Imagine you’re on a date with someone you really like. You sit down, make small talk, order the first round of drinks, and after the first few sips, the conversation suddenly starts to flow; it’s effortless. You can really see this going somewhere. After the meal, they lean in closer, like they’re going to kiss you on the cheek. Then, they pull back, look you in the eyes, bite their bottom lip and say: What are your values?
Oh shit, you think, now what?
People love to tell you who they support, what bands they’ve seen, and their thoughts on animal testing. But ask them their values, and they’re totally stumped.
“Does it really matter anyway? I mean, if I know I disagree with putting plastic in the wrong bin, and I hate bullying, surely that makes me a good person. Why does knowing my values matter?”
Aaaand that’s the end of the date!
Let me ask you: Have you ever felt anxiety but not understood why? When everything on the surface seems okay, it’s still there, and you just can’t put your finger on it. You have a good job, a boyfriend; you’re relatively healthy. SO WHY AM I STILL ANXIOUS?
Well, maybe, there are some things in your subconscious that are constantly in conflict.
What if we could work out what the problem was? What if, in doing so, it helped us make difficult choices? And what if, one day, we could use it to predict the future? I’m going to go into some more detail, but if you’d like to give it a go, before or after, here’s what I want you to do.
Step 1: Write down a list of values
Here are a few examples to choose from, but feel free to add your own:
Integrity, Love, Connection, Curiosity, Travel, Adventure, Physical Health, Mental Health, Respect, Responsibility, Family, Achievement, Education, Authenticity, Wealth, Being a great parent, Fulfilment, Empathy, Determination, Fun, Playfulness, Sexuality, Diversity.
Step 2: Put them in order, from the most important to the least
Remember, just because integrity isn’t on the shortlist doesn’t mean you don’t have it. It just means, for now at least, you care more about family, or connection. There is no wrong answer.
Step 3: Analyse what you find
Here are a few different examples to help you with your own analysis.
We’ll start with Peter.
Here are his top five values, in order:
- Physical Health and Fitness
Peter was a fantastic swimmer as a child. After a series of injuries, he was forced to give up competing but still loves the sport. In his mid-twenties, he was offered the opportunity to work in the US, training college students for competition. It was too good to pass up.
Peter has always valued fulfilment more than anything else in life. He used to get this from swimming, but now it’s largely dictated by his work. If he feels like he is enjoying every day in a job he loves, he’s a happy man. Or so he thinks…
After a few months settling in, he starts to notice lingering anxiety that just won’t go away. He begins to seek connection by hitting the local saloon most nights and staying until the early hours. Every morning he wakes up late with a headache and a renewed feeling of dread. He just doesn’t understand why he feels like this. But, with a little investigation, he could have seen this coming months ago. It was all so predictable.
Little does Pete know, all his values are at odds.
Pete’s top value, fulfilment, was being ‘fulfilled’ by his love for swimming and a job that allowed him to be around the sport. But his second value was family, who are several thousand miles away. These two values have been colliding with each other, causing internal disruption for months. Pete’s handled this by travelling further down the list, seeking out connection. The problem is he does this by ‘having a few beers with the lads,’ which, when done too regularly, completely conflicts with his fourth value, ‘physical health and fitness’. Is it any wonder there’s anxiety there?
I’m not trying to fix Pete or even pretend I could, but if he were to spend a little time analysing his situation, he might decide that job fulfilment doesn’t always mean life fulfilment. Perhaps finding a job closer to home would allow his top two values to work in harmony. Maybe he sacrifices the ‘level’ of his career to coach younger children back in the UK. At this point, he might realise that family is the most important thing in his life, or perhaps it’s connection, and he gets that from teaching kids how to swim for the first time. There are so many avenues Pete could go down to steer away from the negative feelings and coping mechanisms he’s currently experiencing. But he has to get to know himself first.
He has to ask the question “What are my values?”
Now let’s look at Anna.
Her top three values are:
I asked Anna what needed to happen for her to feel love. Here were some of her replies:
- Someone will check in on me from time to time
- I receive a random act of kindness
- I find a loving partner
- I’m surrounded by loved ones
- I’m appreciated at work
These are all great answers. I would feel love if any of these were aimed at me, wouldn’t you? But, have you noticed where she might be feeling some push back from all of these? Can you spot what might be giving Anna some disruption, similar to how Pete was feeling?
Every single one of the values above relies on somebody else. Anna has subconsciously created a system where she can only feel love when someone else decides to give it to her.
Now, of course, we all need love from others. But that is not the only time we can feel it, is it?
Anna then asked me the same question: “What needs to happen for me to feel love?”
- I have to love unconditionally
- I have to be open with the people around me
- I have to have empathy
- I have to accept kindness (this is HUGE for many people reading this, I’m sure)
- I have to believe I’m worthy
Now, some of these are problematic in their own right. “I have to believe I’m worthy!” Wow, I must have been having a bad day. But at least I can rely on self-work. I also need to hear someone say they love me and get a text from a friend, but that’s no longer the only time I allow myself to feel loved.
Let’s look at a couple.
Now we’re reliant on two people’s values working in harmony. You’ve seen how conflicting it can be just with your own; adding someone else into the mix is bound to cause fireworks.
Janet’s top value, above all others, is integrity. She wants people to know that when she says something, it happens, and when she speaks, it’s the truth. Her second value is family.
Her partner, Alex, values success. Alex believes success comes from money and being able to provide for a family. The thing is, Alex will do anything to achieve this, beg, borrow, steal, it doesn’t matter; it’s success and family first.
As this becomes clearer to Janet over the years, their two values start jarring, especially as Janet matures and the importance she holds on integrity grows stronger.
The fact they both hold family so highly is the only thing keeping them together. But for how long?
What about Chris and Mark?
Chris wants to travel and see the world? Because more than anything, he values adventure.
Mark, on the other hand, values family. He wants to be around to see his parents grow old, lay down solid roots, and build his own family.
They knew this from day one of their relationship, but their amazing connection and sexual attraction blinded them to the reality: unless their values change, one person is going to have to give up the thing they hold most dear.
Perhaps, in the name of love, Chris gives up on his dreams of travel and adventure and settles down in a small village in Cornwall with Mark as they look to adopt a child.
What happens next? Chris will either fall in love with this new way of life, and his values will shift around it, or he will feel a burning frustration and underlying resentment that will manifest in all sorts of ways, from passive aggression to stone cold apathy.
His connection with Mark and perhaps even Mark’s family will suffer. His burning lust for life will reduce to a simmer as he spends his days wandering alone by the sea, wondering would might have been. When raising his child, does he tell them how he sacrificed everything for the man he loves, telling the tale of love conquering all, or does he shun the boy, a walking reminder of all he gave up?
Now that may seem melodramatic, but it gives you a small window into how opposing values can doom a relationship right from the start.
As we get older, having children becomes a hotter topic in the dating world. For obvious reasons, it becomes more important to have the conversation early. But why aren’t we talking about our other values? Why aren’t we discussing whether our need for adventure and spontaneity aligns with their need for certainty and safety? Why don’t we look inside ourselves and realise that our constant obsession with success is colliding with our passion for mental health?
Well, it’s because we’ve never looked.
Step 4: How about we reverse engineer it?
Write down who you want to be—the very best version of yourself. No limits. Go crazy. Then take a few moments to decide what values you would need to become that person. If you can spend the next few weeks focusing on those areas in your life, I wonder where you’ll be five years from now.
So that’s it, four steps to identifying your values. In truth, perhaps none of this will mean you can predict the future, but it may just help you steer towards it.