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What are personal values?

We throw around the word all the time, yet do we deeply understand values?

Simply, personal values are the lighthouses we use to determine what is right, beneficial, useful, and beautiful - lighthouses which shape our choices and tell us which direction to go. In a world where decisions are a daily part of life, we let our values be the guiding light.

Where do we get our values? In many ways, our values come from the mix of Nature + Nurture I discussed in my previous post, What Makes You Who You Are. Our experiences shape us a lot, and so does the temperament we're born with. Our genes have a lot to say in our personality types, how we think, and how we make decisions. Our socioeconomic status and the culture we live in (and many other factors) allow for what unique experiences we have.

Are there such things as Universal Values? This is pretty complex topic, and philosophers will continue the debate. The answer would depend on how one defines Universal, since it's impossible to ask everyone everywhere to truly know. Shalom Schwartz, a social psychologist, developed the Theory of Basic Human Values. He surveyed 25,000 in people across 44 countries, and found 56 unique values that were consistent across participants.

What happens when different choices reflect competing values? This is when the decision making can become so tough, and when it's easiest to make mistakes. Nearly everyone has a hierarchy of what they value, where certain values will always win in a competition. But nearly everyone also has a grey area, where their values can feel like they hold equal importance to another. Or perhaps two of your values might win out over a third value. Let's look at one scenario.

A young woman values her spouse, protecting her family, loyalty, adventure, spontaneity, present-mindedness, freedom, and honesty, among others. She's been married for a few years, and ends up on a trip to Europe for work. While abroad, she meets a lovely person, and in a whirl of romance, engages in a passionate night. While she values her spouse and loyalty, the value for adventure and spontaneity overruled the value of being loyal to her spouse in the moment. Her next move might also be a battle of values, whether to tell her spouse or not about the infidelity. She values honesty, but she also values protecting her family and her own freedom.

How can having a strong grasp on our own values help us? The more we understand our lighthouses, the better tools our lighthouses are. Understanding the luminosity of each lighthouse, compared with the other lighthouses, is essential in growing in the path to know thyself. Not having a clear understanding of our own values can lead to feeling a lack of integrity, or blaming ourselves for a wrong decision. Let me explain a situation from my own life.

I've always valued honesty, integrity, and being at peace with my family. When I realized I no longer shared the deeply cherished religious faith of my family, I suffered a great deal. I wanted to be the daughter and sister they wanted me to be, and for the sake of peace I lied to my family about my loss of faith for years before I found the courage to tell the truth. Prioritizing being at peace with my family led me on a path of dishonesty and lacking in integrity. It was a hard journey, and when I did find the courage to be honest, I did have to sacrifice a peaceful family life on many occasions in order to be truthful. I learned a ton about myself through that journey, and understanding the proper order for my values had a huge part in it. I recognized that I valued honesty and integrity more than I valued peace.

Would you be able to prioritize your values right now? If you can, would this be static, or could it change based on your situation?

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