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The Artist and Her Critic

There was once a great Artist. 

In her youth, she brought her artistry to everything she did: dancing, drawing, singing, and writing.

She didn’t draw a line between creating and playing. Playing was an integral part of whatever she was creating.

Her heart was filled with light. She felt alive with passion, curiosity, and inspiration. Her enthusiasm permeated everything she did.

Then one day she met the Critic.

The Critic didn’t create art himself, but he had lots to say about her work. He made piercing comments and judgements about everything she created.

The Critic started hanging around the Artist quite a bit. The more time the Artist spent with the Critic, the less interest she had in creating art.

She began spending her time watching and comparing herself to others, desperately trying to fit in. She lost her center. Her path became dark and uncertain. Her inspiration withered.

She wanted to shield herself from the Critic. But the more she looked outside of herself, the stronger the Critic’s voice became. Now, just like her Critic, she too began spending her time commenting and criticizing others. 

The artist grew up into a lovely woman, but her light that once shined so bright was overtaken by shadow.

Then, one day she met a young girl fully absorbed, playing with paper, scissors, and glue. This young girl was busy creating, indifferent to what others thought about her art.

The woman saw her own Artist in this young girl and she began to remember who she was.

The woman began feeling lighter. She started to sing. And dance. And laugh with joy.

She remembered that she, too, is an Artist. In that moment, she became free once more.

Know the Critic’s Place

The Critic can be seen out in the world, but the most pernicious one lies within us.

To be sure, the Critic has his place. He’s important because he helps us see a different perspective.

The Critic can be a powerful ally who shows us the darker side of things as well as the flaws or weaknesses in our creative ideas and work. He can point out areas for our improvement. He can help us stay grounded and humble.

The Critic also creates doubt. Doubt is healthy for psychological development.

The Critic’s place, however, is after we create, not before.

Celebrate the Artist

But too many of us allow the Critic to rule us, dominate us, own us.

Contain your Critic. If you leave him unchecked, he will silence and disable your inner Artist. And when that happens, we all suffer the loss.

Your Artist is your connection to love, light, joy, imagination, enthusiasm, play, passion, and wonder—all of your creative power.

Your Artist is the gatekeeper to your soul. Nurture her daily and she will become a continual source of joy and meaning in your life.

Like a delicate butterfly, she is gentle. Be kind to her. Give her space to grow. She wants to fly. Let her free.

How to Work With Your Shadow (Part 2)

In the previous post, we defined the shadow as our disowned self that contains all the parts of us to which we are unaware. We also explored a wealth of benefits derived from getting to know our shadow as well as the consequences of ignoring it.

Now, let’s take a look at some ways to approach and begin working with the shadow.

Seven Tips to Begin Working with Your Shadow

1) Cultivate Self-Compassion

Before you begin working with your shadow, it is helpful to cultivate a sense of unconditional friendliness with one’s self. In Buddhism, this is called Maitri.

Without friendliness and self-compassion, it is difficult to look at our darker stuff. If you try to always be a good person and strive for perfection, or if you’re hard on yourself when you make mistakes, it is difficult to confront your shadow.

If you’re accustomed to feeling shame or guilt, you need to transmute these emotions with friendliness, self-acceptance, and self-compassion.

Start by accepting your own humanness: “to err is human.” Remember that we all have a shadow, so there’s nothing wrong with facing it. It’s when we ignore the shadow that it owns us and real problems arise.

2) Cultivate Self-Awareness

Seeing the shadow requires us to cultivate a self-reflective mindset—the ability to observe our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. This is easier for some than others.

I once believed that contemplative practices can help us connect with our shadows, but the truth is they don’t. However, mindfulness meditation practices do help us foster nonjudgmental awareness—the ability to stay aware of the present moment without involving the inner critic or other modes of judgment.

In many ways, self-awareness is a precursor to shadow work because it helps us observe and evaluate feelings and emotional reactions without judgment or criticism.

Check out Google’s Search Inside Yourself program. While the program doesn’t address the shadow directly, it does focus on the cultivation of mindfulness, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy, and compassion, and all of the inner resources are helpful for shadow work.

3) Pay Attention and Watch Your Reactions

Remember that the shadow is elusive; it tends to hide behind us. We each have hosts of defense mechanisms designed to keep our shadows repressed and out of view.

Shining the light of consciousness on the shadow takes effort and continual practice. The more you are willing to pay attention to your behavior and emotions, the better chances you have of catching your shadow in the act.

We have a tendency of projecting our disowned parts onto other people. One of the best ways to identify your shadow is to pay attention to your emotional reactions toward other people.

Sure, your colleague might be aggressive, arrogant, inconsiderate, or impatient, but if you don’t have those same qualities within, you won’t have a strong reaction to his behavior.

If you’re paying close attention, you can train yourself to notice your shadow when you witness strong negative emotional responses to others.

But we often don’t have time to work with those emotions on the spot. It’s helpful to take 10 minutes at the end of the day to reflect on your interactions with others and your related reactions during the day.

Whatever bothers you in another is likely a disowned part within yourself. Get to know that part, accept it, make it a part of you, and next time, it may not evoke a strong emotional charge when you observe it in another.

4) Be Honest and Courageous

Self-honesty and integrity are prerequisites for working with the shadow. It’s easy to give lip service to these qualities, but true self-honesty means being willing to see unpleasant attributes in our behavior and personality.

