In 2021, I looked up and realized I didn’t recognize my life. 

I had just come through a series of huge life changes that happened in rapid succession — becoming a parent, losing my “dream job,” getting back into writing, and starting my own business — and I was feeling all the telltale signs that I had not properly sorted through and processed all of these shifts. I was anxious and irritable, I was plagued with racing thoughts, and I had developed tinnitus. My neck and shoulders had seized up into unyielding knots. My go-to response to almost every interruption was to shout “What?!” like the surliest teenager. After the prospect of having to write my “mission statement” for my new business brought on a panic attack on my kitchen floor, I knew it was time to get help. 

“I had just come through a series of huge life changes and I was feeling the telltale signs that I had not properly sorted through and processed these shifts.”

“So why are you here today?” my new therapist Jessica asked. I looked at her, feeling my leg start up its nervous jiggling. I told her about everything that had been happening in my life, the many crossroads I’d passed through, the strange sense of having reached the other side but not feeling like I could settle yet, like I was safe. “I’ve got a bad case of the mean reads,” I told her, a kind of test, to see if randomly referencing Holly Golightly in this way would be allowed. She smiled. 

“I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Jessica said. I relaxed slightly, and she noticed. “You look relieved.” I explained that I wanted to be comfortable in therapy, to speak off the cuff and as myself. 

“I don’t want to feel like I have to perform here,” I told her, and as I said it, I realized how much this mattered to me. I’d spent five years trying to be someone else for a bad faith boss. I’d given up my writing to do it. I was discovering that I wasn’t the kind of mother I had expected I’d be, and the self-criticism was preventing me from seeing what kind of mother I actually was. I had to find a way to sell my business brand with a clear message about who I was, but I didn’t even know where to start.   

“What were you doing right before the panic attack?” Jessica asked. I told her about the mission statement. She nodded, and then handed me a heavy black and white box full of cards. 

“Sounds like you’re trying to find your core values,” she told me. These, she explained, are the rules that help us make decisions and give our lives meaning. “We all have certain standards that, when met, make us feel like we are living our lives well,” she said. 

I pulled out a couple of cards. One said authenticity, another passion. “When we go through big changes, sometimes the values we were living by are no longer serving us. Does that sound like what’s going on with you?”

“What had I been thinking for the last five years? What rules had I been following, and who made them?”

I thought back over the last few years of my life: The job I thought I loved that had slowly destroyed my sense of self; the discovery that I was a much more cautious and routine-oriented mother than I’d ever been as a non-parent; the creative passion I’d sacrificed for a career that never provided even a fraction of the fulfillment that writing gave me. What had I been thinking for the last five years? What rules had I been following, and who made them? I was baffled to find myself where I was, constantly confronted by the realities of my desires, preferences, and disinterests as if they were fascinating trivia about a total stranger. 

“I think so,” I told her. I flipped through a few more cards — authority, understanding, loyalty, service — and thought, I don’t even know what half of these words mean to me. “Yes,” I said. “Help me find my core values.” 

Core values vs. core beliefs

It’s important to understand the distinction between our core beliefs — the long-term, deeply held convictions we have about ourselves, others, and the world — and core values, which are the measures we use to attribute worth and find meaning in our lives. 

“If a core belief is the lens through which we view the world, our values are how we determine whether what we see is going well.”

A core belief, for example, might be People are fundamentally good, or, The world is a dangerous and unfair place. Core beliefs shape our big picture, such as whether we believe in an afterlife or if we think the circumstances of our births are accidents. These beliefs are so crucial to our comprehension of reality that our brains are actually hardwired to respond to threats to these beliefs as if we were being physically attacked. (This comic explains the phenomenon well!)

A core value, on the other hand, tends to be a governing concept like honesty or success. These are how we determine if our relationships, work, and day-to-day decisions feel right and true to who we are and how we want to live. Core values help us define our boundaries and understand how to prioritize what truly matters to us, and they are the compass that help guide our decision-making. While values can stay somewhat consistent over the course of a lifetime, they might become more specific as we develop into our true selves. 

