An essay looking at how values are developed in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)
AN ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy)
PERSPECTIVE ON VALUES
In many respects, our lives are grounded in values. The list is long, but includes concepts such as: compassion, competence, creativity, curiosity, fairness, friendship, fun, happiness, honesty, hope, integrity, justice, kindness, loyalty, optimism, respect, trustworthiness and wisdom. This is, of course, by no means an exhaustive list, and people have different interpretations of what constitutes a “value”.
A major problem with lists such as this is that these concepts are almost all very abstract. In practice, this means it is almost impossible to attach any generally accepted meaning to any of them. Politicians and social commentators (usually from the right of the political spectrum) are fond of talking about “traditional Australian (or American) family values”, as if everyone will immediately understand what they mean. Often enough they have in mind a father and mother, both employed, the father full-time and the mother with a casual job that adds to the family income. There are 2.3 children and a dog, and they live happily in a detached suburban house with a white picket fence (in the USA, on a quarter acre block in Australia). The truth is that today, any such idea of the family is limited and becoming less relevant.
So, in order to explore a more objective sense of what values mean, ACT takes a different approach.
WHAT ARE VALUES?
Values have been defined in ACT as verbally constructed, global, desired, and chosen life directions. The metaphor of a direction is a way of speaking about the deliberate focus potentially embodied in every conscious act.
Valuing does not exist separate from human action; it is a continuous quality of what we do. Values are embraced as qualities of ongoing action across time. To relate to others lovingly is a value. To raise one's children kindly and attentively is a value.
To some degree, we engage in an act of valuing each time we do something that is purposive or instrumental. We value various qualities of outcomes; we value ways of living; we value ideals; we value what kind of friend, lover, partner, parent, child, worker we are. These implicit, focused qualities of any instrumental act are elevated to a value by the action of choosing that very quality.
In one sense of the term, values must be a free choice, rather than a reasoned judgment, because values provide the meaning of aspects of our lives. If you try to justify a value, you must appeal to some other meaning; but then this meaning needs to be justified, and so on forever.
If any action is to be taken, at some point you need to just take a stand and say, "I hold this to be important." Verbal reasons still may be present in the form of thoughts and opinions about "why I choose this," but the action is not defended by these reasons (or else you are back into the justification loop).
Ultimately, a vital, committed life means choosing and then living, with reasons coming along for the ride.
This does not mean values choices are not deeply considered; in fact, they need to be very deeply considered. Scientifically speaking, it also does not mean values choices have nothing to do with our history or context. Choices are historically and currently situated, as is any human action, but they are not specifically linked to and defended by verbal rules in the form of reasons and justifications.
WHAT ARE MY VALUES?
To figure out what your values are, you'll need to think about areas of your life that are deeply important to you. These are the things that make your life worth living, that you want to cherish and nurture, and that you'd act to defend when necessary. These are the very things that you might look back on at the end of your life and say-if you took good care of them-"There was a life lived well." What you value and consider important may not be exactly what others value and consider important. This is fine and to be expected.
Values tend to fall within several core areas or domains: family, intimate relationships, friends, work, education, leisure, spirituality, citizenship, and health. Although we list them separately, most domains overlap. For example, the value of health can lead you to join a yoga group or sports club. Doing this can in turn lead to meeting new people and being a good friend to people in your life (another value), and being around long enough to be a good parent to your children and grandparent to your grandchildren (another value).
If values are at the core of the life you want to lead, then anything that gets in the way of your values is a problem.
Values Are Like a Road Map
Values serve as a map that guides the direction you want to move in. Without values, you are directionless. Anything that hides your values from view can keep you stuck, not knowing where to go. You can end up spinning your wheels through life, feeling like you're getting nowhere fast.
We want to help you stop spinning and get moving in directions that are important to you. Values are the compass that will help guide you away from negative behaviour and back into your life. This is the real prize and why it is important for you to reconnect with your values. When you start connecting with what matters in your life, you will want more of your life to focus on that. Once those value-guided directions are clearer to you, you can begin to focus your efforts on moving in those directions.