It is uncomfortable to come to terms with your disowned parts, which is why the ego invest so much energy in repressing them. It requires courage to take an honest look at your attitudes and behaviors, to meet your shadow face to face.

The rewards are worth the discomfort, as these honest confrontations with your shadow help heal the splits in your psyche, bringing you closer to wholeness. This courageous act unlocks more of your creative potential, opening up a new world of possibilities for your psychological development.

5) Engage in Inner Dialogue

Many forms of inner work require you to engage in an active dialogue with yourself. At first, this might seem like a scary idea since we have a belief that only “crazy people” talk to themselves.

The truth is that all of us have many subpersonalities—numerous unrecognized, autonomous parts in our personality.

Many different forms of psychology offer ways of working with these disparate parts, including Jung’s Active Imagination, Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems, Stone and Winkleman’s Voice Dialogue, and Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis.

When we don’t pay attention to these parts—one or many of which represent aspects of our shadow—they have a way of influencing our behavior. Have you ever done or said something and then wondered why you did or said it? A part in you was taking charge.

Our disowned parts aren’t trying to hurt us, but when we ignore or deny them, they often do. By dialoguing with them in our imagination, in a journal, or with a therapist, we can integrate these parts into our conscious selves. Then, they become our allies instead of our enemies.

6) Own Your Projections

Because we repress the disowned, often darker parts of our shadow, we invariably project them out onto other people, objects, and the environment.

The most fundamental process of shadow work is in owning your projections. To own your projections, you must become conscious that you are projecting onto others in the first place.

Again, this takes self-awareness, self-compassion, self-honesty, and a healthy dose of courage.

7) Record Your Discoveries

I find it fascinating how easily the ego resists change and how effective it is at taking a wonderful insight and making it disappear. It is similar to how a poignant dream slips out of consciousness only moments after awakening.

A great antidote to this tendency is to keep a journal where you record all of your new discoveries about yourself. Writing your insights and reviewing them later on helps encode the discovery into your waking consciousness.

Three Books to Help You Get to Know Your Shadow

There are many books that address the importance of working with the shadow, but here are my two favorites (and a bonus third):

Owning-Your-Own-ShadowOwning Your Own Shadow: Understsanding the Dark Side of the Psyche by Robert Johnson

The first book I always recommend to those interested in learning about the nature of the shadow is by Robert Johnson. Johnson is a lucid writer with a gift for communicating difficult psychological ideas for the lay reader.




Meeting-the-ShadowMeet Your Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature edited by Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams

This excellent collection of essays and excerpts from a wide range of writers, psychologists, philosophers, and poets explores and exposes the shadow from virtually every conceivable angle. It will open your mind to the diverse ways the shadow touches and influences our lives.



integral-life-practiceIntegral Life Practice by Ken Wilber, et al.

This course guide, written by Wilber’s team, has an excellent chapter on the shadow (Chapter 4) with practical exercises to help you work with your shadow on an ongoing basis.

The core shadow exercise called The 3-2-1 Process gives you a step-by-step process for working with the shadow.

It’s Called The Shadow (Part 1)

It’s always standing right behind us, just out of view. In any direct light, we cast a shadow.

The shadow is a psychological term for everything we can’t see in ourselves.

I came to understand the importance of knowing my shadow, and working with it, when I wrote a biography on a spiritual teacher.

It can be difficult to accept that you have a shadow, if you’re not familiar with this psychological insight. We go to great lengths to protect our self-image from anything unflattering or unfamiliar.

As such, it is easier to see the shadow in another before seeing it in one’s self.

Seeing the shadow of this spiritual teacher helped me understand how someone can be gifted in one area of life while remaining utterly unaware of poor behavior in other areas.

Every human being is susceptible to this.

I personally find working with my shadow to be a challenging yet rewarding process. Anyone interested in experiencing greater authenticity, creativity, energy, and awakening will certainly benefit from shadow work.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at what the shadow is and how it comes into being. Then, we’ll explore five benefits for working with your shadow.

What is the Shadow?

The shadow is generally considered to be the “dark side” of our personality because it consists predominantly of primitive, negative human emotions and impulses like rage, envy, greed, selfishness, desire, and the striving for power.

All of the things we deny in ourselves—whatever we perceive as inferior, evil, or unacceptable—become part of the shadow. Anything that is incompatible with our chosen conscious attitude about overselves is relegated into this dark side.

The personal shadow has been called the disowned self. It represents the parts of us we no longer claim to be our own, including inherent positive qualities.

Of course, these unexamined or disowned parts of our personality don’t actually go anywhere. Although we deny them in our attempt to cast them out, we don’t actually get rid of them.

We simply repress them in what is called our personal unconscious. Think of the unconscious as everything we are not conscious of.

The shadow can’t be eliminated. It stays with us as our dark brother or sister. Trouble arises when we fail to see it. For then, to be sure, it is standing right behind us.

How the Shadow is Born

All humans have a diverse range of qualities and emotions that are innate, that are part of our biological heritage.

Every young child, for example, exhibits kindness, love, and generosity, but he also expresses anger, selfishness, and greed.

These emotions are part of our shared humanity. But as we grow up, something happens. Traits associated with “being good” are accepted, while others associated with “being bad” are rejected.

We all have basic human needs. We all have physiologic needs for food, water, breathing, sex, sleep, excretion, and homeostasis. We all have needs for safety and security. We all have needs for feeling love and belonging.