Said another way: If a core belief is the lens through which we view the world, our values are how we determine whether what we see is going well.  

Interpreting the values

The core value deck Jessica had given me in our first session was my first piece of therapy homework. There were 140 cards with a single word on each one, and she wanted me to take them home and spend the week narrowing them down to five. 

In the first round, you flip through the cards one at a time, keeping any that feel like a possible match into one pile, and setting the ones that don’t aside. Then you take the cards you’ve kept for the second round and spread them all out in front of you, grouping similar words together (achievement, accomplishment, mastery, for example, might go into a single stack; creativity, self-expression, and innovation into another). 

In the final round, you have presumably started to settle on the values that feel the truest to you, rating concepts like family against self-discipline or security against pleasure until you’ve settled on the final five (the deck actually wants you to narrow it down to three, but Jessica went easy on me). 

“In practice, the application of common values can get quite complicated.”

It sounds straightforward, right? But in practice, the application of common values can get quite complicated.

Honesty, for example, is a value most people are brought up to understand as fundamentally good. But kindness is also a value many of us are taught to prioritize. Enter the white lie. Anyone who’s ever tried explaining the subtleties of lying in favor of preserving someone’s feelings to an inquisitive child knows how disorienting it can be. Many children become indignant and baffled, lobbing questions to get to the bottom of what might be their first experience with cognitive dissonance, when beliefs and behaviors do not align.

Why is it okay to choose kindness over honesty, and how do you know when to choose one over the other? It’s not always easy to explain, and that’s because values are more personal, conditional, and adaptable. Some adults might think sparing someone’s feelings is always the more important goal, and others might suggest that telling hard truths is a kind of respect, which is the ultimate kindness. 

“Why is it okay to choose kindness over honesty, and how do you know when to choose one over the other?”

Which is in part why I struggled with the cards. I became frustrated that a concept like abundance could be so broad as to seem both instantly shallow (accumulation of wealth, luxury, waste) or deeply meaningful (gratitude mindset, enough for everyone, optimism). 

Plus, there’s the added complication of optics, or an awareness that choosing certain values (generosity, patience, perseverance) might signal moral goodness, while others (competition, adaptability, variety) wouldn’t. 

“So you feel like there are some values that are better than others?” Jessica asked me. 

“Aren’t there?” I asked, spreading the cards out between us. Love and compassion sat on the top of one pile, and I eyed them suspiciously. I pulled out leisure and held it up. “Don’t tell me that choosing this over those doesn’t immediately categorize me as a shallow person.”

“So that’s important to you,” she said. “Being substantive? Or just seeming so?”

(Therapy is annoying, isn’t it?) 

I told her I didn’t trust a lot of these words, because they were too expansive and over-used, losing their meaning completely. “What does ‘love’ mean as a personal value? How does that look in action, or in my daily life? How does it look at the grocery store or in a traffic jam?”

“We all might interpret what each value looks like quite differently based on our core beliefs, life experience, and individual preferences.”

“That’s what the exercise is for,” Jessica said. “For you to decide what it means for you.”

I studied poetry: I know that language is an organic, ever-expanding, living thing. We witness the introduction of new words all the time, or old words that take on new meaning. (Remember in 2013, when dictionaries added a figurative definition for the word “literally”?) We all might interpret what each value looks like quite differently based on our core beliefs, life experience, and individual preferences.

One person who might consider service as a core value could relish the feeling of self-sacrifice, cutting their budget to give to others. Another who holds that same value could practice service through avenues they enjoy, like volunteering with kids or fostering dogs. One person’s interpretation of compassion might look like sharing their own similar experiences in an effort to make others feel less alone; another might worry that this approach centers themselves, and so they practice making space for others by asking questions and listening. 

“The goal is to experience cognitive congruence — when what you think and believe align with your words and actions.”

These variations in interpretations, however slight, can have a massive impact on which words you end up choosing. So how do I know what definition and interpretation is the right one?

