Ever had one of those moments that, afterward, you can’t let go of? Something about it bothers you beyond what seems reasonable?

I call that feeling internal dissonance. It has to do with your personal core values, and it’s an indicator that you shouldn’t ignore. I’ll tell you why… But first, a quick story about a case of internal dissonance that I had, about a year ago.

Predictability = Safety… When you’re paying attention.

I was riding my bike around downtown Portland when I rolled up to a stop sign and, of course, stopped. A car was approaching from the left, and though they had no stop sign, the driver also slowed to a stop right before the intersection.

This happens fairly frequently in Portland, and it bugs me. The drivers either don’t know that they don’t have to stop for bikes that are waiting at stop signs, or they think they’re being helpful by letting bikes cross even when they, the driver, have the right of way.

Or they’re just plain confused.

It bothers me for various reasons, but mostly because it makes it harder to be safe. Predictability is huge component of safety, and when drivers go against the usual right of way, that predictability is destroyed. And then there’s that awkward pause, that moment of trying to decide if that driver is actually staying stopped so that I can cross, or if there’s anyone else coming who I can’t see, now that there’s a car stopped in the middle of the road.

But, this driver unpredictably stopping for me, even though he had the right of way? That’s not what sparked the internal dissonance.

No, it was my reaction that did it.

I was tired. I let myself get impatient. So instead of looking around and checking to see if the path was clear for me to go, or if there was some other reason why that driver was stopping, I just yelled at him. I pointed to the stop sign, looked at the driver, and yelled ‘STOP SIGN!”

I guess I was trying to remind him that I had one, and he didn’t.

And that’s when the people crossing the street, 30 feet in front of that stopped car, yelled “WALKING!” right back at me.

The car wasn’t stopped for me at all. The driver had seen people waiting to cross at a street corner, and he stopped for them. Which, in Oregon, is what you’re supposed to do.

It’s the predictable action–if you’re paying attention.

I felt like such an idiot. And I had a really hard time letting go.

So I didn’t.

Instead of letting go, I harnessed that feeling and used it to help create positive change in how I interact with people on the road.

Turning discomfort into positive, permanent change.

How did I do that? Well. there’s a process, and it’s bigger than this one blog post. We’ll cover the rest in future posts, but the starting point is a critical piece of self-knowledge and intention setting that I’ll go over today: Core Values.

Internal dissonance is the discomfort you feel when your own actions go against your core values.

Maybe it was something you did, and got called out on.
Maybe it was something you didn’t do–even if no one noticed.

In order to figure out your internal dissonance, you need to have a solid handle on articulating your core values.


Automatic Reactions

So many of our decisions in life are reactionary. Sometimes, it’s an unconscious response to a conflict with your core values. Someone says or does something that you immediately feel in your gut is wrong. You don’t consciously think about it; the reaction is because of your core values.

I reacted to the driver because of a value for safety and predictability on the road.

Sometimes, your reaction is so immediate–programmed in by our culture, or a strong personal experience–that your core values don’t all fully come into the equation. You just act, in spite of yourself. In my case, I was so tired and so distracted by the day’s activities that my reaction was blown out of proportion, even though another core value of mine is compassion.

And that’s where the dissonance comes in.

After your reaction, your conscious mind has a chance to catch up and evaluate what happened, and you get whacked with the sudden realization that something you’ve said or done is in direct conflict with your idea of who you are.

It is an extremely uncomfortable feeling. It’s your mind and body working together to say “Hey! Change something!”

So what do you change?

There are two options: Change the programmed reaction, or change the core value that it goes against. You have to make one match the other.

And in order to do either one, you have to have to be clear on what your core values are.

Core values: More than an early warning sign.

Defining your core values isn’t just about understanding the discomfort of internal dissonance. It’s about understanding your self! The better you understand yourself, the more control you have over your actions, reactions, and ultimately, your destiny!

Understanding your core values is a critical part of having a feeling of purpose. When you know what you value, and you take actions toward supporting those core values, a deep part of you feels like all is right in the world.

