If someone asks you, “what are your values,” would you have a response ready or would it take some time to formulate one? Think for a moment to answer the question. What are your personal values? Most people have them, no doubt, but we don’t spend much time contemplating what they are. What do personal values mean to you, are they important? If so, then why/how/when are they important? Mindtools.com provides an excellent definition for the term:
(Values should) determine your priorities, and, deep down, they’re probably the measures you use to tell if your life is turning out the way you want it to. When the things that you do and the way you behave match your values, life is usually good – you’re satisfied and content. But when these don’t align with your personal values, that’s when things feel… wrong.mindtools.com
The point being made is this. Our values are essentially a tool, a measuring stick, to properly gauge our life’s performance as well as a reflection of our self-worth. Living what you personally value in life seems easy, in theory, at least at first glance. After all, they are just the concepts you deem to be of greatest importance, so it seems like following them would be second nature right?
Welcome to 2020
2020 has been freaking weird, like no other year experienced in modern history. The government’s weird, society’s weird, technology’s downright insane (and obviously weird), and social norms- along with social media- are weird. Using a scope more appropriate for this space: drugs are weird, addiction’s weird, and recovery is weird. Basically, right now life’s just weird. With all that being said, where’s all this “weirdness” coming from? A lot of it comes back to our personal values.
One of the greatest unintended, seemingly unrelated, consequences of this batshit crazy year is the magnifying glass it places on all other facets of society. The piercing lens Covid positions on each and every one of us helps force to reassess and reevaluate our personal values. Even something as horrendous as a global pandemic can have its share of silver linings. The added downtime provides the perfect opportunity for an increase in self-reflection or recommitting to what you value personally out of life.
Nowadays it seems everyone faces a disconnect between who they are and there, “true self” who they envision themselves to be. When we detach from our values- which is exactly what ends up happening during active addiction- it creates a divide between our ideas/beliefs and our decisions/emotions. Someone obsessing over social media who assumes they value working hard and being aspirational is another example of this. In such instances we become delusional– towards our personal “self” and the world around us- in order to compensate or rationalize for this perceived disconnect.
Values are centerstage when someone says they need to “find themselves.” They discover a new set of personal values. Who we are- that concept recognized and identified as the “self”- is the culmination of all that we value.
What Are (Personal) Values
Personal values are the concepts that we view as most important to our life, the attributes or code of conduct that influences or inspires us and directs our actions. Perhaps you value cleanliness. This is a good/easy one to implement in your life because it’s so clearly apparent in our surroundings. If the value of cleanliness is important to you then keeping a tidy living area is a crucial aspect to your overall wellbeing. When things become messy you likely feel disappointed in yourself.
All of us have our own set of personal values, they’re unique to each individual. Our personalities will regularly influence our values. Whether a person prefers either coordination or competition; either safety or adventure; or either spontaneity or familiarity- it’s all reflected in the things that they value.
We’re all different- as was mentioned above- the stuff one person needs to be happy might have the next guy feeling apprehensive, irritated, and detached. Determining your personal values, then “practicing what you preach,” and living by them will offer you increased feelings of fulfillment.
Defining Your (Personal) Values
Now that we’ve got a basic understanding to what’s meant by personal values- what they do and why they’re important- it’s time we evaluate how you go about in determining what ones you view as most important. To start, think about the times you feel at your best. Remember, these are qualities or means of action. For example someone who holds the value of honesty (a personal quality or characteristic) in high regard is going to feel good when they speak the truth and bad if they lie. On a related note, keep in mind that negative emotions can be valuable guides in recognizing your values. What behaviors can you remember that resulted in you feeling disappointed in yourself?
Below are some additional questions to help you get started:
- What things do you consider most important in life?
- When were you happiest in life?
- What changes do you want to see or create in the world or in yourself?
- What/who do you look to for inspiration?
- If you could work any career (without factoring in/considering money, time, or any other limitations) what would it be?
Grab a piece of paper and do some brainstorming on these questions. After considering your answers use them as guides to determine your personal set of values. Sometimes these will be easy to recognize, others will be difficult, nonetheless be mindful of the particulars found in each response that speak/relate to you. To help get you started here’s a short list of some examples:
Examples of Potential Values
Obviously there are countless other options to choose from (here’s a longer list of examples). However, the purpose isn’t simply to select items off a list. It’s to recognize your own unique set of values using your personality and experiences. Do not think you’re limited to this or any other list, let your creativity shine!
Shifting into Action
After you’ve answered the questions above in your brainstorm session it’s time to evaluate your list. You might have a handful of values written down or, if you’re like me, you could have a mountain. If you fall in the “mountain” grouping remember this. Each one is like its own “course” in the curriculum for the School of Life. During your school years you probably took somewhere between five and seven courses. That’s a good number of values to focus on at first. If whittling down the list seems like a struggle, try listing them in order of importance. Important to note: not all value sets are created equal. Some are better than others.
