In difficult life circumstances, you’re bound to feel anger, sadness, anxiety, or apathy. Whatever your situation is, it can be hard to look it square in the face. It might feel too painful or overwhelming to even know where to begin.

A path with fall trees on each side and sun over the horizon

For example, when you look at your life on paper, you might think you have it pretty good. You’re relatively healthy, have a stable income, a roof over your head and food on the table, and some family and friends whom you keep in touch with and could call if you really needed something.

And yet, as the days pass and blur into one another, you’re wondering if this is really it?

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Or it might be that you’re going through, or have undergone, a significant life change. Perhaps a medical issue or diagnosis that has long-term implications for what your life will look like. It could be coming to terms with the unexpected death of a loved one, or the ending of a relationship that was the backbone of your being for much of your adult life.

You feel at a crossroads, wondering how to move your life forward in the face of such change.

The most common way for us to deal with these difficult or uncomfortable situations? You probably guessed it—through distraction. Finding something, anything, to keep your mind busy and away from any painful or uncomfortable reality. But while distraction can be a great tool to help with emotion regulation, it’s not a long-term solution to helping you see a way forward. 

So whether you have settled into a life situation that has somehow lost its luster or are dealing with a more acute situation, like a medical illness, divorce, or job loss, now is the right time to check in with yourself about where you are in life and the direction you’re headed. Even if you feel things are actually going pretty well, you might be surprised to find that something is missing, if you only stopped to take a peek.

How does one check in about their life direction to see if they’re on the right track? It’s important to say that being on track has to do with how you feel about your life from the inside, not from the outside. And this is where your values come into play. Not value, as in how much you paid for something, but values, as in what gives you purpose or meaning.

It’s important to know the difference here between values and goals. Goals are things that go on your to-do list so that you can eventually cross them off. Values, on the other hand, are never achieved. If you value spending time in nature, you’re not somehow done with being in nature after a weekend of camping. Instead, you did something that was in line with your values, but there are always more ways you can live out, or embody, this value.

A great metaphor is to imagine your values as your compass or your North Star. If you don’t know if the direction you’re heading in is the right one for you, you can look to your values for guidance. Values help us get unlost by bringing clarity to imbue our life with meaning and help us do important things, even if they are hard.

Here are a few simple steps to help you uncover your values and put them into practice.

1. Identify the broad life domain(s) you want to focus on

Values can be derived from pretty much any area of life, which means you have a lot to choose from! You can value your physical health, spirituality, friendships, romantic relationships, work, the environment, contributing to your community, etc. The list goes on.

This graphic provides an overview of different life areas to give you a starting point. The figure also includes some questions you can ask yourself to better understand what you value within each domain, but we’ll come to that in the next step.

When you look at the graphic, it may be that many of the value areas seem at least somewhat important to you, and it may feel hard to choose. Try not to get caught up in choosing which area is “most important” to you. The good thing is that you can have values across all these different life domains. Valuing one area doesn’t mean that another one is unimportant to you.

Or you might find the opposite is true, where only a few domains really resonate with you as sources of meaning. This is also completely fine. The goal is not to have as many values as possible, but rather to identify the things that will bring the most meaning into your life.

Another important point is that your values are freely chosen, not because you think you should value something or because you think it’s expected of you. Being a parent is a good example. If you’re a parent, you might feel pressure to say that parenting is one of your top value areas. It’s not that you don’t love or value your child, but the parenting role itself just might not give you the same satisfaction or joy that it does for other people. 

If this is true for you, then you don’t need to pretend otherwise. You can still eventually identify some values around parenting to inform the way you act as a parent, but it may not be the life area you start with for now to help you find meaningful direction in life.

With this in mind, for simplicity, start by identifying two or three life areas that really stand out to you and go through the entire exercise with those. You can then come back and work your way through other life domains that you also want to explore.

2. Pinpoint what you value specifically within each life domain

Now that you’ve got a few life areas that you think will bring meaning, it’s time to drill down and see what exactly the sources of meaning are for you.

Let’s stick with the parenting example. “I want to be a good parent” is something you might say to yourself initially. And this is a great first step. But then you’ll want to take it a step further and ask yourself, “What kind of parent do I want to be? What are the qualities that I want my children to see in me?”

