As gifted people, if we are not explicitly aware of our personal values hierarchy, our thoughts and behaviors can be unpredictable and our internal and external world can at times feel very chaotic. We may struggle to make decisions, choose between priorities, or communicate our preferences or healthy boundaries. In this article, InterGifted's founding director Jennifer Harvey Sallin explores how gifted people can identify their highest values, and use them to channel and communicate their gifted complexity in a meaningful and grounded way.
(NOT) UNDERSTANDING OUR VALUES
If I asked you whether you know how a bicycle works, most likely you wouldn’t hesitate to respond with some variation of: “Yes, of course: there are two wheels and a chain, and you sit on the saddle, peddle with your feet, and the bike moves forward.” But if I asked you to explain the exact details of the mechanics of a bicycle – where the chain meets the gears and the wheels and exactly how the pedaling works – you may be surprised to find that you have to think a while to answer the questions. Perhaps only drawing a picture, or actually examining a bicycle up close, will suffice to illuminate the question.
Bicycle Art by Aaron Kuehn
The same is often true for our values. If I asked you right now to tell me whether you are conscious of your values, most likely you would again answer quickly with some variation of: “Yes, of course. I value harmony and peace.” But if I asked you to explain to me the exact details of the mechanics of how you live by your values – how you systematically and consciously use your values to plan for your work and relationships, and to make the hundreds of small and big decisions that you face daily – you may once again be surprised to realize that your conceptual idea of “values” is actually somewhat disconnected from the more mechanical and practical knowledge of how to use those values in each moment of your life.
This isn’t overly surprising when we consider how little we are educated and mentored on the topic of values; more specifically, on the topic of our own personal values and how to live by them. Most of us didn’t have teachers or classes devoted to helping us identify, consciously choose, fully understand, take responsibility for, and build a dynamic adult identity based on our highest values. Rather, most of us were taught to more or less “follow the program” and adopt the values of the dominant group. If our dominant group had (or has) great values, this is a good start. However, externally derived values often keep us from choosing and committing to internally chosen values, let alone being able to systematically live by those self-chosen values.
Put another way: if you buy a bicycle, you know it works, but you may not really understand how it works. If you build the bicycle by hand, you’ll know both that it works, and how it works. Of course, as a bicycle isn’t built overnight without prior knowledge and skill, neither are our values. They require time, study, dedication, instruction and practice. And this is one of the first and most important tasks in coaching: helping clients discover their values, learn how they work, and understand how to consciously use them as guides and inspirations for their daily life and choices.
When we are strongly rooted in our own self-chosen values, we know what we are looking for, what we want for ourselves and our world, and we have a stable and strong guide for our thoughts and behaviors. If we value gratitude and courage, we will keep on toward our goals, realistically and with self-compassion, even when things get hard. However, if we are not explicitly aware of having gratitude and courage as high values, or have never reflected on the question, sometimes we may react to life circumstances with gratitude and courage and sometimes with bitterness, selfishness, or laziness. In this case, our behavior and attitude seem inconsistent and unpredictable.
DISCOVERING YOUR VALUES EXERCISE
In my coaching and mentoring sessions with gifted clients, I often ask clients to do an exercise. I ask them to make a 2-column list. In the first column, I ask them to describe several situations in which they have felt at their best, that the world around them was in harmony with their own priorities and they felt supported by others. In the second column, I ask them to describe situations in which they have felt at their worst, that the world around them was in disharmony with their priorities and they felt frustrated, blocked or invisible.
To illustrate, I'll share the responses from one of my clients, let's call him Colin:
Describe situations in which you have felt at your best, that the world around you was in harmony with your priorities and you felt supported by others. What did you feel?
When I played soccer on my high school team - camaraderie, teamwork, belonging, celebrating together, overcoming challenges, constant improvement
When I walk alone in nature - time and space to observe and feel, time to reflect without interruption, connection with something bigger, ability to see the wonder of the big sky and small insect all at once
When I taught English in a little village in Cambodia - connecting to the children, seeing them learn, feeling like I was doing something meaningful to help others, feeling connected to the world and the people around me, learning about their culture, being challenged and having the opportunity to make a positive difference
Describe situations in which you have felt at your worst, that the world around you was in disharmony with your priorities and you felt frustrated, blocked or invisible. What did you feel?