Values Help You Stay Focused
Working toward living consistently with what you value will also motivate you to keep up with the exercises in this book. As you start spending more of your time living consistently with what you value, your life and everything you want to be about will come into focus.
People who have problems with anger often have quite a lot of energy. This energy is a gift. In fact, you can think of your energy as being like a hammer. You can use a hammer to destroy things or to build things. You can likewise focus your energy constructively or destructively in your life, whether that means getting even or being a loving partner, a good friend, an athlete, or whatever else you desire. As you explore your valued directions keep thinking
Values Give You an Alternative to Destructive Behaviour
Values serve as a benchmark to evaluate which actions are useful and which aren't. Values guide you toward actions that exemplify what you want your life to be about. You will learn a response to negative feelings that involves stopping, observing, and then considering your values along these lines: "Acting on this feeling will probably conflict with one of my values. It may hurt someone I love. It might affect my status at work." You will know what to do and what not to do by answering the following question: "Does this action move me closer to or further away from my values?" Values are not a distraction from any form of behaviour. Instead, they help you decide what matters more: getting even or living a life you value.
You're at a critical choice point in your life. You can choose to live it in a way that upholds your deepest and most cherished desires, or you can choose the same old way of life ruled by your negative thoughts and feelings. It's up to you.
Is It A Goal Or A Value?
It's easy to confuse goals with values. Goals are actions you can put on a list, complete, and then check off. Once you reach a goal, the work is done, and you're finished. Taking out the garbage is a goal you can check off, as are other goals such as losing ten kilograms, taking a vacation, getting a degree, or mowing the lawn. Even the act of getting married fits our definition of a goal. Once that ring is on your finger, your goal is achieved. So, you can tell if something is a goal by whether you can do it and then get it off your plate.
Unlike goals, values are lifelong journeys. You can't answer the question "Am I done yet?" with values. Values have no end point: Instead, they direct us throughout life. For example, reaching a particular goal (getting married) is just one of many steps in a valued direction (being a loving partner). The value of being a loving, devoted partner is not complete the moment you say, "I do." Being a loving, devoted partner is something you must constantly keep on working toward, and there is always room for growth. Likewise, reaching your goal of spending two hours of quality time with your child every weekend does not complete the value of being a good parent. Values such as being a loving person or a good parent are ongoing commitments and actions you cannot finish while you're alive.
Although values and goals are not the same, they are related. Just think of one or two goals you have set for yourself. Be open to the seemingly mundane here too, like taking out the garbage to please your wife. To determine the value that underlies the goal, you can simply ask yourself, "Why am I doing this?" "What am I trying to accomplish in my life with this goal?" "Where am I heading with this?" Answers to these questions will point you in the direction of your values. You may find the simple act of taking out the garbage reflects a value of helping, being part of a family, or being a supportive spouse.
Sometimes we hear people say, "I want to be calmer," or "It's important for me to be happy." Both statements sound like values, but they are really goals. Being calmer and happier are emotional goals. Essentially, they are an outcome, a result that may or may not happen after you start moving toward your values. Remember, values are a direction that must be lived out again and again by actions, large and small, each and every day. In a nutshell, values are the cumulative effect of what you spend your time doing, not what you think and feel about what you're doing.
Valuing Involves Action, Not Feeling
Many people assume that valuing is how they feel about a particular area in their lives. This is a potential trap. There are many actions you take in life regardless of how you may feel at the time. You probably go to work in the morning regardless of whether you feel irritated, sad, anxious, or happy. Or you may have paid a visit to Aunt Edith even if you don't like her much. So, if, for example, you feel angry at someone you love, you can still reach out to them and give them a hug or a gift even though inside you feel resentful. This is why we stress that valuing is all about action. You actually value with your hands, feet, and words. If you say you value your career, then you should be doing just that: working to build your career. If you don't work to build your career, then you don't value it, regardless of how you feel about it.
DEFINING YOUR VALUES
In order to use your values as a compass for the road ahead, we first need to spend some time defining what your individual values are. This is the hard part for some of us.
