Sometimes our lives can become so full of the myriad items to manage and tend to that we lose track of what is most meaningful. Rarely do we afford ourselves the time to stop and ask, “How do I really want to be spending my time? What is it that I value?” The end-result of this way of functioning tends to resemble, at best, a life that feels like we are just going through the motions, and at worst, an existence which feels devoid of purpose and meaning. It’s not hard to conceptualize some of the difficult feelings that might arise alongside these acknowledgements–depression and anxiety, just to name a couple.
At our clinic, Gateway Psychiatric, we’ve accustomed ourselves to helping our clients reconfigure where they’re investing precious time and energy by using a values assessment tool from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). The results have been so intriguing that we wanted to take a moment to share them with our readers on Moodsurfing.
ACT is an Evidence-Based Practice (EBP), created by Steven Hayes, and is essentially a form of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which elicits behavioral change through a combination of acceptance strategies and mindfulness practices with the ultimate goal of creating “psychological flexibility”. If you’re curious, you can look into some other posts on this form of therapy here.
While ACT’s value assessment tool is relatively simple in its form, its applications are endless because each individual’s life circumstances and meaning-making processes are unique. First, a little about how it works:
We first ask clients to organize a list of 9 “life-domains” in order of how they are currently allocating their time and energy. This part of the process alone can yield some eye-opening results. One of the most common examples could be finding that employment is at the top of the list, with family or intimate (romantic) relationships closer to the bottom. The next step involves asking clients to order the same 9 categories in terms of the ideal way they would like to spend their time and energy– in other words, their unique version of a ‘life-well-lived’.
Immediately, discrepancies between the two lists emerge, and it is in these schisms where we focus our attention. We begin to get curious about how this current configuration came to be (e.g. Are there current environmental circumstances that are creating this imbalance?; What are the barriers to making changes?), then we work together to formulate short, mid, and long-term SMART goals to help us to orient our work in therapy and setup individualized standards from which we can measure progress. Ultimately, the goal is to help one to harmonize their values to their actual day-to-day lived experience. As this process unfolds, we’ve become aware of a number of sometimes surprising experiences our clients have noticed.
For one, though this exercise might seem somewhat mundane, we’ve actually found that, more often than not, this exploration is often packed with emotion. In addition to creating an opportunity to reflect on the impact that our day-to-day activities might be having in moving us towards (or perhaps holding us back from) our goals, built into this exercise is also the opportunity to honor our growth over time and explore how certain values have served us. It also allows us to explore the motivations behind prioritizing certain values over others– for example, as a student, are you investing in education and learning because society tells you that you should, or because pursuing it provides you with a sense of purpose and mastery?
Another phenomenon that has emerged is that clients who may have a difficult time setting long-term goals, and can sometimes have the feeling of being ‘stuck’ languishing in an uncomfortable state, tend to begin to structure their days quite differently. A client who values citizenship and/or community engagement may finally take a moment to sign-up for a volunteer gig they’ve had their eye on, while another who sees more clearly that they are not prioritizing their health may go to the gym for the first time in a year.The ACT values assessment offers a reminder that we do not need to wait for a major life transition–a graduation, a new job, or the birth of a new child–to give ourselves permission to realign our values. We can begin this process right now and immediately reap the benefits of living in alignment with the things that matter most to us.
Alongside this process of clearly articulating personal goals based on values, a healthy cognitive byproduct tends to emerge. In our competitive and driven social context, there is a tremendous pull to compare ourselves to others; we tend to internalize these comparisons in the form of “shoulds”, a cognitive distortion that CBT long-ago established results in psychological distress. What tends to happen through the ACT values assessment is a process of individuation (recognizing our own unique perspective and articulating our individualized meaning-making process) which quite naturally results in a less comparative mindset–in other words, “You do you, I’ll do me”.
This, of course, is just one focused intervention in the well-articulated and ever-evolving ACT model. If you found this intriguing, keep an eye out for future posts about how we are utilizing this form of psychotherapy at Gateway.
By: Chris Restivo, MFT
Alana Kivowitz, LCSW