These needs are biological and instinctual.

As children, when we expressed certain parts of ourselves, we received negative cues from our environment.

Maybe we got angry and threw a tantrum. Our parents reprimanded the outburst and sent us to our room.

Or perhaps we acted boldly, playfully, spontaneously, or silly in our first grade classroom. Our teacher shamed us for our lack of decorum in front of the class and told us to sit down.

Whenever it happened—and it might have happened quite often—it threatened one of our basic needs.

Would the disapproval of our parents threaten our safety? Would the disapproval of our teachers and classmates jeopardize our need for belonging?

We adjusted our behavior to gratify our needs and learned to adapt to the external world.

All the parts of ourselves that weren’t accepted or encouraged to develop in the first 20 years of our lives were bundled together and neatly swept out of view (outside our conscious awareness).

As poet Robert Bly put it in A Little Book of the Human Shadow, the child puts all of these unwanted parts into an invisible bag and drags it behind him.

This repression of unwanted parts creates what psychologist Carl Jung called the personal shadow.

Ignore the Shadow At Your Own Peril

The ancient Greeks understood the need to honor all of the parts of the psyche. For them, these parts were worshipped as autonomous gods and goddesses.

The Greeks knew that a god or goddess you ignored became the one who turned against you and destroyed you. The Trojan War, as illustrated in Homer’s Iliad, provides an excellent example of this psychological dance.

Any part we disown within us turns against us. The personal shadow represents a collection of these disowned parts.

So here’s the problem: The shadow can operate on its own without our full awareness. It’s as if our conscious self goes on autopilot while the shadow assumes control.

We do things we wouldn’t normally do and later regret. We say things we wouldn’t ordinarily say. We respond to people with negative reactions that really have little to do with them.

For this reason, remaining unconscious of the shadow hurts our relationships with our spouses, family, and friends, and it will certainly impact our professional relationships as well as our leadership abilities.

Do you remember Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?  Dr. Jekyll was a respectable gentleman (the “good,” conscious side of the personality) who took a potion to separate out his darker impulses to create a creature free of conscience named Mr. Hyde (the personal shadow).

(Looney Tunes did a fun version of this classic tale in Bugs Bunny in Hyde and Hare.)

Dr. Jekyll was unable to control the actions of his darker half, leading him to commit unscrupulous acts, including murder. Such is the fate, although generally not so severe, of anyone who denies his or her shadow.

What Happens When You Repress Your Shadow

So what happens to all the parts of ourselves that we sweep out of view?

Whatever qualities we deny in ourselves, we tend to see in others. In psychology, this is called projection. We project onto others anything we bury within us.

If, for example, you get really irritated when someone is rude to you, it’s a good bet that you haven’t owned your own rudeness. This doesn’t mean the person isn’t being rude to you. However, if rudeness wasn’t in your shadow, someone else’s rudeness wouldn’t bother you so much.

This process doesn’t happen consciously. We are generally not aware of our projections. Our egos use this mechanism as a means to defend itself, that is, to defend how it perceives itself.

These projections distort reality, creating a thick boundary between how the we view ourselves  and how we behave in reality.

Five Benefits of Working With Your Shadow

The shadow isn’t a popular topic in most circles. After all, who enjoys seeing their own flaws and weaknesses? How many of us are committed to constant growth and change?

Working with the shadow, however, gives us tremendous opportunities for growth and development.

Let’s look at five benefits that result from working with your shadow:

1) Improved Relationships

As you integrate your shadow and come to terms with your darker half, you begin to see yourself more clearly. You become more grounded, human, and whole.

When you can accept your own darker parts, it is easier to accept the shadow in others. As a result, other people’s behavior won’t emotionally trigger you as easily. You’ll also have an easier time communicating with others.

When you’re not projecting your shadow onto others, the world becomes a friendlier place. You may notice an improvement in your relationships with your spouse, family members, friends, and business associates.

2) Clearer Perception

In seeing others and yourself more clearly, you’ll have a cleaner lens with which to view the world.

As you integrate your shadow, you’re approaching your authentic self, which gives you a more realistic assessment of who you are. You won’t perceive yourself as being too big (inflation) or too small (deflation).

By becoming a more grounded human being, you’ll also be better equipped to assess your environment. You’ll see others and evaluate situations with greater clarity, compassion, and understanding.

3) Enhanced Energy

Dragging around this invisible bag of stuff behind us is draining. It is exhausting work to constantly repress and suppress all of the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to face in our adulthood.

Fatigue and lethargy can plague the unexamined life. Mental suppression can also lead to physical pain and disease.

In working with your shadow, you liberate a tremendous reservoir of energy that you were unconsciously investing in protecting yourself. This can improve your physical, mental, and emotional health. It can bring you inner strength and a greater sense of balance, making you better equipped to take on life’s challenges.

4) Psychological Integration

As long as we deny our shadows and repress certain parts of ourselves, a sense of wholeness and unity is elusive.

After all, how can we feel a sense of wholeness and balance if we are psychically divided?

Integrating the shadow brings you one step closer to healing your mind and realizing a sense of wholeness.

5) Greater Creativity

We’re going to cover this topic more deeply in later posts, but one of the greatest benefits of integrating your shadow is that it unlocks your creative potential.

Creativeness, as psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers found, is a spontaneous occurrence in mentally healthy (psychologically integrated) individuals.

