If you search for resources on core values and how to figure out what your core values are, there’s a pretty haphazard approach that usually encourages a lot of ‘feeling’…my own ebook on Why Values Matter includes a section on how to determine your top 3-4 core values. In it, I use a framework which suggests you have 3 primary core values:

  1. Your top core value is a bit like your mission; the primary driver behind everything you do.
  2. Your second top core value is how you want to show up in the world.
  3. Your third top core value is how you want others to show up in your world.

Arriving at each of these seems a little haphazard. It usually involves looking at a list of core values (words) and feeling intuitively which you’re drawn to. There’s nothing wrong with this approach and I still use it myself to help folk figure out theirs but where do our core values really come from? And why are they so pivotal in driving our behaviour, our decision-making and our thought processes?

The simple answer is: Our stuff. We are the sum of our experiences so far.

How and what we have experienced in our lives – especially in childhood – has a huge impact on how we play out the rest of our lives and relate to other people, other experiences and the world around us. It’s pretty natural then, that our core values are also derived from what’s happened to us to date and have a pivotal impact on how we move through the world.

Let me explain, using my own core values as an illustration…

My Top Core Value: Freedom

I define this as the freedom to choose. As someone whose childhood was littered with examples of having little or no choice –

  • Being given up for adoption from birth
  • Moving halfway around the world when my parents divorced
  • Regularly flying back halfway round the world to HK as an UM (unaccompanied minor, aged 5+) to visit my Dad which at the time seemed exotic to everyone else but was an experience I hated and dreaded
  • Being taken to stay with family friends when I’d rather stay at home during the holidays and weekends
  • Having to create my own rules of being as a ‘good girl’ in order to belong, not be abandoned again and to fit in and not stand out (despite – by my very nature of being –  always standing out…Asian, brown skin, adopted, single parent family with a parent overseas etc. etc.)

…Having the freedom to choose who, what, where, why and how is something that drives every decision I make as an adult.

I’m aware that on the surface, many of these experiences were beneficial or had an upside in some way. I’m also aware that we all, as children, likely had experiences of having to do things we didn’t want to do – but I can feel that these experiences for me resulted in a strong feeling of lack of control/lack of freedom in many areas, and I am unsurprised that the opposite – freedom and (perceived) control – are quite so crucial to me as an adult.

How I Want To Show Up In The World: (With) Empowerment

One of my very first experiences in life left me feeling utterly powerless. Being given up for adoption as soon as you are born can do that to you! It’s no surprise then that wanting to empower myself and others – so that I or they never have to feel that kind of powerlessness again – is a core value of mine.

That sense then of wanting to feel powerful – so that I’m never in that position of feeling quite so powerless again – manifests in the way I often show up in relationships of all kinds, especially friendships and when entering new groups.

Unlike some people, I go into things feeling like I need to offer something, that I need to be useful so that I can be seen to be ‘ok’, which will hopefully lead to me being accepted and to belong. What often ends up happening though is quite the opposite; because of my need to be seen to be useful and not useless, to be ‘good’ and not shit, to be in control and not out of it, I’m then put on some kind of pedestal – often seen as intimidating, aloof, and deemed as ‘other’…the very opposite of what I’m actually aiming for, and anything but accepted and belonging.

So despite my goal of empowerment, in my desire to empower myself and be seen as powerful, it can often result in disempowerment of myself and others. Shit! This is something I’m playing with to see how I can tweak that balance, have empowerment as a core value in the way I show up in the world, but change the dynamic I may create when my own stuff gets in the way.

How I Want To Show Up In The World: (With) Excellence

As someone who had to make up their own rules to never run the risk of being abandoned again, one of my rules was “get/do it right’ – but not only that because I believe(d) if you’re going to do it right, you may as well do it well…the perfect breeding ground for perfectionism ?

I’ve worked long and hard on my perfectionist tendencies – fighting the underlying, irrational narrative that “if I don’t do it perfectly, something bad will happen” – but the desire to do things well still remains.  That’s not a bad thing as long as it doesn’t stop me from creating, sharing, doing or being.

Related to my stuff around empowerment, being seen to be ‘excellent’ as I show up in the world is also a form of me feeling that I’m ok and ‘good enough’ so that I can belong; if I’m ‘good enough’, I’ll be accepted, liked, and loved. If I’m not, I won’t. No wonder excellence is a driver for me!

How I Want Others To Show Up In My World: (With) Integrity

I define this as ‘doing the right thing when no-one’s looking’. From my adult place, I can see how my birth mother may well have felt like she was doing the right thing by giving me up for adoption; as a 7-day old baby who experienced that, not so much.

Equally other adults in my life have – in my child’s opinion – not ‘done the right thing’ when no-one was looking at critical crossroads in their own lives, which had a pivotal impact on me and my life too.

It’s no wonder that I demand (and I choose that word consciously) that people in my life show up with integrity and that if they don’t, I’m only ever going to let them ‘in’ so far.

But Lea, isn’t this just ‘self absorbed BS’?

It’s very common for folk to dismiss the delving into one’s childhood memories and experiences as pointless; to take issue with looking into the past and blaming all your present woes on what happened back then; to prefer instead not to dwell on back then and instead focus on moving forwards. I’m totally with you on that. And yet…

Often for us to move forward as healthy, happy adults we need to actually ‘be’ in adult and behave from an adult place. We need to react and respond to situations and events, in all our relationships from an adult place; not from a triggered, emotional state of ‘child’, when one or more of our invisible wounds has been poked and provokes an emotional, often unconscious response.

(Think about a time when someone does something that really upsets you or winds you up – a recurring argument with your other half perhaps, or a co-worker or friend who always manages to push your buttons, even when things appear innocuous – have you ever asked WHY specifically you respond in the way you do? What wound is being poked when you encounter that situation?)

This is why coaching doesn’t always work effectively because successful results from coaching require you to be in adult and take FULL responsibility for yourself and your stuff. That is extremely challenging if you’ve never explored your stuff or your triggers, and are constantly being triggered into child (emotional) responses by the same kinds of conversations, people or situations.

It’s why I believe it’s necessary to use a more therapeutic approach – before any coaching – to ‘safely’ examine some of these more child states and responses, integrate them and be able to step into adult more easily and move forwards.

If there’s no opportunity to do this – to heal some of those deep, hidden wounds by (re)playing out some of the deeply buried scenarios of your past in a safe space – the triggers will retain their hold over you and you can find it almost impossible to step into adult in certain situations. Not great when you’re desperately wanting to make changes!

So why does it matter where our core values come from?

If you’re going to show up, be seen and stand out, don’t you want to know exactly who is showing up?! Because core values tend to determine how we show up in the world – it’s useful to know what they are and where they come from, don’t you think?

Rather than just pick a handful of words from a list and claim these are your values, doesn’t it make sense to know, with clarity and certainty, why these values feel so important to the way you choose to live your life? They are, after all, a part of your story, of what makes you you, and what makes you unique. The more conscious and aware you are of your behaviour, patterns, and responses, the more power you have to change them, should you choose to.