Values give us motivation, purpose, and direction. They are a foundational element of our overall wellness, but it’s all too easy to overlook or forget about them. Speaking for myself, I can think of many occasions when I became so preoccupied with what was not working out as I had planned and so intent on figuring out how I was going to fix it that I had lost sight of why I wanted something in the first place. In my experience, a useful framework for reconnecting with your values is ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). As the name suggests, this approach focuses on taking actions that resonate with your values. The core concept is that, even when both our outer situations and our inner sensations are not what we’d like, we can still move forward in alignment with the ideals that matter most to us.
A Brief Introduction to ACT
I first became introduced to ACT a number of years ago when I sought some professional help to work through a difficult season. During a counselling session one day, I complained that I was sick and tired of trying to get rid of negative emotions, that I thought positive thinking was a superficial response to painful situations, and that I didn’t even care if my life were “happy” anyways—what I really wanted was for it to be meaningful. I expected to be respectfully challenged for my rather adolescent expression of frustration, but instead my counsellor simply commented that I might be onto something and suggested that I do some reading on ACT.
As I discovered, ACT is a mindfulness branch of behavioural-based therapy. While it shares some things in common with CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), it differs from CBT’s emphasis on identifying and correcting thought errors. Instead, ACT begins with acknowledging that difficult events, thoughts, and emotions might always be present. From this place of acceptance, we can begin to recognize our thoughts and feelings for the fleeting things that they are. ACT promotes some tactics for loosening our grip on judgemental, hostile, or despairing thoughts (a process known as defusion), yet the main focus is on choosing to move forward in a valued direction.
I found myself attracted to this strengths-based approach to building psychological flexibility. I was immediately intrigued by its emphasis on values as a means of developing resilience. And, as I’ve returned to this approach over time, I’ve realized that the concept of values gets at some important things that the concepts of solutions and even goals do not.
Goals vs. Values
Goals and values are related concepts, but there are important distinctions. We might say that whereas a goal is a finished product (e.g. completing a degree program), a value is an ongoing process (e.g. cultivating intellectual curiosity). Values aren’t exactly things that we achieve; they’re more like things that we orient ourselves toward.
On first glance, values might seem like a vague, even impractical, notion. After all, they aren’t nearly as concrete as goals. Much of our current language around goals focuses on making these goals SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound). Such work can be very satisfying, and I do not mean to deny the importance of goal-setting. What I’m suggesting is simply that it’s equally important to keep an eye on our larger hopes and dreams—even and especially when our lives seem out of touch with these visions.
Values live at the deep places where our basic ideas about our identity and our relationships with others are formed. Rather like metaphors, they are dynamic, creative, and capable of awakening our inner potential. They’re something we can play with and aspire to.
When it comes to reassessing our personal qualities, interpersonal relationships, social life, or career, we can choose to focus on goals. We can ask ourselves “what do I want?” and strategize carefully about how we can reach these things. Or, we can choose to focus on values. We can ask ourselves “what do I care about?” and let ourselves be guided by our reflections on these ideals.
Goals have their time and place, and they are an important component of ACT. But if we’re faced with significant challenges that temporarily overwhelm our ability to cope, it can be quite powerful to take a step back and re-imagine our realities. Reconnecting with our values can help us turn breakdowns into breakthroughs.
Further Reading and Resources
- A useful tool for identifying your values can be taking a Personal Values Assessment.
- The first book I read on ACT was The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (2008). You can check out his blog here.
- The most recent book I read on ACT was A Liberated Mind by Steven Hayes (2019). You can check out his blog here.
Denae Dyck, PhD, English
Content Creator, SFS