“Only you can decide for yourself,” Jessica kept telling me. “This is about how you feel about your life. All that matters is that you are clear on your definition, and that you are applying that definition to your behavior.” The goal, she explained, is to experience cognitive congruence — when what you think and believe align with your words and actions.

Be who you are, not who you think you should be

So how do you choose your core values without sabotaging the process by well, making value judgments on the concepts themselves?

The trick is this: you have to be unflinchingly honest with yourself. 

“It benefits no one to choose ideals that you don’t actually care about as your core values.”

I started therapy because I had spent half a decade striving to be a person I ultimately wasn’t. I gave up essential aspects of my identity to do it, to perform the driven, dedicated, competent professional role I thought would give my life purpose. I cosplayed at all the things professional environments hold dear (being a fast-learner who gave 110%!) and I sacrificed weekends and evenings and everything beyond the office that mattered to me for the idea that doing so would “pay off” somehow. I still got laid off, with a closet full of clothes I’d never wear again and no idea who I was without that stupid job. And I was left with the striking realization that I had done it to myself. 

It benefits no one to choose ideals that you don’t actually care about as your core values. In fact, it will only lead to cognitive dissonance and a general sense of things being consistently out of whack in your life. 

So start with this: Examine how you spend your time. Analyze how you react in different scenarios where the values were professed or threatened.

“Really look at your behaviors and name what you did, and not just how you felt in each scenario.”

If the value is loyalty, ask yourself: When was the last time you needed to demonstrate your loyalty? How did it feel? Have you ever required people in your life to demonstrate their loyalty to you? Does it upset you when characters in books or TV shows display disloyalty to their relationships or the institutions they belong to?

Really look at your behaviors and name what you did, and not just how you felt in each scenario. 

What do your actions say you believe in? 

Talking with a therapist or someone you are close with helps to uncover different perspectives that can shed light on your true habits and reveal inhibiting biases. Keeping a journal where you dig into your complicated emotions can also lead to a clearer sense of your own tendencies. 

I find that any practice that asks you to set an intention (like yoga), or apply a conceptual lens to a reading (like tarot), or engaging in any number of sacred text practices that help you think more deeply about the application of abstract concepts to daily life will help you navigate this process with more confidence. 

“You’ll be surprised how often you reveal your values once you start looking for them.”

Honestly, even a lively deep dive with friends into a controversial reality show can clarify your values as you hash out all the juicy betrayals, big and small. You’ll be surprised how often you reveal your values once you start looking for them. 

The goal is to identify what truly matters to you, so that you can experience the peace and fulfillment that comes from living in alignment with your values.

My five core values 

Three years later, I find myself in another state of transition — much better circumstances all around, but I’ve learned that even good changes can bring stress. I decided to check in with my values, but I didn’t have the cards anymore. 

“I’ve learned that even good changes can bring stress.”

I found a personal values assessment site that has a smaller initial pool of values. Even better — these cards come with key words to help guide the interpretation of each one, which helped me immensely during the initial elimination round. The second round is facilitated through an extremely useful 1:1 sorting tool, not unlike the corrective lens comparisons at the eye doctor. This time, I felt much more confident in my choices, and in less than ten minutes I had five core values that felt demonstrably genuine to my life now.

Instead of grouping similar values into a stack, the 1:1 rating tool helped me to see how the concepts related to one another. I ended up with values that, to me, serve as umbrellas for other values that “didn’t make the cut,” so to speak. This took some of the pressure off around feeling like I had to choose a single perfect word at the expense of other essential ideas that I still hold dear. I’ve included a little commentary below to help clarify what I mean, in case it helps you as you navigate the sorting process for yourself. 

Here are the values I’ve identified as being the most important for this season of my life: 

Having confidence in decision-making; good judgment; keeping perspective. 

This is the value I was the most surprised to feel drawn to, as I wouldn’t necessarily have identified it by this name. For me, wisdom requires the ability to see a situation from multiple points of view, applying life experience and information to make well-rounded decisions, and reconciling disappointment or regret into a longer view that might benefit me later. 

