My clients come to me because they’re living out of alignment with what’s most important to them, the work they’re doing doesn’t reflect the life they long for, and they want to get clear about how to remedy this situation.

One of the first exercises I guide many of my clients through is clarifying their guiding principles.

What are guiding principles?

Your guiding principles are why you do what you’re doing, what is most important to you, the code of conduct to which you hold yourself. When the road gets rocky and you don’t know what to do, remembering your guiding principles can help you quiet the internal chatter, embody the person you’re called to be, and steer a straighter course in the direction you’re called to travel. You can trust that you’re doing your best and experience a sense of resolve to keep moving forward, even in the face of the unknown. 

Living in Alignment

One reason that so many people feel anxious nowadays is that they are not living in sync with their guiding principles. For example, the activist who says they value collaboration but has a hard time sharing responsibility, the working parent who says they value wellness but haven’t exercised for months, the person who says they’re committed to social change but doesn’t translate belief into action.

If a person says they’re committed to one thing but then does another, it creates incoherence. It creates confusion— both inside themselves and with other people— about who they truly are and what matters to them. 

We demonstrate our principles through our actions, not our words. We are always embodying one principle or another, and we often feel a tension between multiple, often competing principles. To return to a sense of ease, we must do our best to attend to our multiple principles over a span of time. For example, two of my guiding principles are “I prioritize my relationships” and “I show up to heal racism and transform systems.” I often feel a tension between these two and need to be mindful to attend to both throughout the course of my weeks. My body tells me when I’m neglecting my relationships because I’ve gotten so wrapped up in an organizing- or work-related project, and I need to make sure to step away from my work.

To Be Saturated All the Way Through

According to renowned storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the English word “self” stems from the Old Germanic word, “selb,” which originally meant “to be saturated all the way through.” When you are committed to living in accordance with your guiding principles, you feel as though you are fully yourself in all circumstances, like a vibrantly-colored piece of cloth, saturated all the way through. When you live by your principles, you feel like you can be fully yourself, no matter what you’re doing. 

When we live by our principles, they are not nice thoughts or something we think we should do, if only the circumstances were right. Rather, when we are truly committed to living by our principles, our principles become our identity. They become who we are in thought, word, and deed, down to the marrow of our bones. 

Do we mess up and veer off the path at times? Of course. But once we notice that we’ve gone astray, we make amends, learn our lessons, and get back on track.

Do we get scared when living by our guiding principles? Of course. When you’re committed to living in accordance with your principles, there are no guarantees. You act as if the future you long to be part of existed today. 

In the rest of this article, I’m going to guide you through a process of clarifying your guiding principles.

Step One: Ask yourself what you love and what life is asking of you. 

Grab a piece of paper and a pen, and get comfortable. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice your breath moving your belly and filling your lungs. Listen closely to the sensations of your body, and keep listening as you write your responses to the questions below: 

  • Who do you long to be or become in this next phase of my life?
  • What unmet longing have you denied or pushed away?
  • What do you know deep down that you need to do in this next phase of your life, even if you really don’t want to do it or don’t know how yet?
  • What do you fear most about this new phase? 
  • What is your current learning edge in my work and life (what I most have to learn that is scary and stretches me to become the person I’m called to become)?
  • If you were free from all fear and knew you could not fail: What would you do in service to life on earth? 
  • What does life intend to do with you at the next phase of your life? 
  • When truths are you called to embody?

Step Two: Highlight key phrases. 

When you’re complete, take a step back, look over what you wrote, and highlight words and phrases that especially resonate with you. 

As you read through what you wrote, I invite you to ask yourself: What is most important to me at this next phase of my life? What principles do I want to make sure I live by?

Also ask yourself: Which principles would challenge me to become the person I’m called to be in this next phase of my life? Which principles represent my learning edge? By learning edge, I mean principles that make your heart skip a beat, that you feel called to embody but uncertain about whether you’ll be able. Choose principles that would require you to challenge yourself.

Step Three: Make a shorter list.

Make a shorter list of phrases that reflect the principles that you want to live by now. Powerful guiding principles have the following characteristics. They:

  • May start with, “I am committed to…” or  “I am a commitment to…” or “I am…” or other words that inspire you to action. 
  • Focus on what you will do or be, not on what you won’t do.
  • Almost always feel a bit scary as they stretch you to move beyond your current boundaries.
  • Are short and easy to remember. You might even use a single word. 
  • May feel cliche or trite but speak to you. 

Step Four: Choose three to five principles. 

Write each of the phrases that most resonate with you on sticky notes and stick them on a wall. Then, take a step back and look at the words you wrote. Move them around, group similar words together, and get rid of words that are not absolutely critical. Finally, narrow down the list to three to five principles that resonate most.

If you don’t feel perfectly clear yet, that’s okay. Just choose the words that resonate the most right now. You can keep reflecting on your list, updating it as you feel called. 

Step Five: Write them where you’ll see them. 

Write your guiding principles on an index card or sticky note. Place it where you’ll see it, next to your bed or by your desk or in your wallet. When you see your principles, ask yourself: What step can I take to embody my principles now? When you consistently ask this question and take the steps that arise, you take baby step by baby step toward the life that’s aligned with what’s most important to you.

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Much love,


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