What’s Next?

Now that you have a better idea of what the shadow is and why it’s important, what’s next?

In the next post, I’ll offer a few suggestions on how to begin working with the shadow so you can reap the benefits.

Click here to read it >>

Are You Feeling Restless?

It’s so common that it avoids our detection.

Restlessness. It is the primary neurosis of our time.

That, at least, was the observation of the great Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung.

He made this observation over 60 years ago. I believe it’s truer today than it was then.

A neurosis is an excessive and irrational anxiety or obsession. It’s a sign of mental imbalance. It produces unnecessary stress.

Restlessness implies an inability to be still—to come to rest, to be able to fully enjoy periods of play and reverie.

Signs of restlessness abound:

  • A materialistic, consumer-driven culture obsessed with the new
  • An unending pursuit to accumulate more money, titles, and things
  • Parents chauffeuring their kids to an endless procession of activities
  • A collective addiction to social media sites like Facebook

It’s truly difficult to avoid feelings of restlessness in modern life.

Locating the Source of Restlessness

Restlessness, Jung believed, is a symptom of people who are not actualizing their potential, people who are living in discord with their true self.

In The Way of the Dream, Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz explains, “Restlessness is caused by a surplus of bottled-up energy, which makes us fuss around all the time because we are not connected with the dream world or the unconscious.

“Or that energy can take the form of an all-pervading anxiety, a fear that somewhere, something dark is lurking and might happen at any minute.”

We become anxious about nothing at all. An underlying anxiety becomes a common part of our daily existence, often accompanied by feelings of irritability, aggressiveness, or meaninglessness.

All of these tensions can also lead to depression. Not surprisingly, anxiety and depression are commonplace in our culture, significantly more so than for prior generations.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one out of ten Americans is depressed.

According to an analysis of global depression statistics, high-income countries have higher rates of depression than lower-income countries. The United States, for example, generally ranks as having the highest levels of prosperity and one of the highest rates of depression of any nation.

Resolving Feelings of Restlessness

We seek remedies or the alleviation of suffering from our restlessness in many ways: working obsessively, abusing drugs and alcohol, consuming sugar and junk food, watching television and using the Internet excessively, and engaging in “retail therapy.”

Restlessness is likely the driver behind much of our unsupportive habits.

It would be an error, I believe, to point fingers at our technologically-driven culture as the cause of our restlessness. Technology only magnifies the issue.

Jung saw this restlessness and other neurotic behaviors as symptoms of being disconnected from one’s dream life—from the wisdom of our inner world.

Freud saw dreams as merely a rehashing of events from prior days and memories from childhood.

Jung discovered an extraordinary third source of dream content: the wisdom of the two-million-year-old human being, the “age-old unforgotten wisdom stored up in us.”

This wisdom, according to Jung, exists as a living potential within each of us. We access this wisdom through our dreams, which provide a bridge between the ego and our inner world every night when we enter REM sleep.

Exploring Your Dreams

Neurotic tendencies like restlessness are often a result of what Jung called one-sidedness—holding fixed, rigid, and sometimes extreme perspectives about yourself, the world, and life.

Jung found that our dreams can help us adjust from our one-sidedness. They can help us see and embrace new perspectives and open up new doorways for internal and external exploration.

Our dreams can help us hold the inherent paradoxes and ambiguities of life in new, supportive ways.

Tuning into dreams, modern medicine is discovering, is important for emotional health.

The challenge with listening to our dreams is that this unforgotten wisdom is ancient.

It communicates to us in an unfamiliar language—the language of symbols. Understanding these symbols and metaphors is no easy task.

The good news is that we don’t need to understand the symbols in order to benefit from our dreams. We just need to start paying attention to them.

By simply keeping a journal by your bedside and recording your dreams upon awaking, you take the first step in reawakening your dream life and putting an end to your restlessness.

New adventures await. Pleasant dreams!

Finding Moments of Stillness

Did you ever love something so much that’s just out of reach?

There are periods in my life where I feel very connected to a deeper part of myself. In those moments, I feel very still.

I can sit and gaze at a tree with a sense of wonder. I can walk through the woods with deep feelings of reverence.

Then there is the rest of the time when that connection doesn’t feel so strong, when I have difficulty being inwardly calm.

In these times, I’m often aware of a feeling of disconnection. I know a different state of being exists. I can vaguely recall it. Sometimes, I can almost taste it.

But it’s just out of reach.

Notice Moments of Stillness

A different state of consciousness emerges when you’re inwardly still.

With deep, rhythmic breaths, the body’s physiology begins to change. The parasympathetic nervous system takes over. Heart rate slows. Blood pressure drops. Muscles release tension.

Overall awareness is heightened.

Directed outward, our five senses are refined and deepened.

Directed inward, insights about life problems arise spontaneously. Conflicts often resolve themselves as we become more conscious of alternative perspectives.

Our boundary expands. Our sense of separation dissolves. This shift leads to greater care and concern for others. Yes, stillness can elevate our level of compassion and empathy.

Emotions—both positive and negative—are more easily accepted and welcomed in this silent space. We don’t hold onto them. We let them come and go.

Instead of wrestling with time, trying to push into the future or lament the past, we rest in the here and now.

In stillness, flow isn’t a concept; it’s an experiential reality.

The richness of experience in this mindful state transcends any words used by the most skilled writers to describe it.

Locate Your Still Point

Start by turning your full attention to your breath or an object in nature.

