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An ACT Perspective on Values

At Austin Mindfulness Center, we use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help individuals identify and achieve the quality of life they want. However, ACT therapists go beyond goal setting used in traditional behavioral interventions, to a deeper investigation of present moment awareness and the values that motivate a person’s goal selection. Helping individuals identify and choose their values is a key component of ACT therapy. ACT affirms that each person has a unique vision for his or her life that is waiting to be discovered. Whether or not you engage in ACT therapy, this post offers some methods to help you identify, choose, and implement your values and goals to form the life you envision for yourself.    

Is there a difference between values and goals? The difference between values and goals can be likened to a process versus an outcome, or a journey in a committed direction versus a destination. Values are described as the direction of an enduring pattern of behavior, while goals are concrete accomplishments or events that can be completed (Luoma, Hayes, & Walser, 2007). For example, you may study tirelessly to pass an exam for certification or licensure. Or you may spend your free time with your family. Achieving licensure and being with family are goals. Values are deeper. For every goal there are likely two underlying values. Values communicate WHY you want to become a licensed professional, or why you prioritize family relationships. They illuminate the unique image you have for your life and hold the energy of your hopes and dreams. Yet people commonly grow estranged from their values. We may grow distant from the meaning of our lives and abandon the direction of our most personal principles in order to do what others think they “should” or “must” do. Still, the decision to concede to other peoples’ standards to avoid guilt, shame, and to escape their negative judgments can lead to a numbing or deadening of experience. Talking about values can be upsetting as it forces us to contact the pain of a life not lived as intended. (Luoma, Hayes, & Walser, 2007) While an ACT therapist can be an invaluable guide to help you locate your values and the valued direction in your life, you can also use four key indicators to evaluate and implement a successful values exploration. The key to a productive values conversation is to be honest and focused on the here-and-now. In their ACT Skills-Training Manual for Therapists, (Luoma, Hayes, & Walser, 2007) suggest that vitality, choice, present orientation, and willing vulnerability are essential traits to performing a values exploration.  1) Vitality: Making contact with your values will elicit your interest and vitality. Signs that you have lost present connection with your values and slipped into the analytic mind include feelings of monotony or indifference. On the other hand, sitting in silence, engaging in a mindfulness exercise, considering the qualities of someone you admire, listening to a meaningful piece of music, or reading a poem can help you experientially contact your values.  2) Choice: Values are chosen qualities of action. Take a moment to think about the life direction you would choose freely rather than the path you would take to escape negative feelings and evaluation of others. Consider the following questions and your response in the present moment.  When was the last time you had dreams for your life? What do you want your life to be about?  What would you be doing if you were not busy avoiding guilt or other people’s judgment? 3) Present Oriented: While valued directions can help shape the future, present moment contact with your values is crucial. The practice of making intentional contact with your values counters our tendency to evade uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or situations for instant relief.  Mindfulness can keep us from ignoring the things we care about over the long run and instead, counter uncomfortable feelings as they arise.  Have you ever faced an uncomfortable situation in order to act according to your values? What value was behind your actions? Do you still hold that value today? 4) Willing Vulnerability: Reconnecting with long forgotten values and meaningful directions can be painful and may evoke tears and mixed emotions. However, the purpose of touching this pain, unlike avoidance, is to make a connection with the things and ideals that you cherish, even if it hurts for little while. While traditional behavior modification focuses on achieving targeted behaviors and outcomes, ACT therapy, especially through the core component of values work, invites us to engage in the process of living rather than achieving a specific outcome. With a focus on values and committed action, ACT clinicians facilitate a process that is empirically validated and theoretically sound (Pistorello, 2013).  While this article only provides a glimpse into some of the methods used to help people make contact with their values in the present moment, the techniques are easy to understand and use. Those who begin the process of values exploration with an ACT therapist will find that the concepts and skills they learn are easily transferred to their daily lives. However, your inner vitality and life vision is always with you, waiting to be illuminated. At Austin Mindfulness Center, we aim to shine light on your path and believe that we all need a little help some time to get back on our path or to turn in a brand new direction. Finding a new direction for your life that is based on your personal values is less a movement away from your old path than it is a movement towards something meaningful, fulfilling, and chosen by you. We can achieve a life beyond “musts” and “shoulds,” a life filled with vitality, passion, and commitment to our values. References: Luoma, J., B., Hayes S., C., & Walser, R., D. (2007). Learning ACT: An acceptance & commitment therapy skills-training manual for therapists. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Pistorello, J. (2013). Mindfulness & acceptance for counseling college students: Theory and practicalapplications for intervention, prevention & Outreach. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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