In recent conversations I have been struck by the number of times people have referred to the opinions of others as a guide to what their own behaviour should be. For example, ‘I don’t want to ask that, others will think…’, ‘If others are eating/not eating that then I will/won’t’ or ‘I don’t want others to think I am lazy/vain/stupid’ and so on. Social media plays on our inherent tendency for ‘social referencing’ to excess. Think of the pouting profile pictures, the ice bucket challenge, the ‘like’ functions on Facebook and so on. These make everything we say or do, subject to open scrutiny by others.

Reflections on values based living

I am minded of the concept of internal versus external referencing, and how this [over?] valuing of others opinions about us drives our behaviour. Should we concern ourselves with what others judge us for, or what we judge ourselves on? This leads me to my point, are we being honest to ourselves about what matters most to us and which is more important?

When Seligman researched his character strengths he identified 6 common virtues and 24 character strengths, which endure across culture, race, religion and gender. Our individual values often align to aspects of these, which in turn drive our behaviour – or do they? Are we living our own values, or those we feel others want us to live? Is it important to be seen to be living our own values in today’s society, or living socially endorsed values?

Behaviour and generosity

I can remember growing up in an era where my behaviour was controlled with threats such as ‘if you are naughty the policeman/teacher will tell you off’, ‘nice girls don’t do/wear that’ and the classic… ‘what will the neighbours think?’. The external referencing was instilled at a young and tender age and the voice still nags in my head and catches me unawares (making me judge not only myself but others too). In today’s world it is reinforced through the media and social media in a similar way.

Consider how much charitable giving involves visible, over the top, displays of ‘generosity’ think Children in need, charity gala’s and so on. Whilst these all have a place and are great sources of funding for deserving causes, I wonder how much we all give in less visible ways when others cannot see our contributions. Do we give because this cause is meaningful to us, or because we want to be part of this particular social movement, this ‘charitable we’. Whilst I imagine there are now shouts of ‘does it matter as long as charities get the money’, I would agree that for the charities it doesn’t matter. My point is, without internal values, what will keep us giving when the gala ends, when the Facebook post slips down the list?

Our values as a reminder

It is our values that keep reminding us that more needs to be done. In an externally referenced world we are in danger of ignoring our internal drivers and waiting for the next external prompt before we act again. Furthermore, how we then act and what we act on is based on what the accepted visible social norm is.

Let’s take another example, overeating. If our drivers are based around what others think of us then we may overeat when our friends are urging ‘go on, one won’t hurt’, or ‘it’s a celebration so you must try this cake’. Do these examples ring a bell? In the interest of ‘fitting in’ and ‘not being judged’ we scupper our own inner desire to be more healthy. However, if our drivers are based around our own values such as desire to be healthy, perhaps so we can be there for our family, or contribute more to society (rather than be a drain on it), then skipping the cake may seem a small price to pay.

In other words, our values keep us on track and urge us to keep moving forward, even when others are not around to cast a judgemental eye upon us. Our values lead us to regulate ourselves and will have different nuances for each of us. Whilst social participation and belonging is a natural and valuable human desire, self-awareness and self-regulation are also important.

Perhaps we should be helping children to identify and recognise their own value based decisions and put the external referencing in context; as a secondary consideration, rather than a primary one for driving behaviour.

About the author: Una McGarvie lives in London UK, with her three (20 something) offspring, two cats, shelves of books and a cupboard full of jigsaws. She is the founder of MindSightUK providing management and leadership coaching and development to public and private sector organisations. She is also a contributing author to ‘The effective Change Manager’s Handbook’.


‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

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