Every decision you make, big or small, from choosing your lunch to choosing your spouse to choosing your career, is based on your personal values.

Those values are there, inside you, whether you realize it or not.

Your personal values as an internal system of reference

Choose your lunch – maybe you are a vegetarian, maybe you want to impress your boss, maybe you love ice cream because it reminds you of treats you got from your grandmother? All of these are personal values, based on ethical principles you constructed over many years. Your personal career choice combines with the concept of what you consider impressive, values relating to the work environment, and connections to your personal past.

Choosing your spouse is based on a complex web of personal and societal values, most of which you are probably not even aware.

Knowing what your personal values are and how they evolved can help you become more aware of how you engage the world around you.They may even help you to define and achieve your goals.

Personal values vs societal values

Our personal values are embedded within the values of our society. We start out by adopting the values of our parents and teachers and the values we see represented in the media. Laws, etiquette, even religious beliefs are all expressions of societal values.

But societal values evolve. A prime example is the position of women – societal values have changed dramatically in the last 100 years, dramatically changing how individual women (and men) see and value themselves. Personal values (in this case, the personal value of freedom and equality) drive societal change and societal change has, in turn, influenced personal values so that most people in the US now count the equality of the sexes as one of their core values.

Personal values can also differ from the values of those around us – either because we come from a different background, because our interests are not aligned, or because we make a conscious choice.

Observe yourself: every time you disagree with your friends, you crystallize your personal values.

How to identify your personal values

  • Think of a person you admire. What is it that you like the most about them?
  • If your house was on fire, what object would you save?
  • If there is one thing you could change about your daily routine, what would it be?
  • Remember the last time you felt really passionate about an issue. What was it?
  • Remember when you felt deeply fulfilled. What you were doing that created meaning?
  • Think about the future. How would you like the world to be in 10, 20, 50 years?

The answers to these questions will give you a good idea of your personal values. Some of them may be a little surprising. Your personal values may not be in complete alignment with your “official” values.

This exercise can and will go on throughout your life.

Personal values and self-worth

Your sense of self-worth is directly linked to how much you manage to live your life in harmony with your personal values. If you believe in honesty but your job requires you to deceive the public, your self-worth will suffer. If you believe in always being a winner but repeatedly lose out, your sense of self-worth will collapse.

If, however,  you manage to stick to your personal values in the face of opposition and obstacles, you will gain self-affirmation and a deep sense of peace within yourself.

Personal values and success

Let’s play the identification game again.

This time, try to define what success means to you.

If you died tomorrow and could only be remembered for one thing, what would it be? If you are successful in 10, 20, 50 years time, what will that success look like?

Again, you may be surprised by the images that come up for you. Success doesn’t always have to be financial or status related. And often, what you think you ‘should’ strive for is not what you ‘really want’ – in other words, it is not in harmony with your own personal values.

That is because success itself is an aspect of your personal values; your point of reference, your goal, your sense of meaning and purpose.