These questions will help you get at what’s important to you in your role as a parent, not to any generic parent.

For example, one person might say that infusing daily life with fun and celebration is important, for another it’s being dependable, and for someone else it’s approaching parenting with curiosity. Despite all valuing the broad life area of parenting, the specific values themselves are quite different, which means the behaviors chosen to embody these values will also look different. More on that in the next step.

Take a look at the questions in the graphic for your chosen life domain(s) to help you identify what the underlying values are. Take a few minutes to write out why these values are important to you. The act of writing out and explaining what your values are and why they’re important makes it more likely that your behaviors will follow suit.

If you find you’re still stuck at this point, a little exercise that can help you uncover your values is to imagine your own retirement party or your own funeral. The death part might sound a bit off-putting, but reflecting on one’s own inevitable mortality can help you focus on your personal motivations and live more authentically.

Whichever scenario you choose, imagine that a close colleague or loved one is standing up and saying a few words about you. Sure, they might talk about some of the projects you completed during your life, but mostly they will describe how you went about your work or led your life.

If you imagine the uncensored version, where you lived your life according to what you stood for and what you cared about, what would the person standing up there say about you and your life? Take a few minutes to really visualize this.

If any new values came up, be sure to write them down and explain why they’re important to you. If any strong emotions came up, know that that’s normal. Take some deep breaths; you can always return to this at a later time.

3. Turning values into actions

Now that you’ve uncovered and clarified a few values, the next step is to identify activities that are consistent with your values. Remember, you can’t put your values on your to-do list, but you can put actions on your to-do list that are consistent with your values.

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Let’s say that contributing to your community is important to you and, specifically, supporting young people through hard times. From here, brainstorm different activities that would embody this value. Be creative and don’t limit yourself to things you are already doing. You can decide later which ideas you actually want to put into practice.

In this case, your brainstorming session might lead you to a few different ideas: volunteering at a children’s hospital, agreeing to be a “big sibling” in a youth mentorship program, or tutoring your neighbor’s child who is struggling with math. As you can see, there are lots of different activities that can bring this value to life.

Also keep in mind that the behaviors themselves do not need to be big things. Let’s say you focus on the domain of recreation, and your specific value is to physically allow your body to relax and let go of its stress. Although a week-long beach vacation might be one example, it’s not realistic to do this all the time. Make sure to have smaller, everyday-type behaviors in your list, as well—things like taking a bath, doing progressive muscle relaxation, or self/partner massage are all good examples that don’t cost much in the way of time or money.

4. Bringing your values to life

Now that you have some ideas on hand for what it looks like to embody your values, take a moment to reflect on how this compares to the things you are already doing. You may already be doing some (or many!) things consistent with your values. In which case, feel free to give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back. Living consistent with your values is not always easy.

On the other hand, you may find that, currently, some important values are not getting the love and attention they deserve. If this describes your situation, know that this is common and may help to explain why you’re not feeling your best. The good news is that you now know the activities or behaviors that are deserving of your energy and, therefore, where to invest your time and resources.

Like with all behavior change, start small to build a sustainable new practice. Pick one or two activities that are aligned with your values, either new behaviors or things you’re already doing of which you’d like to increase the frequency. Take a look at your calendar and schedule in times to put these activities into practice. If your activity is something that requires a few steps (e.g., volunteering at a children’s hospital), go ahead and find a time to carry out the first step.

If you’re someone for whom valued activities appear very minimally in your life at the moment, start by integrating value-based activities that are within easy reach to build your practice. For example, instead of starting with going back to school to get a master’s degree as an embodiment of valuing lifelong learning, first try attending a public seminar at your local college or university or a free class in an online open course on a topic that excites you.

The more we engage in behaviors aligned with our values, the less distress, suffering, and depression we tend to feel, and the better we function overall. It’s also easier to do things that are hard or uncomfortable, like leaving a job that provides security but leaves you feeling empty, or bringing a relationship to a close that no longer provides you with fulfillment.

There’s also some evidence that clarifying your values can lead to a lower biological stress reaction, like lower cortisol levels.

So whether you’re feeling directionless or full of clarity, use this as an opportunity to take stock of your personal values and how your behaviors stack up. Knowing this will help you to keep to the same path or offer an opportunity to course-correct, both of which are valuable insights.

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