Mark Manson’s book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, differentiates between good and bad values. “Good values are: Evidence-based, Constructive, and Controllable. Bad values are: Emotion-based, Destructive, and Uncontrollable” (markmanson.net). An additional “good” characteristic I would add is that good values are measurable. For example, two values on my personal list are health/fitness and education. One of the reasons these make excellent choices is that I can measure my commitment to health/fitness through the frequency I go to the gym, the regularity I meal prep, and my overall weight/general health. While education is measured by the number of books I read, podcasts I listen to, and courses I participate in.
Living by Your Values & Implementing Them Into Your Life
Sure, a piece of paper listing your personal values is great and all, but nothing changes simply by creating a list. We must begin living in accordance with our list for them to bring joy into our lives. That’s obviously easier said than done, so here are some tips to help you use your values in everyday life.
Setting Goals Using Your Values
Does the way you’re living life accurately reflect your values? Are the things you’re spending your time, money, and resources on in life what’s truly important to you? Does your current line of work or choice in career, your professional life, align with your values? Are the activities you engage in and the groups you associate with, your personal life, in line with your values? Not entirely? That’s ok, don’t beat yourself up. Our lives frequently begin deviating from our desired set of values (especially when you don’t take the time to vocalize or write them down) and for a wide range of causes.
Take each of your values and write a descriptive statement explaining how you intend to apply that concept to your life, as well as what benefits or direction the value will bring. Next, create a list of action items that put each value into motion. My “education” value list consisting of podcasts, books, audio, and various courses is one such example. The possibilities for implementation are as endless as the possibilities of values.
Once you have at least ten “action items” for each value start turning them into goals. Set a timeframe for their completion next week, month, year, and possibly longer. Next, take a look over the goals you already have set. Do your previous aspirations gel- or at the very least, not contradict- with your new list of personal values? Reassess any goal that seems to contradict your new set of values. Do you still have a sensible reason to still do it? If necessary, chop it off your list and focus on a new “value-friendly” goal.
Decision Making Using Your Values
Living according to our personal values is reflected in the small, day-by-day decision making process. Day-to-day do your responses to stimulations, in the moment, match up with your newly created list of personal values? Matching your actions to your values comes with its difficulties. Whether it’s the seduction that accompanies instant gratification or the subconscious pull of familiarity from old habits; numerous causes can lead us to forgetting our intention to act in accordance with our values. Luckily there are plenty of tools you can develop to better influence how you react. These handy tools give you the opportunity to live life more closely aligned with your values. These techniques include:
- Develop the habit of reading your list every morning after waking up and/or every evening before bed.
- Create regular reminders on your phone (personally I have an alarm set to go off every hour) to review your list.
- Keep your values close: Make them the background on your computer or phone; or print them out and keep them close to reference.
- Practice visualization: Consider your upcoming day. Plan out how and when each of your values will shine throughout the course of your schedule.
- Practice mindfulness: When you act contrary to your values, afterwards assess the situation, and contemplate a response that would be more in alignment with them.
Potential Barriers to Your Values
Sounds easy thus far, right? Then why’s it a battle for so many people to live a life aligned with their values? For most, the greatest problem is a lack of clarity regarding what values are important, or being unsure/not knowing what they truly value in life.
Simply put, values matter, regardless of whether or not you choose to identify them. It’s similar to the idea that everybody works a “program”. The only difference is whether or not the program, or values, are intentional. It’s for precisely this reason that life becomes far less difficult when you identify them, and begin making a conscious effort to live a life that adheres to what you value. At the core it basically comes down to living either proactively or reactively.
There are however other potential barriers that exist. For example, what happens if/when your values aren’t compatible with those of your friends or family? Yes, barriers are significant- and warrant significant consideration- regardless be mindful that, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”. What you value can surface in your life in a variety of ways. In the event that your values clash with people around you (or a particular section of society) you could have to handle various complications, however you can still respond with virtue in your actions.
When everybody is treated with dignity and respect monumental progress can be made. This is especially true involving cases of conflicting values. Everything is dependent upon its circumstances. However, assuming the state of affairs allows for dissenting values/opinions, you can challenge society (or a specific social circle) and fight to alter societal norms. History is full of examples: from Harriet Tubman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Rosa Parks to Colin Kaepernick of folks whose personal set of values clashed with what was the norm. Most of the greatest changes in society are the result of conflicting values.
Values & Addiction
You might be thinking to yourself, “that’s all well and good; but this is supposed to be a blog on addiction. So I’m a bit confused about what all this value stuff has to do with addiction?”