When I work 9-5 in an office - artificial environment, too much social “chit chat”, not serious enough, too scattered and not able to concentrate, lack of meaning
In some of my personal relationships, when I was trying to grow together with the other person, but they didn’t seem interested - lack of sharing, lack of initiative, lack of curiosity and interest, lack of appreciation for my enthusiasm, feeling like a bother
When I watch too much violent or meaningless TV, film and news - feeling like life is hopeless, like people are crazy and untrustworthy, feeling threatened and unsure of my place in this world, feelings of uncertainty and panic, feel like I can never make a positive difference, social withdrawal
I usually ask clients to give at least 3-5 examples of each, and in the coaching process, we do a meta-analysis of their lists, looking at how all of their various experiences and feelings weave together into a united tapestry: a personal hierarchy of values. Since I work with gifted clients, these lists can sometimes take on a length and complexity that is remarkable. However, the essential point is to have at least three examples from which we can do a meta-analysis, in order to answer these key questions:
What are the various situations all pointing to? What meta-theme do they have in common?
For example, in Colin's positive experiences list, we saw: harmony, sharing goals and accomplishments, belonging, a connection to something bigger, space to contemplate and being in natural environments. The meta-themes seemed to point to connection and belonging: whether he is with others or alone, this is what he searches. Thus, we concluded that meaningful connection was probably his highest value. We actually saw this mirrored on his negative experiences list: we saw that he gets frustrated when feels disconnected from others, is unable to share common goals, and has insufficient space to contemplate life. When he feels bad in most situations, it seemed to link back to this primary value of meaningful connection (with others and to his own mind and thoughts) remaining unfulfilled.
CONNECTING YOUR EMOTIONS TO YOUR VALUES
This exercise helps to connect our emotions to our values: How we feel emotionally about a situation is closely linked to whether our experiences are in harmony with our highest values. When we feel good, it's most often not random pleasure we're experiencing; it's because we're experiencing a situation that aligns with and confirms our highest values. When we feel bad, it's most often not random pain either; rather our highest values are being ignored or unfulfilled by the situation at hand. This is a huge step toward a deepening self-awareness, because as we understand our values, we become much more aware of what makes life experiences so meaningful and precious to us, or on the contrary, so difficult and frustrating. This increases our sphere of control as well, as we can then actively search to create situations in which we are able to live, express, and see our highest values reflected back to us meaningfully.
This is of particular interest for gifted people working toward the discovery of their "true calling", or simply trying to discern "who they want to be" in their adult lives. Choosing what we do with our high mental complexity (and often accompanying emotional intensity) and who we become with it can feel like a totally overwhelming life task! But it's hard to reach full psychological adulthood without making some version of that choice. The understanding of our values hierarchy and how our emotions play into or rather determine that hierarchy, is an extremely helpful tool. It allows us, at any moment, to access what seems to fit who we feel we want to become and gives us an increasing sphere of choice (or decision-space) as to how we customize and plan our future experiences.
In Colin's case, he realized that he had been forcing himself to work in an office mostly to please his parents and friends, who valued traditional work and routine. When we looked at what he valued instead, it was experiences with people via meaningful connection, and so we got to planning his career in a less traditional direction. Today, Colin teaches kids via afterschool sports programs. He has no office, spends most of his working time outdoors with kids who are generally excited to connect with him, and he finds plenty of time for reflection and reconnecting with his own mind in his off hours in the mornings. He's fulfilling and living by his values every day because he created conditions which honored his authentic needs and preferences. His family and friends, who before berated him for not fitting into the norm, now congratulate and respect him for making his unusual needs work for his own betterment, and the betterment of the kids he mentors and guides each day.
On a more micro scale, Colin now uses his values hierarchy to help him with everyday decisions. Which one of his many interests should he pursue today? Which of the many directions of his mind should he follow? How should he handle a problem with one of his students? How should he communicate with friends and family? In all of these cases, he can refer back to his values to guide him. Which of his interests is most likely to lead him toward the fulfillment of his greatest need: meaningful connection? Which of his trains of thought are most likely to construct future feelings of belonging? Which options will help him to become more of the person he desires to experience himself as? Choosing between options becomes much easier when our values are there to guide us forward toward our self-chosen ideal.