Knowing specifically how we'd like our life to look if we had a choice is a daunting task for even the most aware person. One exercise that is sometimes helpful is one called the funeral exercise. In this exercise, you are asked to imagine that you are at your own funeral. Imagine that you can see all the people there and everything that is going on, but nobody can see you. Now, instead of imagining what everybody would say about you in this situation, we want you to imagine what you would most want everybody to be saying. Dream really big here; try not to let the "realities" of the situation restrict you.
For example, first think about your husband, wife, or partner. If you don't have a partner but you want one, imagine the type of partner you would like to have. What would you want them, whether or not they currently exist, to say about you regarding what type of partner you were? Write down what you would wish for them to say (remember, this is what you would like them to say, not necessarily what they would say right now).
Now think about your family. Among your family members (mom, dad, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews, sons, daughters), who would you like to speak at your funeral? What would you want each of them to say about what type of daughter/son/sister/brother/niece/nephew/grandchild/cousin/ aunt/uncle/mom/dad you were? Write that down.
Note: Some of the people in these relationships may have passed away already, and thinking about what you wished you were in those relationships may feel uncomfortable or sad. While nothing can go back and change what characterized those relationships, noticing these feelings can be very helpful in determining what is most important to you in your existing relationships, which is why we're doing this exercise.
Next, think about your friendships. What type of friendships do you currently have? What kind of friendships do you wish you had? Do you like having many friends with whom you are social, or do you prefer to have a few close friends with whom you can share your inner experiences? Imagine who among your friends you would want to stand up and speak about what kind of friend you were. If you don't have a friend close enough that you can imagine them doing that, imagine what type of person you would like to stand up as your friend. What would you like them to say about what kind of friend you were? Write down what you would want them to say about you.
Now imagine a representative from your work, or where you spend your time during the day who would say something about what kind of an employee/boss/worker you were. Would you want them to say that you were conscientious, or relaxed and spontaneous, or driven and ambitious? Maybe you would want them to say all of these or none of these. How would you most want to be remembered for how you were as an employee/boss/worker? Write down what you would most want them to say.
And what would you want them to say about how you were with the people you worked with? Would you want them to say that you were always focused on the work at hand or that you were a fun coworker? Remember that this is not what they would necessarily say now, but what you would most wish for them to say about you if you could choose. Again, write their statements as you would want them to be.
Now imagine somebody standing up to talk about what kind of learner you were. What would you most like for them to say about how you learned and what you did regarding education and growth during your lifetime? Maybe you are currently a student. Would you want them to- say that you were always learning, taking classes, and trying to expand your knowledge? Would you want them to say that your learning was more real-world, and that you found your experiences to be more valuable than what you could learn in a classroom? What adjectives would you want them to use, if you could choose them, about what type of learner you were?
Now imagine somebody from your community rising to say something about what kind of citizen you were. What would you want them to say? Would you want them to say that you were a respectful neighbor who minded their own business or that you were very involved in your community? Would you want them to say that you gave your time to causes that were important to you, and if so, which ones? Would you want them to say that you were involved in the political structure of your community, state, country, or world in order to bring about changes you believed in, or that you tried to make a difference in less political avenues? Write what you would want them to say about your citizenship.
If it applies, picture somebody who represents your faith or spiritual beliefs standing up to speak about your spirituality or religion. What would you want them to say? Maybe you would choose for them to say that you were a very religiously connected person who had a deep faith in God or their church structure. Maybe it would feel more consistent for them to say that you were connected to the earth or to your own spirituality in a way that was separate from organized religion. Check with your own spiritual values and write what you would choose for this type of representative to say about you, if anything.
Finally, select a representative from your life to stand up and say what you would most want them to say about how you took care of your health. Would you wish for them to say that you were conscientious about your health and took good care of yourself always? Would you want them to say that you had a relaxed attitude about your health and that you always lived your life to the fullest, even if it was not always the healthiest? Keep in mind, this is not necessarily what somebody would say about how you take care of yourself now, but what you would choose for them to say if everything in your life was going exactly how you wanted it to.
