Are your Values making you unhappy?

Why Personal Values matter, how your Ego gets involved, and how you can ‘Re-Evaluate’ so that life makes more sense, leading to resilience, success, and contentment in life.


We are well underway with the Level 2 Emerging Confidante topics in our Peer Community of Practice, with most of the group enrolled onto the Accredited Qualification.

The Level 2 topics for discussion are chosen by the group, which means that the course is not necessarily taken in chronological order. Each unit is effectively a standalone course, which makes it easy for people to join at any point throughout the year.

Our recent chosen topic has been about ‘honouring commitments’. As discussions have gone on, the issue of Values, Beliefs, Morals, and Principles have surfaced. Notably, understanding the differences between them and then why they might be important for us in aiding healthy, successful, and contented lives.

The group decided that they wanted to spend some time exploring each of these aspects more closely, as it became apparent the extent to which our values, beliefs, principles, and morals operate in our lives, and the impact they can have across our personal & professional lives; our relationships with ourselves and others; and, ultimately, our quality of life, success, and how we experience our lives. Yes, they are that important. How?

Well, we have begun by exploring our personal values, and it is these I will now turn to, as I outline the definitions posed, quandaries raised, and reflect on our ongoing group discussions.

What is a Value and where do they come from?

In summary, the dictionary states that Values are ‘principles or standards of behaviour; one’s judgement of what is important in life’.  We usually ‘inherit’ our Values from our families; the culture we are born into; or, for example, the religious backgrounds we are brought up around. Our values may also be shaped by our schooling, which will usually have been chosen in accordance with our parents’ values.

For these reasons, our Values are usually enduring, at least more so than beliefs, and will often remain unchanged throughout our lives, unless there is a very good reason for us to do so. For example, we may have experienced a major life changing event (eg a health issues, or trauma) that causes us to question and re-evaluate. Or, we may have decided that the Values system we were born into no longer sits well with us, once we have traveled the world, learned something new, or experienced other values systems that work better for us. In essence, we might question whether the values we are currently upholding, still make good sense to us.

And this leads us nicely towards the question…..

What do we need Values for, or what do they do?

Well, they operate in our lives as part of our inner guidance system. They are a way of navigating life, and form a benchmark against which we can measure or weigh up our decisions. For example, if your colleague asked you to do something dishonest at work, and one of your core values is ‘honesty’, or ‘truthfulness’, you would run your questions ‘can I do this dishonest thing to support my colleague?’ by your core values, and should easily be able to make a decision. (And herein lays our first potential stumbling block, which we will come back to shortly)

Our Values are generally something that we will stand by no matter what the situation, the cost, or what other people think. In some cases, people may, and throughout history have, lay their lives down for them, to uphold them.

In short, they help us to make decisions, and to know where we stand both within ourselves and with others. They help us to build our identity (know who we are) and most importantly, ensure that life makes good sense to us.

What if I don’t know what my values are?

In short, if we do not have clarity on our personal values, we will very likely struggle in life. Indeed, it may cause us a great deal of stress and suffering at the worst or, at the very least, tensions in life, work, and relationships.

Ego formation and Resilience

In a brief foray into the realms of Freudian Psychoanalytic theory, Freud proposed, and his model of the unconscious is broadly accepted into the present day, that we have three main parts that makes up the structure of the psyche:

As you can see from the images above, the Id represents our ‘animal instincts, our drives, the things that aid our survival, and thus are compulsive. The Superego, is what we might call the conscience, they may be derived from the ‘morals’ of our culture, from religion, our parents, and the laws of our society, for example.

The Ego is often referred to as ‘the self’, and is essentially the balancing act that happens, between the Id and the Superego. It is a mature version that has adapted, as we have learned things from our environment throughout life.

Isn’t having Ego ‘bad’?

The quick answer is no, not necessarily. But, as with anything, there is an ‘it all depends’. In the current era, the notion of ‘ego’ is bandied about quite a lot in different circles, and in some cases, there is great confusion about the role of the Ego. It is, in fact, very important to have a well-developed, healthy, strong, and mature Ego, we could call this ‘resilience’.

The confusion is likely to be that, what these groups are talking about really, is what we might call an ‘inflated ego’, which is basically an ego that errs more on the side of the Id. Traits that can manifest themselves in this case, are things like extreme self-centredness, aggression, arrogance, and the like. Whilst we all display these traits from time to time, it is getting a healthy balance that we are talking about here.

On the other end of the spectrum, a weak, poorly formed, or fragmented ego, will invariably makes our lives feel very challenges and lead to great unhappiness. So, in this respected, having a poorly developed or fragmented ego, is not something that we would want to willingly try to create. Ion fact, it is often precipitated by abuse, neglect, and/or trauma, in our early years.

