If we were to create a product, we’d start by exploring the requirements of that product. What do we want it to do? What are its characteristics? What problem is that product going to solve, and for whom?
We’d put together a list of acceptance criteria. These are the checkpoints that we compare our product against to see if it’s fit for purpose. Our values are very much like these acceptance criteria. They’re a benchmark that we can use to confirm that how we’re acting and the choices we’re making tallies up to the expectations that we set for ourselves, and the person that we want to be.
There are two distinct forms of values within us. One is our cultural values. These are passed down to us from our parents and the society in which we live. Then there are our personal values. These we voluntarily adopt ourselves.
The values that we hold on to inform our decisions and our actions, whether we realise it or not. They act as a compass, directing us in our lives towards the goal that we either consciously or unconsciously set for ourselves.
This is the important part that I want to talk about - conscious or unconscious goal setting. What do you think’s going to happen if we follow an unconsciously directed path? Let’s say we didn’t have a great relationship with our parents, that they only ever offered us conditional positive regard and we had to work to receive praise and love.
We’re going to have been trained to think that doing well or “being good” equates to us being worthy. That becomes one of our values. We go through life and we get a bit older and we enter into the world of work. That unconscious value is still going to inform how we act, only it’s going to be expressed in a slightly different way. We’re not looking for praise from our parents, we’re looking to meet the expectations of our boss so that we can feel good about ourselves and meet some interior, unrecognised criteria for success.
If we’re trying to meet the expectations of our boss, who’s to say that their expectations won’t be unreasonable, and that we’ll be working late in the evenings and into the weekends so that we can keep them happy?
That’s this unconscious value informing our actions. Instead of spending our free time doing things for ourselves, we’re working to meet the needs of our boss so that we can not feel like a shitty human being. I guess, in a way, that is meeting a need within us, but I’d strongly argue that it’s not a positive need, and it doesn’t aid in our personal growth.
How do we uncover these unconscious values? The answer is simple but the reality is not - it’s all about our self-awareness.
Making the unknown known requires us to get our introspective hats on and do some self-reflection. We have to first become aware of these unconscious values. If we’re running along on autopilot, not thinking about our motivators, then we’re never going to be able to change them. How can we change something that we don’t know exists in the first place?
Firstly, I find it useful to write them down. Again, we’re only going to be able to identify the ones that we know at this stage, but by writing them down it gives us something that we can refer to outside of the realm of our own thoughts. We may be able to see, over time, that what we define as our values are actually driven by different motivations to what we originally thought.
Going back to the example above, let’s say that we wrote down “Making sure I do well at work so that I can be successful” as one of our values. At this stage, we’re associating word success with meeting the expectations of our boss so that we can validate our sense of self worth. That’s not success, but at this stage we feel like that’s what success is. Validating our self worth makes us feel good, so we interpret that as being successful.
Next, take that list and get some feedback from others. Other people can act as fantastic mirrors to point us in the direction of the truth of ourselves. That could be a trusted friend, a family member, or a therapist. Don’t think that therapy is only there when you’re having a tough time - talking things through with an objective, trained individual can be incredibly beneficial and lead to some serious insights about what’s driving us.
Finally, you’ve got to put in the work. Unconscious values aren’t necessarily good for us. They come from us trying to adapt ourselves in order to meet the expectations of others as part of a social survival mechanism. They’re not us being ourselves.
It’s going to be challenging, and it’s going to put us out of our comfort zone, but as the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron said:
To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.