Now that you have written down what you would want somebody to say about you in each of these domains, let's take some time to distill out a list of your values. Take a minute and look at what you would want people to say about you in each of the domains above. The information here is important, because your values for each of these domains are within what you have written. For instance, if you wrote that you wanted your closest friend to stand up and say that you were a thoughtful, caring, and loyal friend who was always fun to be around and who could be trusted with a secret, it means that you value being a thoughtful, caring; loyal, fun, and trustworthy friend. For each of the areas discussed above, look at what you wrote down, and generate one or two sentences describing your values for each area, just as we did with the friendship example. Don't forget that these statements should reflect your values, not what you think you should value or what other people think you should value.
The Appendix provides a detailed exercise in the form of a questionnaire for you to consider, which will help you to explore useful directions for you to take in establishing your own values. This is a particularly challenging exercise, and one that requires a high degree of self-honesty. At the same time, it can be very rewarding and potentially life changing. If you make it so.
We identify many values as being important in our lives, but putting them into practice can be challenging. Within ACT, values are seen differently, as being ongoing directions for our lives which can, effectively, operationalize .those values. This is not a “once off and it’s done” process, but an ongoing practice to resolve the directions we need to take to create a rich, full and meaningful life. And remember that values need to be action based. We cannot achieve a valued life by simply thinking and feeling. It just does not work that way..
In this context, I strongly suggest you obtain a copy of “The Happiness Trap” by Dr Russ Harris https://www.thehappinesstrap.com/ . This outstanding self-help book covers ACT values in detail and a whole lot more of excellent material besides.
THE LIFE VALUES QUESTIONNAIRE
The following questions cover in some detail the various domains within which we look at values. This is a detailed and quite demanding process as it looks in detail at many aspects of your life, and asks penetrating questions about your behaviour in these domains. But it is ultimately well worthwhile as a guide to the directions that you can take towards achieving a full, rich and meaningful life. In each case, the questions focus on what is in your control and how you behave in that particular context.
Values Domain No.1: Family
1. What sort of brother/sister, son/daughter, father/mother or other relative) do you want to be?
2. What personal qualities would you like to bring to these relationships?
3. How would you treat others if you were the “ideal you” in these relationships?
4. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with your relatives?
5. What sort of relationships do you want to build?
Notice that these questions are all about you, how you would like to be and what you would like to contribute to these relationships. Why? Because the only aspect of a relationship you have control over is the way you behave. You have no control over what the other person thinks, feels or behaves. Sure, you can influence them, but you can’t control them. And what’s the best way to influence them? With your actions, of course! And those actions will be most effective when they’re aligned with your values.
For example, if a relative is treating you poorly, you have every right to request that they change their behaviour. But they are far more likely to go along with your request if you are being the “ideal you”; loving, supportive, accepting, caring and helpful. If you’re all caught up in anger, bitterness or resentment, don’t expect much of a positive response from the other person.
On the same note, if you’re being true to your values, and yet your relative continues to treat you poorly, then it makes sense to spend less time with them. After all, you have values about looking after your own health and wellbeing – and that need to be considered too. It may even be the case that you need to stop seeing this relative altogether if they’re continually hostile or abusive. Remember, being helpful, loving and supportive doesn’t mean that you need to subject yourself to abuse. However, it is important to consider the last of the questions above, because even if your relationships have been bad in the past, you can start building better ones right now.
Now that you have written down what you would want somebody to say about you in each of these domains, let's take some time to distill out a list of your values. Take a minute and look at what you would want people to say about you in each of the domains above. The information here is important, because your values for each of these domains are within what you have written. For instance, if you wrote that you wanted your closest friend to stand up and say that you were a thoughtful, caring, and loyal friend who was always fun to be around and who could be trusted with a secret, it means that you value being a thoughtful, caring; loyal, fun, and trustworthy friend.
For each of the areas discussed above, look at what you wrote down, and generate one or two sentences describing your values for each area, just as we did with the friendship example. Don't forget that these statements should reflect your values, not what you think you should value or what other people think you should value.
