Have you ever stopped to think about what your core values are? What life experiences have influenced your values and what points of reference do you use to define these? Understanding what is important to you allows for self-reflection and self-evaluation that can help bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be as well as guide your decisions to be more in alignment with who you are. Everyone’s priorities are very different; for example, some people’s priorities are shaped by their independent qualities while others see priorities in a more collectivist framework.

When your values and life choices are in alignment, life is satisfying and you feel content and at ease. However, when one doesn’t match up with the other, you may experience a sense of friction and unhappiness. Things may just feel wrong. Making a conscious choice to recognize what matters most to you and what brings the most fulfillment can help guide difficult life decisions, both large and small. This shapes who you are and who you want to be, and guides who you will become.

Values are defined as “the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity,” by psychologists Barb Markway and Celia Ampel. We are born into a world that has frequently already defined our core values for us. Our parents or caregivers instill a sense of importance in values that they believe will serve us best in our immediate environment. Sometimes we have to interpret and find meaning on our own, such as when our primary caregivers are not available. As we move along the course of life, we may change our sense of self and begin to reevaluate what we once thought was important. We may join a community or we may rebel against another societal norm.

Our values are a part of our identity and they highlight what we stand for. Each one of us has a very unique worldview shaped by our culture, life experiences, upbringing, or challenging circumstances to name a few. In addition, most of us may not understand what is important to us and we may focus instead on what our society, culture, or media values. However, when we honor ourselves consistently, we feel a sense of fulfillment, which is why identifying core values is an important first step. It can give us a snapshot of who we are, where we are, and where we want to be. This can then guide the kind of relationships we cultivate or take space from, the kind of career we seek, and where our boundaries or areas of compromise are.

Identifying your core values is an ongoing process, and the below exercise can help you begin that discovery. Start by writing down the top 15-20 values that are meaningful to you. See the list below as a guide or feel free to add your own that are not on the list. As you look at this list, ask yourself these questions:

· Think back to a time when you felt really good and confident in yourself. What were you doing and what were the most salient aspects of this experience?
· What kind of people (community, family, culture) do you enjoy being around? Which qualities of these people speak to you the most?
· What factors contribute to your happiness?
· What are you willing to compromise and what is immutable?
· If you can imagine yourself living a life of fulfillment, what does that look like?
· What are you most proud of? What contributes to this feeling?
· What experiences give your life the most meaning, whether positive or negative?

Pick 15-20 values that matter most to you from the list below:

Then, narrow that list down to 10 values. Out of this list, write down your top 5. This part may be difficult as you will have to look deep within yourself to recognize where you find the most meaning. If you come across challenges during this portion, envision a scenario where you may have to decide between those values. What would make you choose one over the other? In which circumstances? How frequently would you encounter this scenario?

After completing this step, look over your top values once more. Make sure they are in alignment with who you are and your vision for yourself. Ask yourself the following reflections:

· Are you proud of the values you have chosen?
· Do these values make you feel good about who you are?
· Would you be comfortable sharing these values with significant others? Why or why not?
· Would you pursue these values in the case of difficulties or if your choice isn’t popular? Ask yourself which values are in alignment with your sense of integrity and that you feel are right. These may not be easy choices, but they are a lot less difficult in the long run.

Keep in mind that sometimes your top values may be in conflict with each other and having a sense of priority can help you choose one value over the other in a particular situation. In other scenarios, one value might rise over the others. In addition, what is important to you may shift over time. For example, once you complete a comfortable degree of financial security, other values may become more salient. Sometimes you will be presented with people or situations that may make it difficult for you to stick to your core values. In these situations, observing yourself and being honest about what you are experiencing can help you move through it. The choices you make both reveal and build character and can enhance your self-knowledge. You can’t be perfect and you may have to compromise, but you can utilize your core values to help you live a life of integrity and fulfillment.