Value Systems - Creating a Rudder for Your Ship
Values and belief systems are a fundamental part of how we see the world and our role in it. These make up the foundation of our self-esteem and are the building blocks of either healthy or unhealthy relationships.
Most of of our clients come in believing that either everyone has the same value system or that their own/others' value systems are “right" or "wrong". Here are some basic assumptions I make that provide a framework for this work.
The first is that each person's value system varies and can, therefore, create conflict.
The second is that there are, to some degree, no “right” or “wrong” values (bare with me on this one).
There are value systems that can cause people trouble, that’s for sure. For instance, you may have a value system that says “people aren’t meant to be monogamous.” Living by this value system, you may find, undermines fidelity in marriage. Thus, causing you difficulties with your spouse.
I’ve had clients who experience criminal difficulties because they hold a value system that they should "take what [they] want or someone else will.” This kind of freedom without a balanced sense of responsibility can cause legal problems when they begin to exploit the rights of others.
Where do we learn our value system? What are beliefs versus values? What do they have to do with self-esteem, behavior, or our relationships?
In a nutshell, beliefs come from values. Values are a word (two of them are italicized above for you) and beliefs are the narratives; the rules we hold within those values (these are underlined above).
We learn our values first, from our parents and families. Then, as we grow, we learn more from our teachers, our friends, etc. Part of the beauty of becoming an adult is learning to decide which of your values aligns with your parents, teachers, and friends, and which do not.
The difficulty, and the source of most self-esteem problems that I’ve seen, is that most of us are largely unaware of what our value system is. If we don’t know what our value system is, how can we behave or make choices that are in line with our value system?
Well, we can’t really. When we do things outside our value system is when we feel guilty and it begins to erode our sense of pride in ourselves.
So, here’s an exercise I use with my clients to walk them through outlining their own value system. Be prepared for this exercise to take upwards of a week or more to fully think it through.
Find a piece of paper and brainstorm as many values as you can think of.
Here are some to get you started: honesty, community, altruism, freedom, responsibility, education, wisdom, health, nature, power, success, peace, safety, forgiveness, creativity, beauty, community, family, faith, etc… got it?
Once you’ve brainstormed as many as you can think of, take out another piece of paper. Here’s where it begins to get hard.
Number 1-10 on your paper and list your top 10 values. To be clear, when you choose one to put on your top ten and leave another off, what you’re saying is that if you’re ever in a situation to choose X over Y you’ll value X more. For example: If I have to choose between integrity and family, I’ll choose integrity even if it may mean my family suffers. Now, make your list… take your time (STOP HERE! NO reading ahead.)
Now……go back to your list and cross off five of those values. Again, to be clear, when you cross one off and leave another you’re saying, “If I ever have to choose between these, I’d choose THIS one”. (STOP HERE…no reading ahead!)
Now… go back and cross off three more. (I know it’s HARD). Now you are left with your top TWO driving values.
Most likely, if you think about it, you’ll notice something. Think back to any time you’ve been the most torn up about something. You had to make a decision or do something that caused you extensive turmoil. That turmoil was likely caused by a situation that pinned you in between your top two values.
The example I gave before of, “I’d choose my integrity over my family,” for instance, can cause great angst when you’re faced with a family secret you feel needs to be spoken but will hurt one or more members. Get it?
Now that you know your value system the hope is, armed with a greater understanding of what drives you and what is important to you, you can go forward making decisions and engaging in relationships with those values as your compass.
Ships with a compass stay on course. Even through rough seas, they know where they are.