Relaxing your gaze, just be in the moment.

Over time, with focus and attention, moments of stillness can become more frequent. The practices of meditation and play are helpful.

Activity doesn’t go away in stillness; it is part of life too. But we are no longer consumed by activity.

The benefits of this state are many, and these gifts are available to all. We need only establish the habit of stopping, breathing, and paying attention.

Today’s post is just a reminder of what you already know, but can easily forget. Have a truly beautiful Monday!

7 Steps to Discovering Your Personal Core Values

As a life strategist, I’ve come to appreciate the power of values.

I’ve observed that individuals experience greater fulfillment when they live in accordance with their values. And when individuals don’t honor their values, they don’t feel too good.

I’ve noted this in my own life as well.

Why Are Core Values Important?

Values are a part of what we are. They highlight what we stand for. They can represent our unique, individual essence. They guide our behavior, providing us with a personal code of conduct.

When we honor our personal core values consistently, we feel fulfilled. When we don’t, we feel incongruent and are more likely to escape into bad habits to feel better.

Knowing Your Values Changes Your Behavior

I still remember going through my first values discovery process when I was 22. I was attending an intensive 4-day seminar devoted to learning about what drives you. Core values were a central theme of the event.

One value that quickly rose to the top of my list was health. Physical health, energy, and vitality were and are very important to me. I spent a great deal of my childhood sick, and I saw how it affected my development and life experiences in deleterious ways.

I was committed to cultivating a strong foundation for my physical health and wellbeing in adulthood.

Clarifying this value as a top priority shifted many things in my young life. It influenced what I ate, drank, read, and did.

When you strongly value health, you don’t have to wrestle with your will as much. If you know a particular food or activity isn’t good for your body, you simply don’t want it.

I made a practice of paying attention to how different foods made me feel after I ate them. If something made me sleepy or drained my energy, I took note.

I consciously sought to create a way of being that supported a healthy, energizing lifestyle.

Many people highly value comfort. Consider what happens when you value comfort over your health and you’ll begin to appreciate the power values hold in your life.

Discovering Your Personal Core Values

The challenge is that most of us are not clear about our values. We don’t consciously know what’s most important to us. Instead, we are more focused on what our society, culture, and media values.

Can you clearly articulate your top 5 to 10 values that are most important to you?

Without undergoing a discovery process, it’s challenging to know your personal core values. It’s easy to intellectualize and idealize what you should value. But knowing and accepting what you do value takes effort.

While the following process is best done with a qualified coach, you can do it on your own if you apply self-honesty, patience, and determination.

Ready? Take out your journal, a notepad, or a note-taking app. And let’s get started.

Here are 7 steps to creating distinct and meaningful core values that will serve you in every area of your life and work:

STEP 1: Start with a Beginner’s Mind

It’s too easy to presume that we know the answer at the start and to, therefore, never truly embark on a creative, personal discovery process.

Adopting the mind of a beginner—someone without any preconceived notions of what is—gives you access to inner truths to which your conscious mind is yet unaware.

Simply take a deep breath and momentarily empty your mind. Remember that your conscious mind doesn’t know all of the answers. Create a space for new insights and revelations to emerge.

STEP 2: Create Your List of Personal Values

Arriving at a concise and short list of values can be a daunting task. You can find lists online with almost 400 values to choose from. However, I don’t advise using any predetermined lists.

Why? Values aren’t selected; they are discovered and revealed. If you start with a list, your conscious mind will begin evaluating which values are “better” than others.

That said, if you’re not familiar with working with values, you may want to quickly scan a list of values to get a sense of your range of options.

For example, here is a list of core values that start with the letter “C”:












































To help you uncover your own personal core values, here are three processes you can try:

1) Peak Experiences

Think of a meaningful or rewarding moment in time—a peak experience that stands out in your mind. What was happening to you? What was going on? What values were you honoring in that moment?

2) Suppressed Values

Now, go in the opposite direction; consider a time when you felt angry, frustrated, or deeply upset. What was going on? What exactly were you feeling? Now flip those feelings around. What value is being suppressed?

3) Code of Conduct

What must you have in your life? Beyond your basic human needs, what must you have in your life in order to be fulfilled? Creative self-expression? A strong level of health and vitality? A sense of excitement and adventure? Being surrounded by beauty? Always learning? What are the values that you must honor or a part of you withers?

STEP 3: Chunk Your Values into Related Groups

Combining all of the answers from step 2, you now have a master list of values. If you take this process seriously, you may have between 20 and 50 values.

Obviously, that’s far too many to be actionable and memorable.

Your next step is to group these values under related themes.

Values like accountability, responsibility, and timeliness are all related. Values like learning, growth, and development are related. Connection, belonging, and intimacy are, too. Group them together.

STEP 4: Highlight the Central Theme of Each Value Group

If you have a group of values that include honesty, transparency, integrity, candor, directness, and truth, select a word that you feel best represents the group.

For example, integrity might work as a central theme for the values I just listed.

You can keep the other words in the group in parentheses to give your primary value more context. You’ll use them again in step 6.

STEP 5: Determine Your Top Personal Core Values

Now comes the hardest part. After completing step 4, you still may have a sizable list of values. Here are a few questions to help you whittle your list down:

  • What values are absolutely essential to your life?
  • What values represent your primary way of being in the world?
  • What values are essential to supporting your inner self?