Wisdom is the ability to witness my emotional responses without surrendering to them. It is being able to identify when I am acting from fear or when I am clear-headed. Clarity, self-acceptance, discipline, and seeking knowledge all fall under this value for me. 

Fairness; justice; cause and effect. 

My definition varies slightly from the website’s, which focuses more on dependability and responsibility. But for me, accountability is about measuring the distance between your intentions and your impact, then taking the necessary steps to close the gap. This requires introspection, honesty, grace, humility, and a sense of personal responsibility to your role in a community and society.  

A belief in someone or something. 

I have always valued my personal relationships deeply. Intimacy and connection with others are both important to me, and learning the boundaries and conditions of healthy relationships has been a lifelong process. So when I say “trust,” I have a slightly nuanced take. 

Perfection is not a requirement for my trust. I think people are flawed and make poor decisions when working from places of stress and fear, so I believe in practicing reciprocal grace and forgiveness. This is where accountability factors in — while I might have a fairly expansive view on some instances of lying, cheating, and stealing, how a person handles their mistakes is everything to me. Trust is not easily broken for me in the traditional sense; if I believe in someone, it is because who they say they are and who I see them to be are in alignment. This means I can make space for this person at their best and at their worst. 

When I can see that our understanding of one another is not in agreement, trust breaks. If someone is lying to themselves and requires me to reflect back to them an image of themselves that does not feel true to me, then there is no trust between us. 

Trust is the umbrella for integrity, honesty, authenticity, faith, optimism, and grace

Intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical development.

When I really examined this idea, I realized that growth is the driving force behind a number of ancillary values for me: Competition, challenge, and achievement all nest here. When I think I’m being motivated by the thrill of winning, or solving a complicated problem, or pushing myself to come out ahead of an opponent, I found in almost every case that it was growth that spurred me on. I am energized and fulfilled when I can see that I have made progress, that I have become more efficient or thoughtful, when there is evidence that I am a more mature or patient person. This isn’t about beating others, or getting a trophy, or overcoming something difficult, though all these things can factor in. 

Growth is about the intrinsic desire to become a better version of myself. 

Willingness to explore and learn.

Curiosity has become more important to me as I get older. I suspect this has to do with both my values of growth and wisdom — neither are possible without the practice of asking questions before casting judgments. Letting go of some of my own biases and allowing myself to be open and curious has made room for wonder, joy, and discovery across all facets of my life. Curiosity is the umbrella for humility, flexibility, and tolerance. It helps me to de-center myself from narratives I don’t belong to so I can truly learn about the world around me. 

When I am curious in moments of conflict, I can engage more deeply with others and myself. Curiosity makes me a more attentive artist and writer, never allowing me to become complacent in my habits. It also makes me a more patient mother, partner, and friend. 

As you can see, the process of choosing your values is extremely personal. And even if you share some of these core values with me in name, your interpretations and behaviors might differ in practice. That’s totally fine! The goal isn’t to prove anything about your intrinsic worth or goodness to others — the goal is to find peace, fulfillment, and alignment for yourself, on your terms. 

“The goal isn’t to prove anything about your intrinsic worth or goodness to others — the goal is to find peace, fulfillment, and alignment for yourself, on your terms.”

I feel like I should mention that I am not a psychologist or a life coach. I’m a writer who has spent the last few years working on developing my sense of self by identifying my core values with a therapist. In no way do I feel like an expert, and I know these values will change along with the different stages of my life. I hope that sharing my experience can inspire you if you’re interested in starting this work for yourself.

Have you ever done this exercise, either personally or in a professional development setting? How did naming your values help you make decisions? Let us know in the comments!

Stephanie H. Fallon is a writer originally from Houston, Texas. She has an MFA from the Jackson Center of Creative Writing at Hollins University. She lives with her family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she writes about motherhood, artmaking, and work culture. You can find her on Instagram or learn more on her website.