Exploring Cardinal Values: Our Most Important Ideals In Life

Therapist Brian FordBy Brian Ford,

Marriage and Family Therapist

Sacramento, Ca

October 25, 2021

Exploring Cardinal Values: Our Most Important Ideals In Life


My goal as a therapist is to reaffirm the positive psychology perspective of mental health, i.e., that human beings are created with the innate potential for happiness and wellbeing. Furthermore, nature has designed us to instinctively move in the direction of health and healing throughout the course of our lives.

-John Brian Ford, LMFT

Cardinal values represent our most important ideals in life and explain why we feel strongly about some things and not others. The following is a segment from my video book, enlightenupyourday.com, which I co-author with my partner, Theresa Fluty. In Chapter Three of Enlighten Up Your Day you will find videos and a workbook to help you to explore your cardinal values. You will also learn how to recognize and modify the “should statements” that are connected to you values. I hope that you enjoy my article and will check out Enlighten Up Your Day.

As a therapist I have found it extremely helpful to include an exploration of a client’s Cardinal Values as part of the clinical assessment. Values are positive in nature and speak to the good in human beings. For this reason, I will often choose Cardinal Values as the focus of the second meeting. In particular, I have seen that linking the development of Cardinal Values to early childhood interactions with parents affords deeper insights into the formulation of the moral schema.

Cardinal Values represent our most important ideals in life and form a large part of our basic personality. Identifying our Cardinal Values helps us to understand why we feel strongly about some things and not others. For instance, if one of our Cardinal Values is fairness then we might react strongly to situations that we perceive as being unfair. We may also seek to impose our sense of fairness onto others using arguments and intimidation. But the thing to remember is that there is no such thing as a bad value. This is to say, values are good in and of themselves. We do, however, attach unconscious rules to our values. These rules are formed in childhood and stated in black and white terms such as: People should never be lazy, People should always tell the truth, or I must always be successful. By raising our unconscious rules into awareness we can modify them so that they are realistic and reasonable.

Cardinal Values Exercise

Defining your Cardinal Values is a process of deepening your understanding of what each of your values means to you, how it benefits you, where it came from, and what unconscious rules are attached to this value. In this exercise you’ll be answering each of these questions.

  1. Definition: This is how you define your value in your own words. Keep in mind that no two definitions are the same. They are as unique as fingerprints. You can expand on and modify your definitions as you continue to refer to them in subsequent chapters.
  2. Benefits: How does this value, as you understand it, benefit you personally? Be sure to include the emotional benefits when you answer this question.
  3. Origins: Our values are linked to early childhood experiences. Sometimes they are impressed upon us by authority figures in a good way. At other times they are a reaction to something we didn’t experience when we were growing up. People who grew up in chaotic emotional environments tend to choose values such as peace and stability. On the other hand, if, as a child, you were exposed to positive experiences such as camping and hiking you may choose nature as a Cardinal Value.
  4. Rules: The rules we develop in childhood are linked to our Cardinal Values. These rules are stated in black and white terms and make up what are known as “should” statements. For example: People should always be responsible.

About the author

Therapist Brian FordBrian Ford is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Over his career he was worked with a variety of people from different walks of life. His approach to therapy combines cognitive behavioral therapy with Buddhist psychology. Check out his site EnlightenUpYourDay.com

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