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Use a list of inspirational words to find your values

According to Dr. Barb Markway and Celia Ampel values are:

“…the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity.”

A person’s values may change over time but are typically very stable for long periods of time in their life. Your values come from within you. No one should tell you or decide for you what your values are. There are no right or wrong values.

You may sense or experience your values in your own life in a variety of ways.

  • Values are how you experience meaning in life.

  • Values guide you when you must make hard decisions.

  • Values are made visible in your life through your actions.

While no one else should tell you or decide for you what your values are, they may be words that other people use to describe you. For example,

  • if you are someone who values humor, your friends may describe you as a jokester, the life of the party, or as really funny.

  • if you are someone who values achievement, you might be described as driven, competitive, and/or successful. In this example, any of those words could be a value but what gives you meaning is the achievement of a goal or a win.

Most people find that having no more than five values is best for them. In this exercise, I'll guide you through a simple process to look through a list of words to find your values.


This exercise will be easiest if you are not rushed. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to do the exercise. If you don’t have 30 minutes right now, schedule time on your calendar or to do list or make plans with a friend to do this exercise together.

You will want something the write on and something to write with. Use whatever feels best to you - a journal and pen, an app on your phone, or a document on your computer. I like to do this exercise with a cup of my favorite beverage, some ambient noise in the background, and a comfortable chair.

You will need to be able to open and look at the the value words - or print a copy if that is easier for you.

Value Words
Download PDF • 54KB

If you want to do this without any distractions from devices at all, you will probably find a dictionary and/or thesaurus handy. They come later in the exercise so you can grab your phone, tablet, or computer later if you need them to access these tools.

What To Do

  1. Silence/turn off notifications on your phone/computer - even (or maybe especially) if you’re using one of those to do this exercise.

  2. Spend a few minutes writing down any words or phrases that you think of when you read the definition of values -“…the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity.” (Don’t worry if nothing comes to mind. That is natural.)

    1. Where you do experience meaning in your life?

    2. What has allowed you to persevere through adversity?

  3. Open the word list or pull out your printed copy of the list.

  4. Go through the list of words. As you read each word, write down the words that feel like they may be values for you. Don’t worry too much in this step about narrowing your choices. If a word feels important to you then add it to your list.

    1. Read through the word list slowly. Consider related words – for example ability might make you think of able or abundance might make you think of abundant. Write down the version of the word that feels the most meaningful to you.

    2. Success might be important to you so in this first pass you might write down achievement, winning, results, success, and victory. That is absolutely okay. In the next step you can narrow down to a word or phrase best illustrates the value to you.

  5. Once you’ve gone through the entire list of words, take a moment and take another deep breath or two. It’s time to begin to narrow down your list. For this step you may want a dictionary and/or a thesaurus.

    1. What words on your list have similar meanings? Let’s continue using our example of success. As you look at the different words that you wrote down – achievement, winning, results, success, and victory – you know that what has really gotten you through tough times is seeing that your hard work is paying off – you’re seeing results. So you decide to leave results on your list and cross all of the others off.

    2. Take another look through your list for words that are important but still don’t seem right to you. Let’s take the word constant. One definition of constant is: a situation or state of affairs that does not change. You may say – yes that idea is important to me but the word constant is not quite it. Now, consult your thesaurus for other words that have meanings similar to constant: predictable, steady, unwavering, unfailing, or stable. From these, you feel like steady is the word best describes times in life when you've felt the most meaning.

    3. You may also decide that some of your words need to be combined into short (2 – 3 word) phrases. For example, you have both love and relationships on your list. These could be combined into loving relationships if that better describes how you find meaning and/or persevere through challenges.

  6. At this point you should have a list of 10 – 12 words or short phrases. If you have more, it’s okay – you just may find this step a little more challenging. In this step, your goal is to narrow down to about 5.

Why 5? There is no magic number of values. People like to know they are “doing it right” and with values there is no right or wrong. That said, whenever I lead people through a values exercise, they always ask me how many they should have so I’ve decided that no more than 5 is the answer. Here is why. What does happen with values are value conflicts. Imagine you have values of freedom and family. Freedom means that you want to be free to make your own choices and to do so without undue pressure from others. Family is a source of love and joy for you. However, being a part of a family means that you don’t have absolute freedom to do things like choose what to watch on tv, what game to play on game night, or even what to eat for dinner on a random Saturday night. You have freedom and you have choice but the values of freedom and family will cause conflicts for you from time to time. So, the more values you layer on the more value conflicts you may need to navigate. While natural and normal, having a smaller number of values that are very clear and very meaningful to you makes navigating these conflicts easier.

Begin by thinking of a big challenge that you’ve overcome. It can be recent or in the past. The most important part needs to be that you got through it. Look at your list of words or phrases. Which one or two do you think of when you think of that event or time in your life. What helped you get through it? If you don’t see the words or phrases but other words have come to mind instead then write those down on a new shorter list.

Now spend a few moments thinking about the most joyful memory in your life. Spend a few minutes vividly recalling it. You might even write down the memory. Now that you’ve spent a few minutes enjoying that beautiful memory, look at our list of words and phrases. Which of these words or phrases come to mind as you think about this memory. One or two are good to choose at this moment. Like with the previous thought exercise, if you don’t see the words or phrases but other words have come to mind instead then write those down on a new shorter list.

Carry Them With You

You should now have a list of two to five values. These may well be your core values. I've found that folks need a little time to make sure they feel right. Here's a way to do that.

Find a way to make the values visible to you. Put them someplace you’ll see them every day for a week or two. Places you're likely to see at least once a day might be:

  • inside of the notebook you carry every day,

  • a post it note on your bathroom mirror,

  • a post it note on your car’s dashboard, or

  • on your laptop

Each time you look at the list you’ll sense whether these are or are not your values. Listen to your inner voice. Make changes and tweak words or phrases. Add or delete a word. If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, ask a few trusted friends for input on whether these are words they see in you. Use caution with this step though because even your most trusted friends have their own agenda even if they don’t mean to do so and they may try to persuade you to fit their agenda rather than being who you authentically are.

Make Them Visible

Once you have lived with your list for a week or two, make it final. If you feel like your list is just not right then try one of the other exercises that I will be adding here soon.

Some of my favorite ways to make your values visible:

  • Make a vision board featuring the words and put it somewhere you will see it daily. Rachel and Mike Schmitz at the Intentional Family podcast have developed values for their family - and they share a picture of how they made those visible here.

  • Write a sentence or two more fully describing what you mean by each value – place this in front of your notebook or in your iPad cover.

  • Make a digital wallpaper for your phone, tablet and/or computer that features your words (tools like Canva are great for this).

  • Buy a bracelet or a set of bracelets engraved with your values (Etsy is a great source for this).

Check for Alignment Regularly

Revisit your values at least once a year. I review my values each quarter during my quarterly retreat to identify what values I'm most aligned with and where I may need to place more attention.

If you’d like to get notified of when the next virtual quarterly retreat will be held and get the workbook that features that quarter’s custom values check in activity, then be sure to sign up for my newsletter at

Newsletter subscribers ALWAYS get the earliest announcements about upcoming retreats, workshops, and classes.

I'd love to know if you do this exercise. If you did, how did it go for you? Drop me an email at and let me know or comment below.

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