Values are a big part of our identity, so getting clear on them is pretty important when it comes to living a fulfilled life, yet many of us (myself included) have only a vague sense of what they are.
For a long time I thought I was value-less. Not that I was living some kind of amoral lifestyle, just that I couldn’t pin a label neatly onto the things I valued. I’ve been on a search to uncover my own values for some time.
It’s a bit of a minefield because, as I’m coming to learn, I’m not just full of my own values, but society’s values, my parent’s values, values I share with my friends and family; so unpicking what truly matters to me is an ongoing process.
Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, says that what we value can be seen in our actions:
‘Our values are constantly reflected in the way we choose to behave.’-Mark Manson
If I say I value something, but act in a way that contravenes that value, then maybe it’s something I want to value, but as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. If I’m only talking the talk, then perhaps I don’t value that thing enough yet to make the changes needed to internalise it.
I heard a brilliant segment in a podcast recently where author, coach and former Disney executive Dave Hollis identified the dissonance between who he was in his own head and the person he was presenting to the world. The gap between the two showed him the areas in his life where he needed to improve. This is a great exercise to try when we’re striving to align with a new set of values, or to check if we’re living in alignment with our existing ones.
The other problem: if values shape my identity and reflect who I am, what happens when I discover that a value I thought I held isn’t actually mine? If I let that go, how will it impact my relationships with the people I share that value with?
My Dad is a car enthusiast. He passed down his love of nice cars to my brother and me. As a young girl I used to take pride in knowing the makes and models of more cars than the boys in my class at school. Watching the formula one racing was a family affair at weekends, with my Mum perfectly timing tea and bacon sandwiches as we all gathered around the TV for the start of the race.
My brother has internalised these values and this stuff matters to him. He painstakingly and lovingly takes care of his beautiful car on the weekend and still follows the Grand Prix with enthusiasm. I, on the other hand, keep my car clean inside and out mainly out of concern for what my Dad would say if I didn’t, and tend to see the Grand Prix as a good opportunity for an afternoon nap.
Don’t get me wrong, a clean car is nice and I love being inside one, but I don’t love spending hours cleaning my car as my Dad and brother do. I’d rather take it to the car wash when I’m having trouble locating a funky smell and pay the fifteen pounds for the inside and out (which I usually do before I take a trip to visit my family, so my Dad and brother don’t see the copious crumbs from all the biscuit and crisp eating I permit my children to do in my car).
I want it to matter because I enjoy a nice clean car, and I’ve tried over the years to care enough to give it a thorough clean every weekend, but I just can’t make it stick. So, I guess it’s time to let this value go, it was never mine in the first place.
But here’s where the resistance sets in. Because if I truly let it go, what, my mind wonders, will happen to my relationship with my Dad and brother? As they frown upon my crumb filled car, will I lose their respect, their approval, their love? Okay, so I don’t think we’re going to fall out (much) over an unclean car, but this concern is very real for some of the other values that we share with those close to us, and this means making changes in life – even positive changes – can be very difficult.
When I stopped drinking alcohol for a few months (you can read about it here) I worried what it would do to my relationships with other people. I’ve been pretty lucky in that it doesn’t seem to have impacted my relationship with my family and friends (though the pubs have just reopened here in the UK after another national lockdown, so time will tell).
An interesting thing I’ve noticed now that I no longer drink out of habit is that on the occasions when I do have a glass of wine or a beer, it’s usually borne from a desire to connect with people, rather than any desire for the actual drink. To connect with my husband after he’s had a hard day at work, to bond with my parents over a meal or celebrate a birthday with friends. So connection with others is clearly one of my values and this discovery is important.
If I’m having a couple of drinks to connect with my friends or family then this sits positively within the framework of my values. However, if I’m binge drinking on weekends because it’s just what I’ve always done, and the knock-on effect is that it’s hindering my connection with my loved ones as I lethargically nurse a hangover every Sunday instead of playing with my kids, then that’s not so great for me, and leads to all sorts of self-loathing. It took me years to figure this out. (I am in no way knocking a good drinking session if that’s what floats your boat, it just stopped floating mine long before I cut it adrift).
But what if I stopped drinking altogether? A friend once joked to me they didn’t think they could be friends with someone who doesn’t drink. Whilst said in jest, it highlights how changing our actions (and thereby changing our values), has the potential to impact our relationships with those around us.
