Yesterday, I gave $2 to a homeless man. He often stands at the entrance to the grocery store I shop at. His nose has eroded, he clings desperately onto a cane, and he looks me in the eyes every time he asks for money.

After he thanked me for the $2, I walked away with an uncomfortable sinking feeling in pit of my stomach. That day, I was in a good mood and I wanted to be generous. But the second I put away my wallet, I realized that I had just bought him his next drug fix.

That moment was more than a moment of shortsightedness. It was a value conflict between two different types of compassion. On the one hand, I wanted to help him. On the other hand, that money was going to make his life worse.

I felt like I had just given him $2 toward his death.

Why was I so affected? Because I had gone against my values. My values alignment was off.

But now, I know that I will never face that conflict again. I’ve learned a way to live my strongest values first.

What Core Values mean to you

Values are powerful ideals that shape the way we want the world to operate. They tell us want we think is most important in life. So, when we ignore our values, it feels like destruction—either self destruction or social destruction.

Most people have similar core values lists when it comes to meta-values. These are big, over-arching values like peace, freedom and security. They’re beliefs that signal how we want society to get along. For example, most people think that human life is sacred and should be respected. So, murder is the worst crime a person can commit.

Then, we have more specific core values lists like family, companionship and nature. These values are more individual and not everyone agrees on them. We develop our specific set of values from how we were raised and what we learn ourselves as we go through life. The values we hold come from external and internal influences.

For example, if your family has always been there to support and love you throughout your life’s ups and downs, you probably value your family very much. But, sometimes parents disagree with their children’s way of life and rifts form. If you’ve experienced growing up without much support from your family, you would most likely place other values above family. Your values alignment would come from other sources.

Anti-Values and how they affect you

Actions and experiences that make your skin crawl are most likely anti-values. These are ideals you disagree with. They often cause fights and disagreements that can’t be resolved.

When I gave that homeless man $2, I remembered that the tip of his nose was eroded. The image of his nose reminded me of my cousin, who had been addicted to drugs throughout my childhood. I thought about the suffering he and my family went through as my cousin went in and out of rehab centers. He stole from his parents, he got beaten up often, and, because I was so young, I never got to know him properly.

Because of my experience with my cousin’s drug addiction, I have developed a strong anti-value to addiction.

So, my value of compassion was in conflict with my anti-value of addiction.

How to Avoid Value-Conflicts

Value conflicts are like the scales of justice tipping back and forth inside your mind—eventually one side wins.

But, unfortunately, too many people spend years in careers or situations that make them unhappy. They’re unhappy because they’re not aligning their values with their life. Maybe you’ve worked towards a goal that you didn’t agree with or you’ve had to get along with someone who rubbed you the wrong way.

Even though value conflicts are painful and uncomfortable, they can uncover a lot about what you really believe in. They can help you get to your core values list.

What can you do when you experience a value conflict?

1. Listen to your gut!

I think our society values rationality too much. Actually, the limbic system (the part of your brain responsible for your hormonal, instinctive reactions) has been around for many centuries and is much more developed than the rational prefrontal cortex of your brain.

If your body is telling you that you don’t like something, it’s probably right. But, of course it’s important recognize when you’re uncomfortable because of your values alignment or whether it’s just a feeling of not having full control of the situation. You can tell the difference by using your rational brain.

2. Identify the values involved

If you’re uncomfortable, can you find out what the underlying value is? We often feel uncomfortable in new situations because we don’t know what to expect. That’s different than feeling a values conflict. Ask yourself why you’re uncomfortable.

• Do you feel that you’re compromising your morals or beliefs in this situation? If so, put a single word to the belief that is being compromised.

• What’s the opposite of that word—the anti-value that you’re feeling? Here is a core values list that can help you understand what values are. It’s always better to choose words that really resonate (even if they’re not on the list) when you make your personal core values list.

3. Identify the conflict

Now that you know what the value and anti-value is, you’re ready to see why you feel conflicted.

• Is the anti-value the opposite of something you value or is it just a value that is less important to you?

• What is the value you’d like to strive towards instead? How can you align your values?

Congratulations, you’ve just found out which values is very important to you. You won’t compromise it again because you know that it isn’t worth the internal struggle.

Remember that every value-conflict you go through can take a long time to recover from. You need to find your true self again. It’s better to avoid them in the first place and feel secure in your self-respect. It’s also good to respond graciously to other people’s values, even though they may be different from your own. Their life experiences have taught them different things, so how can they be wrong?

4. Step out of your limited perspective

To get away from a value conflict you’re in, it helps to take a step back. Read and research new ideas to broaden your mind. This will help you feel less stuck and confused.

For example, if you’re working with a person who complains all the time, but you really value optimism, you could read about the psychology of pessimism and subtly lead your co-worker away from her negative responses. Otherwise, you could add a positive spin onto everything she says and try not to get too involved in her frame of mind. Understand that her pessimism probably comes from difficult experiences in her life. Then, all you can do is keep your values aligned with your own actions.

Are you experiencing a values conflict right now? Leave your story in the comments section and we’ll try to give you some clarity.

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