This is one of an occasional series of articles about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a therapeutic approach that I often use in my practice. ACT involves six core concepts that make up the ACT Hexaflex: Acceptance, Cognitive Defusion, Being Present, Self as Context, Values and Commitment. This week’s blog unpacks the concept of Values.
Imagine you are in a small rowboat heading north across calm waters. Then, a storm comes that batters the boat, causes it to get turned around and veer off course. What do you do? You could try to use your entire energy to fight the much stronger storm. You could give up and allow the storm to take you wherever it likes. Or, you could find the direction you want to move in, adjust your rudder and travel through the storm, sometimes climbing high waves, getting wet and bruised, but still, heading north.
This is a metaphor commonly used by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) practitioners to explain ACT, and specifically how the concept of Values is a key component of this therapeutic approach.
Your values are like your inner compass. They guide the direction you want to go in life. They are not goals, with endpoints, but larger beliefs about who you want to be and what you want your life to be about. They are not something to be achieved but are constant and continuing, although they may evolve and change over time.
Values give life meaning and purpose. As the practitioner, I guide clients as they define and articulate their personal values. This helps them be more present and focused on what is truly important to them as they deal with painful thoughts feelings and experiences, and work on therapeutic goals.
In ACT, we ask the big questions: What is important to you? What do you want your life to be about? What do you care about? What inspires you? What kind of person do you want to be?
Numerous exercises can support this work. Often it includes encouraging the individual to develop values for different parts of their life, work, family, relationships, etc. They may be asked to review a list of common values and make decisions about which ones are meaningful to them, sort cards placing the values that are most important to them in a certain order, or they may be asked to write a eulogy for their funeral, imagining what they would want someone to say about their qualities as a person.
One of the challenges is in separating values from morals or ethics or other’s expectations. The process is not what should the person consider a good value to have, but what they truly find meaningful.
Using Values to Inspire Behavioral Change
With an established values framework, an individual can look at their current actions and behaviors and evaluate whether these are taking them in the direction they want to go. For example, using a substance may help them to self-medicate and cope with painful emotions in the short term, but where is it taking them in the long term? Will it allow them to achieve the goals – or going back to the metaphor – set the rudder for the boat to head north?
The final concept of ACT, Commitment, is about supporting clients as they commit to their values by developing goals and actions in keeping with these. Ultimately, in this way, the individual is not being asked to battle or overcome the “storms” in their lives. But, rather, find a way out of suffering by choosing to live their life based on what matters most.