Mark Manson highlights this in reference to the self-development industry: coaches are trying to help people reach the heights of their potential, like owning a yacht, but as he points out, take away the desire to own a yacht from someone and what goes with that? The parties on the yacht, the social scene at the yacht club, the identity of someone who owns a yacht. It not only changes our relationship with ourselves, but with others too, which can be a tough pill to swallow. Maybe it’s just easier to keep wanting the yacht? (Or in my case, a pint at the local pub).
But think of the possibilities! It’s in our power to choose our values according to what matters most to us, which means we can ultimately choose what kind of person we are (so it’s always best to pick good ones, and maybe throw in a couple that benefit others).
It can take some time to adopt new values and there’s almost always progress followed by regression as we inevitably fall back into old patterns, but if what we value truly matters to us then change is possible.
Popular culture is filled with success stories of people who’ve challenged who they thought they were and grown as a result, a fantastic example being the extraordinary story of John McAvoy, a reformed convict turned athlete, who discovered rowing whilst serving a prison sentence and turned his life around.
This is a great example of changing actions affecting value change, and ultimately changing a person’s identity to themselves and those around them. I’m a former Probation Officer, so hearing how taking up exercise led to a complete set of value changes and a life dedicated to helping others for John McAvoy was amazing. Listen to his story on Dr Chatterjee’s podcast.
It’s not easy to follow the pull towards a new value. It might be something you’re doing which isn’t serving you anymore but which a lot of your shared values with others centre around, (for me the biggest one was binge drinking at social events on the weekend), or a value that you want to adopt but where doing so threatens the kind of person you thought you were (like donating a lot of my clothes to charity in pursuit of a minimalist wardrobe, or selling my high powered car in a bid to be more environmentally friendly – still haven’t managed this one, perhaps my love of cars is more internalised than my need for a clean one).
The pandemic was a great catalyst for showing me what I value and what truly matters in my life. I enjoyed the slower pace of life that the pandemic brought, which allowed me to be more present with my family, instead of rushing us all through the day. I valued the extra time for creativity that the lockdowns allowed, where I began writing and started my blog. I leaned into my spiritual side as I took up a regular meditation practice.
As the pace of life picks up again, I can feel myself drifting back towards actions that reflect my old values. The social calendar is filling up, life with the kids is drifting from connection to control as they return to school and I resume a mothering role akin to a drill sergeant, the temptation to go on a shopping spree for a new Spring wardrobe is mounting and as much as I love the benefits of meditation, there’s a voice at the back of my head telling me it’s self-indulgent to sit with my eyes closed for twenty minutes each day when there’s a hundred other things to be done.
There’s a part of me that wants to listen to this voice and slip comfortably back into my old lifestyle. It would certainly be the easiest thing to do. Yet I’m also aware that to do so would shut off the interesting things I’ve learned over the past year, and that would feel like a big loss.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in a fixed sense of our identity that can make it very hard for personal growth and change. But values (and people) change over time and this is a natural part of being human. If there are areas in your life that are making you unhappy then perhaps you’ve outgrown some of your values, maybe it’s time to try on some new ones.
Phew, that was a long one. If you made it this far, a huge thank you. I also wanted to thank all of you who read and follow my blog. I reached 100 followers last week, which has been a huge achievement for me. When I started writing I didn't think I would get any followers outside of my immediate social circle, but to reach 100 means so much. If you enjoy my writing and know someone who you think would enjoy reading it then please feel free to share. You can also follow me on instagram.
Tom Bilyeu (2020) Dave Hollis on How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself Episode 164 24/3/20 [Impact Theory With Tom Bilyeu] access at https://podcasts.apple.com
Mark Manson (2021) Personal Values: How to Know Who You Really Are, markmanson.net, https://markmanson.net/personal-values
Tom Bilyeu (2019) Mark Manson On How Your Concept of Who You Are is F*cking You Up, Episode 122 14/5/19[Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeu] access at https://podcasts.apple.com
Dr Rangan Chatterjee (2020) If This Man Can Turn His Life Around, So Can You, Episode 90 1/1/20 [Feel Better Live More], access at https://podcasts.apple.com