Values Domain No.2: Marriage & Other Intimate Relationships
1. What sort of a partner would you like to be in an intimate relationship?
2. What personal qualities would you like to develop within the relationship?
3. How would you treat your partner if you were the “ideal you” in this relationship?
4. What sort of relationship do you want to build?
5. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with your partner?
You’ll notice that these are virtually identical to the first set of questions. Again, they’re all about how you want to be, not about how you want your partner to behave. Why? Because in any relationship you only have control over one person, and that’s you. How your partner behaves is up to your partner. Of course, it is in your control to request changes from your partner and to set boundaries on what you will and what you won’t accept. And this will be far more effective if you’re behaving as an “ideal you”. These same principles apply to all the relationships you have with friends, family, colleagues, employees and anyone you’ll ever meet. Remember the golden rule: treat others as you’d like them to treat you.
Sometimes, people make a long list of qualities they’re looking for in a partner. But in describing the sort of partner you want, you’re describing a goal. To get values in this domain, you need to ask, “If I did find the partner I want, how would I like to be in that relationship? What personal qualities would I like to bring to it?”
Values Domain No.3: Friendships
1. What does it mean to you to be a good friend?
2. If you could be the “ideal you”, how would you behave towards your friends?
3. What personal qualities would you like to bring to these friendships?
4. What sort of friendships do you want to build?
5. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with your friends?
Once again, these questions focus on what’s in your control, how you behave as a friend. It can be useful to list the sort of friends you’d like. You can then set yourself a goal to go out and meet people like that. But to clarify your values on friendship, you need to ask yourself, “What sort of a friend would I like to be?”
Values Domain No.4: Employment
1. What sort of worker or employee would you like to be?
2. What personal qualities would you like to bring to the workplace?
3. How would you treat your co-workers/colleagues/employees as the “ideal you”, in the workplace?
4. What sort of relationship do you want to build with co workers/colleagues/employees?
5. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do with co-workers/colleagues/employees?
6. What would make your work more meaningful (regardless of whether you like it)?
Sometimes, people write a long description of the ideal job they want. But in describing your ideal job, you’re describing a goal. To get to your values around work, you need to ask, “If I did have the job I want, how would I behave differently when I’m at work? What personal qualities would I like to bring to it?” Naturally, if you don’t like your current job, it makes sense to start retraining or looking around for more meaningful or satisfying work.
So if you set out the sort of work you’d ideally like, you can then set yourself a goal to go out and find it. In the meantime, you can make the most of whatever job you are in by bringing your values to the workplace.
Values Domain No.5: Education & Personal Development
1. What do you value about learning, education or training?
2. What new skills or knowledge would you like to gain?
3. What further education or training appeals to you?
4. What sort of a student/trainee would you like to be?
5. What personal qualities would you like to bring to your studies or training?
6. What sort of relationship do you want to build with other students/trainees?
Values Domain No.6: Recreation, Fun & Leisure
1. What sort of hobbies, sports or leisure activities do you want to participate in?
2. On an ongoing basis, how do you wish to relax and unwind?
3. On an ongoing basis, how do you wish to have fun?
4. How do you wish to be creative?
5. What sorts of new activities would you like to try?
6. What old activities would you like to take up again or do more of?
Values Domain No.7: Spirituality
1. What is important to you in this area of life?
2. What spiritual activities would you like to do on an ongoing basis?
Values Domain No.8: Community Life
1. How would you like to contribute to your community (for instance, through volunteering, recycling or helping an elderly neighbour?)
2. What interest groups, charities or political parties would you like to support or become actively involved in?
Values Domain No.9: Environment & Nature
1. What aspects of nature would you like to connect with?
2. What environments would you like to spend more time in ?
3. How would you like to care for, change or contribute to the variety of environments around you – in nature, at work and at home?
4. What activities would you like to do that get you out into nature?
5. What old activities would you like to do that alter your environment at home or at work in creative, helpful or pleasing ways?
Values Domain No.10: Health & Body
1. How would you like to care for your body?
2. What sort of physical health do you want to build?
3. What sort of ongoing activities do you want to do in terms of connecting with and taking care of your body?
4. How do you want to look after your health in terms of sleep, diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol?