Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How do you know what your values are?

One of the fun things I get to do from time to time is speak to groups. Today, I'm giving a talk to a group of Social Workers. The talk is about the Social Work Ethics Code, and about the values that we bring to our work.

What struck me as I put my notes together was the realization that our values color everything we do, every day. And, for many of us, we're not really even that aware that the process is taking place. We make our decisions, have our conversations, and interact with the world without really taking stock of why we are doing what we're doing. Our values are deep-rooted, and in many cases they make an appearance in our lives without us even knowing.

We get our values from a number of different sources. As always, parental influence and developmental learning play a huge role. Think for a moment about the "truths" you hold dear. For some, the idea that people should be rewarded for what they do is a closely-held value. For these folks, life can feel really unfair when they give and give, and feel that they never get anything back. For other people, the idea of autonomy rules supreme. Anything that impairs their right of self-rule can be seen as the enemy. For many people, these strongly-held beliefs have been around for as long as they can remember. And they impact every decision that those people make.

Doing a values exercise can be an eye-opening experience. They're easy to find, and to complete. It can be as easy as making a list of your "truths," and prioritizing them. For example, my list would include the value that all people should be treated with equal respect, and that the act of giving love and support should be done without expectation of return. Yours might include the value of hard work done for its own sake, or the idea that public service should be a priority. Whatever your values, try taking a minute to write them down, and then take a few more minutes and sort them into priority order. It's really likely that what you've got at the top is a short list of things you use to make all the decisions you face on a day-to-day basis.

Conflicting values can cause a great deal of stress. If you value autonomy at the same time you value following the letter of the law, you're set up for ongoing value conflict and a lot of stress. If you believe that all good deeds should be rewarded, but also think that people should never blow their own horn, you've got another conflict. Simply identifying these value conflicts can help you understand what's bothering you.

Rigidly-held values can act as a guide for living. At the same time, they can set up ongoing internal conflicts that operate below your level of conscious thought and so are very difficult to resolve. Making your values known to yourself is the first step in learning how to accept those conflicts and make decisions in a more conscious and balanced way.

And, hey, if you ever want to book me to give a talk to your community group or workplace, you know where to reach me! :)

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