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Navigating Values and Identity as a Woman

Let’s face it–we are living in a world of endless options, ambiguous versions of right and wrong, and wading through the waters of multiple truth perspectives. It is a lot. The concepts and ideas around the topics of values and identity have different connotations around them, which supports our ever-changing society. It is hard for any human nowadays to navigate the intricate inner world of identity, but it places women in a particularly unique set of circumstances. 

The pulls of culture, tradition, media, stereotypes, gender roles, and acts of embracing the modern world for women are put up against one another without consideration for how they have the ability to occupy the same space at once in a healthy way. Despite the complications and nuance, not all hope is lost. Opening up to or discovering our values alongside the process of identity formation can be a guiding light to self-love and empowerment.

Understanding Values 

Values represent the core beliefs that hold meaning in our lives. They shape many aspects of self, identity included. Our values are wrapped up in the reflection of everyday decisions we make, life choices, what we do and do not support, and actions we choose to take. 

Values can remain stable, but are also representative of life stages and roles that we are a part of. It is not uncommon for values to take the place of others and even shift over time. Think about it. A college freshman goes out of state for her first year of college. This big change might bring out higher values of achievement, as the content at the collegiate level is more advanced and more directly reflects her future; family connection, since they are farther away the limited quality time may mean that much more; and friendships, as she starts over and begins to form community in a brand new place. If she were to think back to high school, her values may have been different. Perhaps, a higher value was love since she was in a relationship senior year. She may still value love a great deal, but others come first since the relationship has ended.

Understanding Identity

Identity, on the other hand, functions as our perception of self, as well as how we present ourselves to the world. It is formed through factors like culture, environment, life experiences, and personal values. In addition, there are entire models dedicated to the stages of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity development. Much of the identity formation process occurs during adolescence and early adulthood, though it can still be challenged in later life. 

On the other side, women face additional difficulties when it comes to identity. We are trying to form a robust sense of self while filtering through gender stereotypes, body and beauty standards, and discrimination. If our identity, or parts of it, do not match up with what is deemed worthy and acceptable at large, we are othered. That alone can make it especially easy to present ourselves differently than how we really know ourselves. A woman may be expected to present as gentle and less skilled by coworkers in a male-dominated field. In reality, she may want to lean into competitiveness and challenge. 

With these pressures, it can be easy to confuse a societal expectation for a feature of identity. It is not always being put in a box that is the problem, but that we do not get to choose the box we are put in. Social media, movies and television, and magazines surround us with the potential to be influenced. Exceptions to rules being presented as normative, can lead to questioning if we are enough. Our identity and values may be informed by external influences, but are harbored inside with what we desire to present outwardly. 

The Art of Identifying Values

Uncovering what our values really starts from a place of self-reflection into what already guides our decisions and what we tend to rely on to guide us through life. From there, we can begin to put words to our values and consider those that play a larger role than others. A sample list of values is included at the bottom to start generating some thoughts. 

Often when distress enters our lives, it is connected to our top values looking different from what we are actively focusing on in life. The objects of our focus represent what is taking the most of our time, energy, or resources. Comparing the differences in these categories have the potential to shine light on the areas for growth.

Incorporating values into identity will look different depending on the highest ranked values and what the focus in life already looks like. It is a process of having our behaviors, perceptions, and descriptions of self better match one another. We can begin by asking “In what ways did I live out my values today or not?” Depending on the answers, more insight can be gathered into what may be posing a challenge. It could also start when noticing behaviors that are out of character. For example, a woman recognizes she has been secretive and lied to a friend after acknowledging that she views honesty as an essential value of hers. She may even feel conflicted toward the position she is in. In order to feel more balanced, she might consider what an honest response with her friend could look like.

Navigating Identity Change and Discomfort

It might seem like if we are increasing our self-awareness to inform our values and identity then meaningful change will directly happen in our lives. While we are more likely to see positive changes, it may not happen in the way we expect. Even changes we see as getting us closer to being in alignment, can produce pushback or tension from those in our circle. These seemingly positive changes may be perceived as challenging the norm and what has been familiar.

 Others may take it as a threat to the relationship or be concerned as to how it will affect their individual lives. The personal growth and discovery women go through may spark ideas for areas of growth in those relationships where pushback does become evident. What would it be like to ask, “What does my alignment in values and identity mean for this relationship?” Depending on the nature of the relationship, a period of time like this may be fraught with growing pains. A mother and adult daughter may experience discord in their relationship as the adult daughter relies less on her mother and expands her sense of independence. The mother may begin to feel unwanted and disconnected from her adult daughter.

Resisting Societal Pressures

As mentioned earlier, the pressures to conform are all around us. Sometimes  they can feel like they come with prizes, but often there is also a cost. We might temporarily feel a sense of popularity or something along the lines of being needed, but when that moment passes we are still among misalignment and a sense of identity that lacks the core of belonging. If this is coming up, it may be a place to check in with how values and identity expression are being of service. Values and identity rooted in societal pressures have the ability to push us closer to a form of relief and joy that is fleeting and farther from autonomy and differentiating ourselves. Unfortunately, disguised satisfaction only lasts so long. 

We cannot ignore the potential for resistance here either. In a perfect world, women would dig deep in their hearts to confront the norms and trends that do not represent them, relying instead on their true values and identity. In that same scenario, society would respond with understanding and acceptance. Sounds pretty nice. Unfortunately, it usually does not happen that way–all nice and neat wrapped in a bow. In fact, it may be really hard to go your own direction in some instances. That is not to say we cannot have balance. The integration of societal pressures on our values and identity can function as limits to our full capability and expression of traits. In some situations, it may be a compromise we are willing to make to the wellness of the bigger picture. Other times, it may be a point of curiosity into how we are capable of showing up beyond predetermined expectations.

Balancing Traditions and Individuality

It may feel comfortable or easy to live in the black and white. The majority of the alignment discussed earlier lies somewhere in the gray, where two (or more) truths have the capacity to happen at once. One important example of this exists within the consideration of what is traditional and what speaks to our uniqueness. We do not need to power the other off in order to thrive. Some aspects of self-development newly being discovered will bring uncharted territory. Elements of culture or heritage can provide a supportive sense of familiarity.

These two factors can be present and work in harmony when they are both honored. Respect and appreciation live where the messages of our cultural backgrounds provide the strengths to show up in our own identities. Part of our unique identities are the ways in which cultural tradition has impacted us, as it is an individualized experience. Much of this is dependent upon those aspects in which we choose or not choose to integrate, as relationship to cultural background varies.

Building a support network 

Another aspect to contemplate is having a safe space to step into this work. The process is one of a delicate nature that will likely involve some trial and error at one point or another. A space that is validating, receptive, and supportive is a gift to the process. It also has the potential to add an element of accountability as others hold space for the rough drafts of our value and identity formation that continuously propel us toward our revised editions. These spaces may include mentorship, individual or group therapy, support groups, loved ones, and religious leaders. With a supportive network, we gain perspectives beyond our own, feedback from trusted individuals, and a space to lean into genuine self-expression. 

Similar to this journey of values and identity, the formation of a supportive network is an investment of time and effort. While what has been discussed so far has pointed toward individuality and self-discovery, it is happening in the context of a search for belonging. This search is not one of conformity or sameness, but one of acceptance within ourselves and others. Maybe in doing so, we may too become a safe space for others who find themselves cultivating a path.

Conclusion

This may seem like a great deal of information and quite a lot to consider. In addition, it makes sense if it is hard to turn inward right now. Some starting lines may look different from those around us. A gentle step toward ourselves is one that empowers us to begin with sincere curiosity.

It is important to note that even though we may be actively utilizing and responding with the values held by our identity, it still remains a lifelong process. It is a marathon rather than a fast-acting sprint. Once we have insight and feel confident in knowing what our values are, we are still not shielded from changing our minds, acting against our values, and making mistakes. We will have more discernment as these situations inevitably appear. Nevertheless, we are worthy of having a space for self-exploration, choosing to present our most authentic and original selves, and claiming what most fits our lives. 

List of Values: 

*This is not an exhaustive list. Please feel free to incorporate your own that may not be listed below

  • Love
  • Family
  • Success
  • Loyalty
  • Honesty
  • Community
  • Courage
  • Friendship
  • Hope
  • Humility
  • Collaboration
  • Peace
  • Creativity
  • Spirituality
  • Justice
  • Reputation
  • Growth
  • Enjoyment
  • Trust
  • Wellness
  • Respect
  • Independence
  • Strength
  • Honor

Questions for further exploration:

  • How similar or different are the values from what is being focused on?
  • In what ways did I live out my values today or not?
  • What would my next action look like if it came from a place of (value)?
  • What does my alignment in values and identity mean for this relationship
  • How values and identity expression are serving me
  • Is my full capability being held back?
  • In what spaces do I feel most supported? Am I in need of extra support?
  • Can we be the safe space for someone else beginning this portion of their journey?
  • What is most likely to happen when you take one step with curiosity into where your values and identity currently lie?

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