PROMOTING YOUR VALUES VIA YOUR ACTIONS
In a more general way, understand our values also helps put painful experiences in a constructive light, showing us how we can channel our negative experiences into a positive promotion or advocacy of our values in the world. In my own case, I grew up in a rather "obey and be a good girl" culture, where authenticity was subservient to obedience and social conformity. Yet, whenever I've done the values exercise, my results have always pointed to one top value: authenticity. All my "negative" experiences center around moments when others are not authentic, or when I feel I am not able to express myself authentically.
I used to view inauthenticity as a "big life problem" and complained about it to myself and to others. Over time, though, I have learned to take my emotional response to inauthentic situations and instead channel that into my work: promoting authenticity and helping others find their authentic expression. Now instead of feeling the world doesn't have enough of what I need, I get excited every day about creating more of what I need via my daily actions. In Colin's case, he also learned to promote belonging and connection in his life and work. Instead of feeling disconnected and hopeless, he worked to put himself in a place where he helps himself and others connect meaningfully on a daily basis. He now knows that if he's awake, he can be certain he's bringing more of what he values into the world, and that makes the world a better place for him to be. It's a virtuous cycle.
GIVE THE EXERCISE A TRY FOR YOURSELF
Make your lists and try to do a meta-analysis to find your highest values. What do you discover? If you want to deepen the exercise on your own, reflect on these questions after you have completed your lists of positive and negative experiences:
- Are your primary values the same as you expected them to be? If not, how are they different? And how will this knowledge help you to change the way you've set up your life, work and relationships?
- Do your primary relationships allow you to sufficiently express your highest values? If so, in what ways? If not, do you need to communicate your values more clearly to your family, friends or partner? How could you do that?
- Does your work allow you to sufficiently express your highest values? If so, in what ways? If not, do you need to communicate your values more clearly to your boss, coworkers, or collaborators? Or if you work alone, do you need to make changes in the way you work? How could you increase the opportunities to express your highest values in your work?
- How do your values match your parents' values, or the values of your culture? Are there conflicting values? Has it been difficult at times to feel free to live by your values? How have you freed yourself to be able to be true to your own expression? Are there other positive steps you can take toward feeling free to express and live out your unique values?
- What about the values of the others in your life? Are you able to see what the highest values of your family, your friends, or your collaborators are? Understanding others' values is a major help to communication and mutual empathy and support. Is there someone you'd like to share this exercise with, in order to discuss your values together?
- What life changes are you ready to make based on what you've learned about yourself via this values exercise? And what kind of help and support do you need in order to make these steps?
GETTING SUPPORT IN YOUR VALUES DISCOVERY PROCESS
For many (gifted) people, values discovery is not an easy process. Years of being told implicitly or explicitly that one should value the neuronorm goals, perspective, sense of meaning, behavior and life choices can be extremely disorienting. Often, it is a question of permission: feeling that one is allowed to look at one's own unique perspective and preference, and choose that joyfully. It is also a question of having language and a framework for correctly labeling, validating and communicating authentic (gifted) values.
Thus, you may find that you struggle through the exercise or the deepening questions, and if you do, you're not alone. Most of us were never taught these things in school and topics like these are usually not too welcomed in normal social situations. Additionally, if you come from a troubled past, dysfunctional family dynamics, or other contextual situations where you were unable to develop clarity and purpose around your own values, you likely have unique challenges to overcome in clarifying what you care about most authentically. Many of my clients take (and I myself took) many months with the help of a therapist, coach or other support professional sorting out these questions, doing important giftedness integration work, and often healing from carried emotions and gifted-specific trauma which stand in the way of our clarity and empowerment.
I hope that you will find this values exercise enlightening and empowering as you continue your explorations. If our team of coaches can be of support on your journey, reach out to us to connect.
About Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Jennifer is founding director of InterGifted and is a psychologist who specializes in providing training and mentoring for gifted coaches and other helping professionals who support the gifted; in performing giftedness assessments; and in mentoring profoundly gifted adults. She writes extensively on giftedness and self-development and you can find her articles here on InterGifted’s blog and on her own blog at Rediscovering Yourself. She is based in Switzerland and works with gifted adults throughout the world. Learn more about Jen here.