found it while sorting laundry that it re-entered my mind. Long, loud conversation and many tears ensued, along with frantic attempts at poor lying. It was no good; I was a caught thief, and I would have to make my amends. When my dad came home at the end of the day, we drove to the store where I, tearstained and sniffling, offered my pilfered goods to the manager. Out of principle, my dad bought the cardboard box the set came in (the actual set was now missing… it wasn’t a well-organized K-mart). He explained to me on the car ride home that, though the sharpener was a small, cheap thing that nobody would really miss, my theft violated an important family value. Living with honesty and integrity - in the form of “always do rightly by others” - was a humiliating $19.99 lesson that stuck with me over the years.
We all have similar experiences, some less dramatic, some more so, of the moment when we gained a crystal clarity of our core values. I can think of several other times when I witnessed my family making hard decisions revolving around ideals that served as guides for our next steps. There were also times when, in my later adulthood, I found myself deliberately taking on new values to serve as guideposts for my life because I had deeply considered new information or experiences, creating something completely unique to myself.
Core values create a constellation of sentiments and aspirations, around which we structure our self concept. When we make choices in alignment with those values, it is not uncommon to experience increases in life satisfaction, fulfillment, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Violating those values can have equally detrimental effects, and as such, living out values-based lifestyles are a central component to many types of therapy (Motivational Interviewing, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Existentialism, and Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy, to name just a few). When working with individuals who are struggling with personal satisfaction, challenges, or life changes, it is an inevitability that I will at some point begin conversations around identifying and clarifying personal values. This is because there are times when we may need reminding about what we consider to be most important in our lives, but additionally, we may only have an implicit awareness of those values. It is entirely possible (and not at all uncommon) to operate on values rooted so deeply in past experience that they provide reflexive, instinctive reactions to our experiences. This can be particularly problematic if values conflict, as they sometimes do. Clarifying what is most important in our lives can reconcile some of these conflicts and promote healthier living.
One of the ways that I will explore values with people is using a “Values Card-Sort” that I picked up in my training with Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). It involves sorting 100+ cards into categories, ranging from “most important to me” on through “not important to me.” The cards have a key word and an explanatory statement on them, each representing potential values someone may hold. Through a process of evaluating, reacting to, and sorting the cards (I do a 'triple sort' process to identify the most-important-of-the-most-important) people end up with roughly 5-10 values that are what I call their “North-star Values.” Once we have made these explicit, we can begin to look at how well these values are being lived out in a person’s life, how they guide past and future behavior, as well as make meaning of a current struggle.
For example, my eight "North-star Values" are as follows:
1) Spirituality: to grow and mature in the awareness of how all things are interconnected, and to become more deeply immersed in that process.
2) Love: to understand and perpetuate the experience of unconditional, healing love in my own life as well as others’.
3) Mindfulness: to live conscious and present in each moment, abstaining from judgment or over attachment.
4) Gratitude: to practice thankfulness and healthy perspectives of my experiences.
5) Integrity: to live my daily life in a way that is consistent with my values.
6) Compassion: to feel and act on concern for others.
7) Complexity: to embrace and be curious about the intricacies of life.
8) Justice: to promote fair and equal treatment for all.
To know these as my core values is to be able to reasonably predict how I will react to just about any moral, ethical, business, personal, or social decision in life. For me to know them allows me to be deliberate in that decision making process, and provides check-in opportunities to ensure that I’m not off-course from being true to my self.
There are other ways to figure out what your “North-star Values” are; a former client of mine made a gratitude list every night for a week, and then looked at the themes of what he was most grateful for. Those themes became his identified core values. Friends of mine and I also engage in inventories of people’s childhood experiences (known as an Adlerian Style of Life assessment) that is very effective in uncovering core values and the logic that stems from them. A quick Google search can pull up a variety of worksheets that you can use at home to go through this process, as well. Whatever approach works for you, there is a terrific opportunity to quickly add some value and meaning to your day, just by asking the question, “What’s most important to me in life, and how do I live that out?”
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational Interviewing: Helping people change (3rd. Ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.