You can’t be all things to all people. You are unique. You have certain strengths and weaknesses. Your values are what matters most to you.

How many core values should you end up with? Too few and you won’t capture all of the unique dimensions of your being. Too many and you’ll have trouble remembering them and keeping them functional.

While the number of core values differs for each person, the magic range seems to be between 5 and 10.

Rank them in the order of importance. This is generally the most challenging part of the process, so please be patient with yourself.

You may need to do this step in multiple sittings. After doing one round of ranking, put it aside and “sleep on it.”

Revisit your ranking the next day and see how you feel. Then, go through the process again.

STEP 6: Give Your Core Values Richer Context

Now, creativity really comes into play.

Highlighting values into memorable phrases or sentences helps you articulate the meaning behind each value. It gives you the opportunity to make the value more emotional and memorable.

Here are a few tips and guidelines for crafting your values statements:

  • Use inspiring words and vocabulary. Our brains are quick to delete or ignore the mundane and commonplace.
  • Mine for words that evoke and trigger emotional responses. They will be more meaningful and memorable.
  • Play to your strengths in crafting your values.
  • Make your value statements rich and meaningful to you so they inspire you to uphold them.

You could use other words from the groupings you made in step 3 in your description.

For example, let’s say you’ve identified a core value of health to represent other values, like energy and vitality.

Your values statement might be: “Health: to live with full vitality and energy every day.”

STEP 7: Test the Ecology of Each Value

Once you’ve finalized your list of core values, walk away from them and revisit them the next day after a good night’s sleep. Review your list:

  • How do they make you feel?
  • Do you feel they are consistent with who you are?
  • Are they personal to you?
  • Do you see any values that feel inconsistent with your identity (as if they belong to someone else, like an authority figure or society) and not you?
  • Check your priority ranking. Do you feel like your values are in the proper order of importance?

Nothing is set in stone. Feel free to make any tweaks and changes as necessary.

Are You Living Your Core Values?

Now that you have a prioritized list of your top 5 to 10 core values, let’s see how well you’re living them.

Assess how well you’re honoring each value by scoring each one on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 represents optimally living the value.

What’s your level of satisfaction with each value?

Record your score for each. You can set up a table in Excel or on Google Drive.

Put a date at the top of the column. Repeat this exercise once a month or quarter to assess your progress.

If you score below 7 in a particular value, what changes do you need to make? What has to happen for you to better honor this value in your life?

Here’s where self-coaching comes into play. Define your goals. Create a plan. Actualize it.

Check in with your values again. Notice if you feel a difference in your level of fulfillment in life.

How to Use Your Core Values to Make Decisions

Knowing your personal core values and their order of priority is incredibly helpful in making difficult decisions.

Start by scoring your values as described above. Then, imagine your life several months or years in the future having made the decision.

For example, what will your life be like having started a new business or a family?

Step into this future picture as much as you can. Have it come alive in your mind.

Now, score your values while keeping the vision alive in your mind. Does making the decision elevate your values score? Does it cause friction with one of your higher values?

This process will help bring a new level of clarity to your decision-making process.

P.S. If you’re a business leader or an entrepreneur, be sure to check out The Ultimate Business Course on Core Values on the Cult Branding Blog. It’s an in-depth article and workshop to help you establish core values to create a thriving, unified culture.

Good Habits, Bad Habits

Bad habits come easy, don’t they?

Bad habits form quickly and require little effort on our part. They are largely the result of not paying attention.

We all have bad habits.

Good habits are an achievement, a triumph over the more primitive parts of our brain. Good habits take effort, persistence, and consciousness—especially when establishing them.

Let’s not call them good or bad; we’re not making a moral judgment here.

Instead, let’s call them supportive and unsupportive habits to our overall wellbeing.

Establishing Supportive Habits for the Future

Unsupportive habits are things we do on a regular basis that don’t support our physical health or our psychological wellbeing.

They are the result of exclusive pleasure seeking, of the desire to experience pleasure and avoid discomfort or pain in the present moment.

Life-supportive habits help us stay in balance and tend to further our development. They are the result of using our prefrontal cortex (thinking brain); they are gratifying and often focused on future outcomes.

When we come home and turn on the TV or swipe our iPad open because we’re tired, wired, and want to zone out, we’re engaging in a disempowering behavior.

We are choosing to numb our minds and avoid our feelings. This is a form of self-medication.

(Physicians like Andrew Weil and scientists like Terrance McKenna classify television as a drug, based on the effects it has on our brains.)

If we do this every day, we form an unsupportive habit.

When we come home, wash our hands, and sit quietly for five minutes to center ourselves before starting the evening, we are engaging in a life-supportive practice.

Instead of avoiding the tensions within us, here, we are actively choosing to stay present with our stress and calm our minds.

This is an investment in our future selves, which enables us to make healthier choices in the evening.

Instead of needing to self-medicate with television or the Internet, you’ll be more likely to pick up a book, consciously play with your children, work on a creative project, or spend conscious time with your loved one.

Common Unsupportive Habits

We are aware of many of our unsupportive habits.

Many of them are so commonplace in modern culture, however, that we often don’t necessarily identify them as such. Or we know they don’t support us, but we don’t consider positive alternatives.