Internalizing your core values helps making choices easier. It helps you to avoid bad choices, too! Internal dissonance lets you know when you’ve done something contrary to your values. Becoming more aware of the feeling of internal harmony, on the other hand, will help you to act in ways that support your core values.

In order to become aware of these feelings, you absolutely must have a solid, conscious understanding of your core values.

Defining your personal core values.

Write a list. Include anything and everything that you feel very strongly about.

A great way to start is to ask yourself these questions:
What would I never do, no matter how much someone paid me?
What would I do every day, even if no one ever knew about it?
What characteristics are deal-breakers for me in a relationship?
What do I look for in a friend?

Once you’ve got a nice long list, it’s time to whittle it down a bit.

First, remove any duplicates. Honesty and trustworthiness may be the same, to you. If so, pick one and cross the other off. If that’s not true for you, leave them both. If you aren’t sure, leave them both. This is a living list that you edit whenever you want, and clarity often comes with time and practice.

Now, take the remaining items on your list and ask yourself why they are there. What is the core value expressed by that statement? Sometimes this takes multiple passes to really narrow it down.


Much like onions, you have to peel back the layers of your personal core values… and try not to cry? OK, it’s not a great metaphor…

Ask yourself:
Why do I care about that?
Why is that important to me?

Keep asking and answering until you can’t go any deeper. You may be surprised by where you end up.

Say, for instance, you wrote down “I value doing things that are good for my body.”

Why do you care about your body? Maybe it’s because you value feeling healthy. On the other hand, maybe you value attractiveness (and there’s nothing wrong with valuing attractiveness, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of your other core values, or other people).

But either way, you can go deeper. Why do you value health or attractiveness?

Perhaps you value health because it gives you the energy and ability to contribute to the world. In that case, consider whether contribution is the real core value.

Maybe you decide that your value is being not sick. If you end up finding a value that against something like that, try flipping it around. Figure out what the value is for, rather than what it’s against. In this case, maybe you value comfort, which is why you want to avoid the physical discomfort of being unhealthy.

You may end up discovering that one item on your list reflects multiple values (e.g. comfort and contribution). Write them both down.

Go as deep as you can. Find the handful of values that really define you, at your core. If you really want to go deeper, try ranking them in order of importance.

Then revisit your list every so often.

Notice if things have changed.
Notice if you have developed more clarity around a particular value that had previously seemed a bit vague.
Notice if you discover a value that you’d accidentally left off, before.

Making it easier:

Articulating your core values is more complicated than it seems. It takes some pretty intense internal focus. That takes a lot of time, energy, and for some people, this kind of inward focus can become uncomfortable.

If that sounds like you,  you might be interested in an eBook  and worksheet that I’m putting together.  It’s full of tips on how to get relaxed and prepare your mind, what questions to ask yourself, how to really get at the deepest level of your core values, and even how to go about making changes in your core values, if you decide that you need to (It’s not as easy as just writing down a new value!).

Sign up for my newsletter and you’ll be among the first to know when this handy eBook gets published!



In order to create a life that is both sustainable and successful, you have to gain conscious control over your actions and reactions; you must become proactive. Internal dissonance is an indicator that will help you make that change. Recognizing it, and using it to improve yourself and your impact on the world, requires a deeper understanding of your core values than most people bother to practice.

Don’t skip this exercise!
Being clear about your core values is an essential part of moving toward sustainable success. It may seem simple, or obvious. That’s exactly why it’s so often overlooked. And Just like your core muscle groups have to be developed in order for other physical exercises to be effective, your core values have to be clear and intentional before any other step toward sustainable success can have a lasting impact.

Get started right now

If you have time to read this blog post, you have time time to get started. Write out your list of values right now–even if you don’t have time to fully evaluate them. Then set a recurring time on your calendar to revisit and evaluate your list.

Share one of your core values in the comments below, so we all know you’ve gotten started!

When you’re ready, move on to part 2!

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