In working with clients who have anxiety, I often ask them to think about what it is that they truly care about in their lives. This focus on values or “values-based living,” is one of several basic and important components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is, I would argue, the lynchpin of ACT, pronounced “act”, the one critical feature of ACT that allows all the other components of the therapy to work.
ACT provides tools to help people overcome their struggles with anxiety, depression, chronic pain and a host of other psychological issues. My chosen specialty is to work with those who suffer from anxiety. By focusing on values, people come to clarify what is and isn’t important to them. I often think of values as being like the rudder on a boat. Ideally, the rudder guides the direction of the boat just as one’s values should guide the decisions we make from the smallest to the largest decisions. Who controls the rudder? You do!
What do I mean by values--what really matters to you in your life. When it’s all said and done, what do you want your life to have been about? For most people (we are, after all, much more like one another than we think!), what they come up with is some combination of the general categories of relationships, career/professional goals, spirituality and health, physical and/or mental. Keep in mind that what we are after here is not writing down a series of goals, like “going to the Taj Mahal,” which can be completed and checked off the list. No, values, as I am using the term here, are more like directions you move toward, with (hopefully) many goals complete along the way. Each goal is important because it is moving you in the direction you want your life to go in. Make sense?
If you were to make a pie chart, how much “space” would you allocate to each of your different categories? If you then look at your life as you have been living it, do the two match up? Is what you spend most of your time involved in related to what the largest part of you pie chart says you care about? If not, maybe its time to rethink what you are really moving toward in your life. Every moment is like that proverbial “Y” in the road--it is a choice point. Will you choose to take some time to think about whether you are really living the kind of life you want? That being done, what are you willing to do to get there? What gets in the way of you doing those things?
Here’s where things get really interesting--are you moving toward those goals or really away from them? Do the things you would have to do to “get there” seem daunting, if not impossible? Are you not doing these things because of mental obstacles, like fear or anxiety? Sometimes, we aren’t able to tolerate how we feel as we begin to take new risks so we end up not moving toward what we care about but away from what we fear. If that is you, I’d ask you to really consider the cost over time of such accommodations. Are you spending more time moving away from uncomfortable feelings or toward that you really care about? Remember, every moment is a choice point!