There are two kinds of core values. Aspirational core values are the ones you wish you had, those idealized qualities you hope to develop one day. Authentic core values are the ones that you really have, the ones that already drive your decisions. (More on the distinction here.) Aspirational core values are inspiring. But they can’t guide real life change very well. Why?
Because they have nothing to do with who you are. If you’re going to plan a trip, you have to know where you’re starting. Authentic core values not only help you know who you are right now, they give you a vehicle for moving into the future. How is this so?
For example, I have an authentic core value that I’ve named Creative Intention. Making things feeds my soul, but it’s not just about creativity for its own sake. I like to solve old problems in a new, more elegant way. Part of beauty for me is the way the new solution makes life better, easier, more clear. This has been true about me since I was a child helping my dad build a deck. It’s shown up in my life in photography, drawing and song writing. But it’s also shown up in creating systems, designing websites, and helping create organizations.
This value was true about me when I was a kid. It’s true about me today. Even as I desire to grow and mature, stepping more and more into who God made me to be, this value will always be present. That’s because it’s an authentic value for me. It’s true and fundamental to who I am. That means it can serve as a directional marker as I’m making decisions about my future.
But there’s one problem with authentic core values. If you’ve really done the hard work of discovering what they are (Here’s how you can), you may come across something you didn’t expect. You might find you have a core value that you don’t really like, or that isn’t helpful for the kind of life you want. What then?
The Unexpected Problem: A Negative Core Value?
Here’s an example from my life. As I did this work, I found a disconcerting theme. I have an unfortunate and painful need to be liked. Throughout my entire life, I’ve always felt a bit on the outside. The result of this was a desire to be included, and of course, to be included you have to be liked. This motivation has been a hurdle in my life in many ways. It’s impacted my relationships. At times, it’s caused me to compromise my integrity.
This theme is a part of my life. Is it a core value? It has certainly driven me. But it’s not who I want to be. It’s not who I believe God made me to be. It’s certainly not an ideal I aspire to! What do I do?
Look Behind the Shadow at the Light.
This painful longing is actually a shadow. That is, it’s the dark side of something light. My story (my life experiences) and my wiring (my innate self, how God made me) have led me to have a deep need and value for community.
My feelings of not belonging are a symptom. My desire to be liked is an attempt to address this, but it’s flawed. It grows out of insecurity, fear, and selfishness. But the real value God placed in my heart is a desire for community.
In retrospect, this has also been a part of my life all along. As a child I drew people around me. As a teenager, I found enormous purpose working at summer camp creating a community for kids. In a hundred different ways — with roommates, church groups, a community household, and in my work as a pastor — I have invested time and energy in creating community.
What does this mean? At the root of this painful part of my life lies an authentic core value that can, with restoration and healing, be life-giving to me and the people around me. The same is true for you.
How Can You Find the Value Behind the Shadow?
1. Name The Shadow. Identify the core value or motivation that has shown up as a theme in your life that doesn’t seem positive. (i.e. needing to be liked.) This will come up if you are doing an honest assessment process looking for your authentic core values. (Here’s how.)
2. Identify The Need. Reflect on the shadow you’ve uncovered, and what need that motivation fills for you. In my case, the drive to be liked was a way of being included. The need behind it was to belong.
3. Reframe the Value. Every healthy need in us comes from a positive value. Think about the need you have, and what positive value might lie behind that need. My need to belong pointed toward a value on safe, inclusive community.
4. Ask if it Resonates. Look at your story and decide if this positive value has been a part of your life and resonates with you now. If it doesn’t, then go back to step 3 and dig deeper. When you find a positive value that resonates, you can use this new positive value to reframe the negative motivation. Once it’s restated in this way, you have an authentic value that can help you as you think about your future.
In my case any future that is life-giving will include the chance for me to be a community builder, helping other people find belonging and acceptance. It’s no longer about being liked. It’s about giving a gift to others that has been so crucial to me. Finding this is a small kind of miracle. This is redemption, where God takes your broken places and used them to bring blessing to the people around you.