For starters, accounting for values adds another whole layer onto the insanity that is addiction. What you value becomes complicated, and rationalized, because your subconscious mind wants to make sense of your actions. A lot of us become delusional in active addiction as a result of this. Psychologically, you feel like you need something to survive (the drugs) however; the overall lengths at which you go to use are detrimental to all other facets of life. That’s a tough place to be. It’s not that addict’s lack values, in fact using as a means to forget what you value, is one of the primary justifications people give themselves to continue using.
Shortly after my first stint in rehab, a thirty day (meaning all illicit chemicals purged my system) inpatient program. I left with a burning existential question searing at my soul. Sure, I learned all sorts of fantastically useful and practical tools in treatment and, most importantly, the drugs were out of my system; but what they didn’t teach me was the WHY. I never “found myself” I still had no idea of who the hell I even was. I believe this area is where my treatment, and perhaps treatment in general, was lacking.
Personal values are like a mental compass directing us towards our perception of worthwhile, favorable, positive, and rewarding. Treatment never equipped me with that compass. In fact, the WHY behind all of this- addiction, personal values, and why any of it’s important in the first place- is all the same. It’s all about the feelings. The WHY, the reason value’s are critical, is because you feel good when life reflects your values and terrible when it doesn’t.
If someone lies to protect or support their active addiction, yet in their heart they value honesty, it’s going to exponentially compound the misery brought on by their use. It all comes back to feelings. We use because we feel shitty, depressed, disappointed, or some kind of pain. Our personal values guide us towards what will provide the positive feelings required for recovery and a happy, fulfilling well balanced life.
Values as a Conduit to Recovery
Dan Mager (MSW) author of the book: Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain provides fantastic insight on the premise of personal values relation to addiction. Mager’s article, Values Can Be a Conduit to Recovery highlights the effects ambivalence has on a person’s alcohol or drug use. To clarify: ambivalence is the state of having mixed feelings or conflicting ideas towards something. In the article Mager argues that clarifying our personal values can help tip ambivalence from inaction to active motivation, sobriety, or some other form of healthy change.
Denial (one of the cornerstone defense mechanisms used in support of active addiction) begins to dissipate when someone consciously considers the differences between their behaviors in active addiction and their values, and between their current situation and their hopes for the futureMager, psychologytoday.com
Ironically, Mager goes on to explain how all of this ties together to 2020 and the Covid Pandemic. Putting in the time to consciously scrutinize and reassess your personal values isn’t something people often do. “This (value clarification) is not something most people do unless a significant event (usually an extremely negative, painful, or traumatic event) shakes them up so much they feel compelled to consider their life’s meaning and purpose,” (Mager, psychologytoday.com). Accessing your personal values isn’t just for people struggling with addiction. The bright piercing spotlight of self-reflection brought on by this unprecedented sequence of circumstances could be the catalyst for change in anybody.
My recommendations for action would break down as follows:
- Brainstorm your personal values and create a list consisting of six values to start.
- Take each of your values and write a descriptive statement for each of them explaining how you intend to apply it to your life and what benefits or direction they’ll bring.
- For each of your six values think of ten “action items” that put each one into use.
- Take your ten “action items” for each value and begin creating goals around them.
- For each goal set a timeframe for its completion: next week, month, year, etc.
Keep in mind that personal values aren’t set in stone. They aren’t absolute and should change as you grow and mature with time. Certain core values could stay constant your entire life, however others shift along with the circumstances.
Regularly examine your list of values and be mindful of changes. When you remove one value for another repeat the above procedure: brainstorm, descriptive statement, list action items, goals, and implementation. At the very least do this annually, along with during any major life change (divorce, sobriety, serious illness, death of someone close, loss of job, etc.).
A lot of people don’t realize this. A lot of people obsessively focus on being happy and feeling good all the time—not realizing that if their values suck, feeling good will hurt them more than help them. If your biggest value in the world is snorting Vicodin through a swirly straw, well, then feeling better is just going to make your life worse.markmanson.net
The absolute worst idea you could have is that it’s stupid to put any time into considering your values or that you don’t need them. I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt, that whether you’re conscious of them or not, your values play a vital role in your life.
Closing things up, I hope I answered the why/when/how behind personal values. I hope that they are now a bit easier to understand. I hope you see why they’re significant and the importance of giving them consideration. Now, you should be able to recognize when an issue of values arises and how to handle it. Furthermore, now you understand: how they’re important, how you can use them, and how you can better live your life according to what’s really important in your world.
“A crisis can become an opportunity to think deeply about what their values are and what kind of life they want to live. Coming to that place where people find themselves in treatment for addiction can be a crisis that creates such an opportunity. The question then becomes, how will they use it?”Dan Mager: psychologytoday.com
I hope you’re able to find the blessings that come out of the Covid Pandemic such as the ability to add new skills. I encourage you to take this time to reassess your values and learn something new.