We then find the world a continuously frightening and challenging place. When we have an inflated Ego or a fragmented Ego, we make decisions based on protecting the Ego, placing ourselves at the centre of the universe, or deferring to others, from a place of fear.

How does Ego relate to our Values?

Well, if we have a weak or fragmented Ego, we may find it very difficult to stick to our Values. We may find ourselves chameleon like, altering our values to suit whomever we are with, or in whichever environment we find ourselves. We will likely be what some might call a ‘people pleaser’. We will find that life does not make good sense to us, as we have a very flimsy, or no, foundation, rather than the solidity we need to ensure we have a safe place from which to manoeuvre and navigate through life.

We will most definitely find decision making very difficult, as we have no stable core values to go and check in with, and will most likely find ourselves trying to second guess what ‘he’ or ‘she’ might want us to do, rather than being able to seek guidance from our internal system.

Clearly, in a short article, it is impossible to address all the other factors that might be at play, here, so we will keep our discussion mainly to our values.

What can we do about it?

 We can begin by having a really close look at our values. You know, or think you know, what they are, or you may currently have no clue where to start. Here are some pointers:


  1. To start the process, a quick google search for ‘values lists pdf’ for example, will yield a huge array of lists of potential values that can get you started.
  2. Print off the list and circle all of the values that resonate with you – if you don’t have a printer, just list them in a notebook
  3. Then, you want to begin to reduce them down, so you may find that certain words can be grouped together and put under the umbrella of one word
  4. Keep going until you have reduced to a list of 24 – pin them on the fridge for a few days and percolate on them
  5. At this point, you may wish to test them out as you go about your daily business and things come up. You can ask yourself things like, when have I felt most contented, happy, fulfilled, and at ease? Answering these 4 questions may lead you to identify the values that were important during those times and give us some clues.
  6. Reduce them further to 6 top values – for the purposes of this exercise, you may wish to leave out the ones that you know you have confidently held to your whole life, and leave the ones on the list that have surfaced and resonate most in this exercise
  7. For the next couple of weeks, try them out. See how it feels to really and truly live by these values that you have listed as your top 6
  8. If you find it very difficult to ‘stick’ to them, you might want to question whether they are actually a value for you, or something less enduring such as a belief, or a preference, or a principle that can be changed or updated.

There are lots of questions that we can ask ourselves when looking at our values. Along with our beliefs, morals, and principles, they must enable us to make good sense out of our lives. So, if you are finding that the values you have been trying to live by have not enabled you to make good sense out of your life, you may want to challenge them with a few questions, for example:

  • Where did this value come from in my life? Is it from my family, culture, faith, my own learning, or my peers?
  • If you find that it comes from a group you belong to, for example, you might want to run it past some more questions – is this really my value, or am I saying it is because I want approval or acceptance from this group? How does it make me feel to hold this value? Is it something that I have, or can, hold to, no matter what, or are there exceptions (in which case, it might not be a value)?
  • Are there other values that might suit me better? Does it make good sense to me to hold these values, as I live the life, I want to be living? Or, am I really living the life I think I am according to the values I’ve chosen?
  • If you know it is a core value for you, and you are still finding it difficult to live by, you may want to reflect on why that is? What do you fear will happen if you uphold your values? What can you do to build resilience? Is a lifestyle change called for?

To give a real life example, I know that my values shifted when I had children at a time when my whole peer group were not having children, I had to re-evaluate (that word again) what was important to me, and so the dynamic of my close peer group changed significantly.

Similarly, when I stopped drinking alcohol, my whole lifestyle and peer group shifted again. So, I might have asked myself a question such as, ‘how does sitting in the pub with my ‘drinking’ friends, make sense to me right now, given that I have shifted to the value of ‘sobriety’, or what some might call ‘temperance’?’

This is not to say, I then had to judge my childless friends, or my drinking friends (I will address the issue of judgement in another article). Not at all! It is simply that I stood by my top, core values, during that part of my life, even if it was difficult to do so, because it was of utmost important to me, my life, my health, and my level of happiness, to do so. It made good sense to me, above all else.

Nowadays, with teenage children, and with a very solid sobriety, I can be more flexible with whom I spend my time, when, and how. My top core values might shift position, to reflect that.

Parting shot…

So, this has been a whistle stop tour around personal values. We might be finding it a challenge to differentiate sometimes, between Values and Beliefs, in particular. We will come onto beliefs in another article as, at times, some conflict might come from confusing a value with a belief.

When we are adhering to our core values, we will feel at ease, successful, and fulfilled. If we are feeling ill at ease, it might be a signal that we need to ‘re-evaluate’.

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