Values are our guideposts in life. Our ideals, our principles – they are the things that matter most to us. Values are personal for each of us and are formed by our family backgrounds, our culture, our experiences, and our personalities. Values give us direction and help us stay true to ourselves when the path gets murky, as it often does. Values can change at different times in our lives. While socializing and experimenting are typically important to teens and young adults, stability and comfort become more significant as we enter our child-rearing years. Very little in our lives is black or white, and our values help us navigate through the shades of gray.

Values are not “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad.” If one person decided someone else’s values were “correct” and tried to follow them, they would most likely end up feeling dissatisfied, anxious, guilty, and inadequate. We can’t wear someone else’s principles like a coat. Part of the work of maturing is to try on different values to see if they fit, keep those that do, and discard those that don’t. Some part of yourself knows when your actions are out of sync with your values, even if you’re not consciously aware of it.

When you work to discover and live by your values, it’s essential to remove judgement about what your values “should” be. Start by simply being honest with yourself about what’s important to you. Maybe you tell yourself it’s superficial to value money or financial security so you accept employment that doesn’t pay particularly well. Then you find yourself angry and resentful when you can’t afford to buy things you want or need. That anger and resentment will bleed into your relationships and overall outlook, and what purpose does that serve? It’s more useful in this case to acknowledge that a certain level of financial security is important to you and work to achieve that.

Maybe financial security is important to you but free time is more important. That is useful information as well. Knowing that, you can decide how much time you want to devote to work and how much to recreation. Perhaps keeping your paid-off car for another year and putting 12 months’ worth of car payments toward a vacation will be a bigger reward for you than driving a shiny new car.

Only you can make these decisions for yourself. The more consistent your actions are with your values, the more content you will feel. You will still have to make difficult decisions because values sometimes compete with each other (“me” time vs. family time, for example), but knowing what’s truly important to you helps you make those decisions in ways you can live with.