A few common unsupportive habits and behaviors we’re all familiar with:

  • Keeping email open while working (distracts your attentions and reduces your productivity at work)
  • Checking Facebook and Twitter updates religiously (has the same consequences as above)
  • Responding to every text message and phone call as soon as you get them (has the same consequences as above)
  • Watching television without a clear intention and a defined time period (is a form of self-medicating that causes depression and eats away at your precious time)
  • Using stimulants like coffee to stay alert during the day (can lead to anxiety and require sedation in the evening with TV, food, alcohol, and other drugs like marijuana)
  • Buying things you don’t need (is another method of avoiding or suppressing emotions that is wasteful and fiscally irresponsible)
  • Sedating yourself with food and alcohol to mellow out from the work day (is another form of emotional suppression and avoidance)

There are biochemical reasons behind all of these unsupportive behaviors.

Almost all of them trigger dopamine in our brains, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure seeking.

All of these behaviors require conscious effort and impulse control to break the habit and install a healthier alternative.

It’s easy to take any of these common, compulsive behaviors and turn them into an unsupportive habit: just do it every day for a few days. Again, unsupportive habits come easy.

The Call of Conscious Living

Conscious living means being fully awake to our actions and behaviors. It means making decisions that support our physical, mental, emotional, social, financial, and spiritual wellbeing.

Conscious living is incredibly difficult—especially today.

It requires a considerable level of self-awareness, discipline, forward thinking, and practice.

Combined with patience, self-acceptance, and self-compassion, we can make more healthy choices each day.

Conscious living is not about perfection. The pursuit of perfection will make you miserable and actually derail your efforts, as I’ve repeatedly learned from personal experience.

Instead, conscious living is about making incremental improvements, minor course corrections each day.

Conscious living means paying attention of our behavior and motivations while affirming our commitment to make decisions for a more healthy, enriching future.

In the Pursuit of Happiness?

Please pause for a moment. Take a deep breath and consider: how happy do you feel as you read this?

If you’re not feeling happy, how do you feel about that? Survey your feelings carefully and be honest. (And if you’re feeling happy, please keep feeling happy.)

We have a cultural bias toward happiness. The prevailing belief is that we’re supposed to be happy most of the time, and when we’re not, something is amiss.

This seems to be the case in all consumerist cultures, which encompasses all modern societies. It is especially so in the United States. After all, Jefferson singled out “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence.

The Tension Related to Happiness

Back to my question: If you aren’t feeling happy as you read this, do you notice any tension in your body? Do you feel any mental or emotional distress? Not feeling happy is one thing; how we relate to unpleasant feelings is something else.

The tension is based on an underlying assumption that we should be happy. But why? Why should happiness be the aim or ideal in our everyday human experience?

Is life not filled with difficulties, trials, upsets, and pain? Is there not a great deal of suffering within the human experience? Is it reasonable to expect to be happy most of the time?

(By the way, happiness researchers have found that we each have a different happiness set point. For example, roughly 25 percent of people are naturally happy; they are born this way. Another 25 percent of people tend toward depression and pessimism.)

Could our collective bias toward happiness be an attempt to repress the darker (but equally real) side of life? Could this collective repression help explain why America is one of the most depressed nations in the world?

From Happiness to Contentment

In Spontaneous Happiness, Dr. Andrew Weil suggests that it would serve us to replace the ideal of happiness with contentment. Contentment is a general feeling of “okayness” with life. With contentment, we are able to more easily accept what is, to be okay with whatever we’re experiencing, positive or negative.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t try to find ways to increase our level of pleasure, happiness, and optimism.

Optimistic people with positive feelings, for example, are 50 percent less likely to have a heart attack or get sick. It is also fruitful to improve our emotional states by learning how to consciously work with negative emotions.

But knowing that it’s okay to be down, depressed, anxious, and afraid at times is important, too. We reduce our suffering when we accept our inner state—no matter what it is.

Acceptance of what we’re experiencing also gives us more internal resources for shifting into a more positive space. That, at least, has been my experience.

The Secret to Long-term Happiness

Positive psychologist and author of Authentic Happiness Martin Seligman draws a distinction between pleasures and gratifications as two very different ways of realizing happiness in the present moment.

Last week, we explored three ways of enhancing our pleasures. Now, we turn our attention to gratifications.

Pleasures versus Gratifications

Like pleasures, gratifications are also very enjoyable, but they don’t necessarily evoke any raw feelings like pleasures. Whereas pleasures require little, if any, thinking, gratifications often involve thinking and interpretations.

Examples of gratifications include reading an engaging book, dancing, playing a sport you love, and immersing yourself in a stimulating conversation. With gratifying activities, time stops, we lose self-consciousness, and we become totally absorbed in the activity.

Gratifications last longer than pleasures; pleasures tend to be short-lived. Gratifications don’t habituate as easily as pleasures do.

As we saw, pleasures are about engaging the senses and feeling emotions, but gratifications are about contacting a higher part of us: our personal strengths and virtues.

In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, pleasures are the satisfaction of our basic needs, especially biological ones. Gratifications, in contrast, are the result of higher needs, like our cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization, and self-transcendence.

Entering the State of Flow

This is where Seligman’s research intersects with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on flow. In a state of flow we generally don’t feel positive emotions. We are focused; we have a clear goal. Entering a timeless state, we are absorbed in deep, effortless activity. And perhaps most interestingly, our sense of self vanishes.

Gratifications can produce the state of flow, but unlike pleasure, gratifications require skill and effort. They also offer the possibility of failing. While pleasures come easily, gratifications from exercising our personal strengths are hard-won. It’s no wonder we so often seek pleasure instead of focusing on growth.

A further challenge is that there are no shortcuts to gratifications. They take effort, practice, and the consistent exercising of our natural strengths. Building these strengths requires conscious choice: Do you want to acquire them? Do you want to keep building them? And when do you want to use them?

What Are Your Natural Strengths?

Seligman outlines two characteristics of what he calls strengths:

  1. A strength is a trait, a psychological characteristic that can be seen across different situations and over time.
  2. A strength is valued in its own right. The strengths are states we desire that require no further justification.

This second characteristic highlights another important difference between gratifications and pleasures; unlike pleasures, gratifications are undertaken for their own sake, not for any positive emotion they may produce.

Based on his research, Seligman offers 24 different strengths that are measurable and acquirable:

Judgment / Critical Thinking
Love of Learning
Bravery / Valor
Honesty / Integrity
Social & Emotional Intelligence
Self-Regulation / Self-Control
Appreciate for Beauty & Excellence
Hope / Optimism
Humor / Playfulness
Spirituality / Faith

Reviewing the above list, do certain strengths stand out in your mind? (If you’d more context for each of these strengths, click here.)

If you’re interested in getting a better idea of your own strengths, register for a free account on the University of Pennsylvania Authentic Happiness website and take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. The VIA Institute offers the survey on their website as well.  (Note: it’s not a quick test. Be sure to block off at least 10 to 15 minutes to take the test.)

Capitalizing on Your Signature Strengths

To make the test functional, Seligman suggests that each of us have a set of core strengths, what he calls signature strengths. Your signature strengths are the top five strengths from their survey.

Discovering your natural strengths can be an instructive process. It may clarify what you already know about yourself or highlight strengths you aren’t conscious of. It can also suggest where to best invest your time to optimize your gratification (experience more happiness).

But I also found it equally helpful to see what strengths ranked low on the list for me. If you have a tendency toward perfectionism or “being good” in all that you do, you may also find it helpful to see what ranks at the bottom of your list.

Although we may aspire to possess a high proficiency in all 24 strengths in order to master every valued human virtue, the reality of our humanness provides a more realistic point of view. For me, the experience led to greater self-acceptance of my shortcomings and a renewed interest in developing my actual strengths.

How does Seligman suggest you increase your level of daily happiness? Use your signature strengths every day in the main areas of your work and life.

Three Ways to Maximize Pleasure

I’m always looking for ways to cultivate a more positive state of mind. I’ve observed that I’m more creative, productive, sociable, and grounded when I’m feeling optimistic. I’ve witnessed how I adopt disempowering behavior when my mental state declines.

In Authentic Happiness, founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman points out that we have two distinct ways of experiencing happiness in the present: pleasures and gratifications. Today, let’s look at pleasures.

Pleasures have sensory and emotional components like comfort, delight, ecstasy, excitement, and orgasm. Pleasures, however, tend to be short-lived, and many of them have negative consequences.

Pleasures are an enjoyable part of life, and Seligman doesn’t suggest eliminating these sources of transitory happiness. Instead, he offers ways to maximize our experience of them.

He offers three suggestions based on current research:

1) Avoiding Habituation of Pleasures

Did you ever find a cookie you loved so much that you couldn’t get enough? But eventually, you had enough and lost your interest in the cookie? Indulging in pleasures repeatedly and rapidly reduces the pleasure of the experience—something we’ve all had firsthand experience with. This process is called habituation, and it occurs with all sensorial pleasures.

Did you ever have a song you loved so much that you listened to it over and over again? How much pleasure does that song give you now? Seligman suggests taking a band you enjoy listening to and experimenting with listening more and less frequently. The goal is to discover the optimal time period that keeps the music the freshest and your enjoyment the highest.

Put into your life as many events that produce pleasures as you can, but increase the amount of time between these events than you usually do. Try to locate the optimal time lapse that keeps your pleasures from having diminishing returns.

2) Savoring Pleasure More Deeply

The more awareness we bring to a pleasurable event, the more pleasure we can experience. Savoring is the act of putting conscious attention to the experience of pleasure.

Seligman offers four kinds of savoring based on the work of Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff:

  1. Basking (receiving praise and congratulations)
  2. Thanksgiving (expressing gratitude for blessings)
  3. Marveling (losing the self in the wonder of the moment)
  4. Luxuriating (indulging the senses)

There are numerous ways to promote savoring, including sharing the experience with others, anchoring mental memories of the event, and, in the case of basking, allowing yourself to feel a sense of pride for the occurrence.

3) Becoming More Mindful of Pleasures

Much of human activity is performed without focus or attention. Living on automatic pilot, we fail to notice a great deal in our overall experience.

Bringing mindful attention to any act is a worthy experience. In the case of our pleasures, mindfulness can elevate these experiences to have almost transcendent qualities.

Eating a piece of chocolate while you’re focusing your eyes on your computer screen produces a certain class of experience. Eating it mindfully with your eyes closed and your full attention on the smell, texture, and sensations in your mouth and the experiences in your brain is an entirely different class of experience.

It is difficult to engage in mindful activities when we’re stressed and our minds are racing. A few slow, steady, quiet, deep breaths are helpful before you fully tune into the sensations of a pleasure.

In the next post, we’ll explore the other source of happiness in the present: gratifications.