When you look back at your life, all the way through your available memory bank, what values have always been present? It is sometimes difficult to differentiate between those values that are core to you and those that are core to your parents. After all, your parents taught you their core values and they have been with you from a very early age. Can you articulate your parents’ core values? What stories did they tell you? What morals did they repeat?

It can be hard to distinguish your true core values from values that you think you should have. Many of us think that the pressures and lessons of our family, team or culture are core. But your core values – no more than three or four – should make you feel great about yourself. They make you proud. They symbolize your uniqueness. They are your personal purpose statement summed up in a few words.

Alice’s story:

Alice (a real person and a client) was overwhelmed. She was feeling the push and pull of her business, her family and herself. She also had the sense that everything had to be perfect. Even the laundry had to have a certain perfection that only she could provide. She knew that she needed to institute rituals in her life to unwind or a heart attack, like that of her mothers’, would surely be in her future. In order for her to create the right healthful rituals, I asked her to identify her core values. Here is the list she came up with:

  • Honesty
  • Trust
  • Confidence
  • Excellence
  • Integrity
  • Reliability
  • Dependability
  • Fairness
  • Correctness
  • Reliance
  • Independence
  • Bravery
  • Commitment
  • Expression
  • Courage
  • Progress
  • Improvement
  • Advancement
  • Growth
  • Justice

And for the sake of BREVITY, as there were more it became very clear to me, and I hope to you too, that this was part of the reason for her overwhelm. I asked her to narrow it to three. She came up with Excellence, Dependability, and Correctness.

This choice made me very curious… I asked, “Tell me a story of a time you were proud of yourself?”

She told me a story of her parents. She explained that in her family she felt that she was never good enough. In order to matter she felt she was expected to always do more, do the right thing, never let anyone down and be the best. There are many examples of her accomplishing this. Her life became a very driven life of an overachiever concerned with perfection over purpose.

“Are Excellence, Dependability and Correctness your core values or your parents’ core values?” I asked.

She thought for a long while. She finally answered that those values were what mattered to her parents. It is what had been expected of her NOT what made her proud. Then she shifted her values to: Continuous Improvement, Reliability and Fairness.

In some ways, these words are similar values to: Excellence, Dependability and Correctness but they gave her room to relax and feel good about herself. She can easily live these core values and build nourishing rituals to take her out of overwhelm. And because her values made her feel good they allowed her to take some pressure off of herself.

Identifying core values allows you to be strategic about your goals and actions.

It may have been easy for me to tell Alice what rituals she needed. (“Go exercise.” “Go meditate.”) But when she identified her core values she was able to strategically create and commit to her unique breathing ritual.

Three times a day she would stop, close her eyes and just breath. In a cab, before a presentation, before she reentered her home in the evening… she would stop for no more than 5 minutes and concentrate on her breathing. In this way she could relax, improve her attitude and performance and not let anyone down. In this way, living her values, Alice was able to make changes that she wanted to make.

Imagine yourself making the changes you would like because of clarity about your core values

Ruth Schwartz

Ruth Schwartz is the author of "The Key to the Golden Handcuffs". She is a high performance business consultant and leadership coach. Connect with Ruth to participate in the conversation. Google+, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube .