Sources of Our Values
Some values are ‘hard-wired’ into our brains, like experiencing hunger and pain as bad, and happiness as good.
Many of our values are shaped by culture. For example, the belief that it’s good to make lots of money, or that it’s bad for men to express fear or sadness.
Some values are viewed by just about everyone as absolutely true, no matter what anyone says or what culture people happen to live in (i.e., part of ‘God’s law’ or the nature of life). For example, that parents should feed their children and protect them from injury, or that people should not kill others for entertainment.
We experience such values as commanding our respect and submission – or the opposite, as pushed on us against our wills (by other people and institutions including families, peer groups, religions, and authorities of various kinds).
Our moral values are about who we are, not just about what we do. They are fundamental frameworks for judging what kind of people we are. Are we good or bad men? Good or bad sons, fathers, husbands, students, workers?
- What are your most important values, especially about the kind of person you want to be?
- What does it mean to you to be a ‘good man’?
- What other roles and responsibilities are most important to you? How do you think you should be living up to them?
We cannot help but judge ourselves in terms of our moral values: How close or far we are from being what we see as good? Are we are moving closer to or further away from good ways to be?
- How judgmental have you been toward yourself about ways you haven’t lived up to your values?
- Do you view unwanted or abusive childhood experiences as evidence of ‘failure’ on your part – to be a good person, a good male, a good son, a good ________?
- Do you think the effects of past negative experiences have prevented you from being the kind of person you want to be?
It’s not that we’re always sitting around pondering such questions, or should be. But we certainly feel better about ourselves when our actions fit with our values, and worse about ourselves when faced with evidence that we’re falling short on values that matter to us.
These judgments are so automatic we often don’t even notice them. But they are always there.
Setting aside some time to reflect on our moral judgments of ourselves can be helpful, especially if you’re ‘beating up on yourself’ in ways that make you feel terrible and prevent you from living up to to your values.
We’re all complex individuals. Some of the things we really like and want – that is, things we strongly value – conflict with other values that we hold dear.
As unique people who grew up in complex social situations, we’ve absorbed conflicting values from family, religion, friends, television, etc. So we can’t escape conflicting moral values and ideals, especially when we’re young, trying to sort it all out and find the right ways to be.
There are lots of reasons we have conflicting values:
- How do the values of your parents conflict with those of your friends?
- Are there ways of being that you learned were ‘good’ for ‘being a man’ and getting through unwanted or abusive childhood experiences (like walling yourself off from vulnerable feelings), but have led to failures at being a good friend, lover, or father?
- Do you find yourself flipping back and forth between different sets of values, both in your behavior and in your judgments of yourself, in ways that prevent you from ‘getting your life together’?
Also, we all have unique genes and brains, which means that some values will fit with our personalities and others will clash. Someone with a ‘fiery’ personality is more likely to anger easily and, when threatened, not to live up to other important values like being patient and kind to others. Or someone struggling with depression that’s temporarily altered his brain functioning may have trouble living up to his values of working hard or being a dedicated and dependable friend.
Another example: If you have a highly extraverted personality, and by nature place a very high value on being seen positively by your friends, then you’ll be much more likely to embrace their values – even when they conflict with values you deeply respect from family, religion, or respected role models.
And another: Reflect for a moment on a ‘bad habit’ or addiction that you have. If you’re not just doing it to avoid withdrawal symptoms, then you really value the experience of engaging in that habit or addictive behavior. On the other hand, you feel ashamed and guilty because the addiction conflicts with other values that you have, and because it conflicts with the value you place on being in control of yourself and free to decide what you do.
Finally, as Dr. Richard Gartner explains in Beyond Betrayal (chapter 2), we all have three images of manhood that make conflicting demands on us, thanks to conflicting values. And these conflicts can cause lots of problems for men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood:
- The man you know you are
- The man you want to be
- The man the world expects you to be
Not Mere ‘Philosophical’ Concerns
They go to the heart of who you are. They go to the heart of how you can move beyond the effects of unwanted or abusive childhood experiences to live a life that you’ll feel happy and proud to lead.
But these aren’t easy things to sort out, either. It can be a big challenge to sort through your conflicting values, how they have been shaped by positive and negative experiences in your life, and how to prioritize your values and live up to the highest ones, so you can become the person you want to be.
For some men with histories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood, this will take some time, and some help from others, sometimes including ‘professionals’ (like therapists). For those of you who could benefit from such help, hopefully beliefs about how seeking it conflicts with some values (like being a ‘strong man,’ not needing to ‘depend on others’) will not get in your way.