What Are Values?
For example, if you notice a feeling of heaviness in response to this work; if you begin to feel disempowered; if you start to feel insignificant; if, once again, you think or feel that you are holding on to the short end of the stick with nowhere to go, stop.
These are sure signs that your mind is taking over. If you run into these kinds of feelings over the course of chapters 11, 12, and 13 take a step back and start over with this chapter using all of the strategies you have learned in the book up to this point. See if you can defuse from your mental hooks this second time around. Values are vitalizing, uplifting, and empowering. They are not another mental club to beat yourself with or another measurement to fail against.
The sign on the front of your life bus says Values. Values are chosen life directions. However, unpacking this simple definition requires an understanding of what a “direction” is and what a “choice” is.
Because values are much more than mere words, it may be helpful to return to the metaphor of your life as a bus to guide us. So, imagine that your bus is traveling through a large flat valley with many gravel roads. All around you are distant mountains, hills, trees, and rocks. In the more immediate area there are ponds, shrubs, pastures, rocks, and streams.
Your bus is equipped with a compass.
You must choose a direction to follow and you say, “I think I’ll go east.” You look at the compass and turn your bus to head east. You see a road ahead; it isn’t perfectly due east, but it leads you in that direction. You move the bus forward, come to the end of the road, and are presented with a couple of alternative routes. You study the alternatives and go forward once more, more or less in an easterly direction.
So when do you actually get to east? How will you know when you have arrived at east? When is the direction called “east” finished? When have you gone as far east as you can go?
If you are not trying to get to a specific place, but are just following a direction, the answer is “never.”
Directions are not something you “get” in the way that you “get” an object or “get” to a city.
In this same way, values are intentional qualities that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path. They are what moments are about, but they are never possessed as objects, because they are qualities of unfolding actions, not of particular things.
Said another way, values are verbs and adverbs, not nouns or adjectives; they are something you do or a quality of something you do, not something you have. If they are something you do (or a quality of something you do), they never end. You are never finished.
For example, say one of your values is to be a loving person. This doesn’t mean that as soon as you love someone for a few months you are done, as you can be done with building a house or done with earning a college degree. There is more loving to do—always. Love is a direction, not an object.
We will return to this metaphor as we explore values further, but to complete our definition we must also define “choice.”
Choices and reasoned judgments are not the same thing. When you make a judgment, you apply your mind and its evaluative abilities to alternatives, and depending on what you want, you pick one of those alternatives. For example, you may decide to eat fish for dinner rather than fatty hamburger (even though you like the hamburger more and it costs less), because there is a lot of evidence that fish oils are good for your heart and you want to live longer. That is a judgment.
You consider several factors: the taste of the food, the cost of the food, and living longer. You look at the pros and cons along those metrics: the fish may not taste as good, but it’s okay (if it was disgusting, your decision might change); it costs a bit more but you have the money (if it cost a great deal more, you might go with the burger regardless of the health
issue); you want to be healthy; and you think fish is healthier. You go with the fish.
Ninety percent of the time judgments work fine. The ability to use our logical judgments to pick between alternatives is a wonderful tool, and that ability is the reason why humans have done so well on the planet. But in some areas judgments don’t work very well, and in still others they absolutely cannot work.
One area they absolutely cannot work is the area of values. Here’s why: Judgments necessarily involve applying evaluative metrics to alternative action plans. For example, in the judgment we just described, one of the metrics was the health of your heart. As with applying a yardstick to a material object, we can try to measure fish and burgers on a “healthy heart” yardstick. This is true of any evaluative situation. Once you pick which yardstick to use, picking the best alternative is a mere intellectual judgment.
But what about the yardstick itself? How was that picked? If picking the yardstick is itself a judgment (and sometimes it is), that means there is yet another yardstick. This happens when one purpose is a means to another purpose. For example, you might use “healthy for your heart” as a measure, not because it is an end in itself but because a healthy heart makes it likelier that you will live a long and full life. But how was that yardstick picked? Was picking “living a full and healthy life” itself a judgment?
It could be, but if it is, there is still some other yardstick that was applied to “living a full and healthy life” because judgment, by definition, involves applying an evaluative yardstick to two or more alternatives.
Note what is happening here. This could go on forever. In the end, judgments cannot tell you which yardstick to pick, because judgments require applying an evaluative metric. That works fine, but only after you’ve picked one.
Valuing, however, gives us a place to stop. Values are not judgments. Values are choices. Choices are selections between alternatives that may be made in the presence of reasons (if your mind gives you any, which it usually does, since minds chatter about everything), but this selection is not for those reasons in the sense that it is not explained by, justified by, or linked to them. A choice is not linked to an evaluative verbal yardstick. Said another way, choice is a defused selection among alternatives. It is different than judgment, which is a verbally guided selection among alternatives.
Have you noticed that the word “evaluation” actually contains the word “value”? That’s because evaluations are a matter of applying our values and then making judgments based on those values. If values were judgments, it would mean that we’d have to evaluate our values, but against which values would we evaluate them?
Usually, we don’t think about this much, and for a good reason: minds don’t like choices. Minds know how to apply evaluative yardsticks; in fact, it is the very essence of what these relational abilities evolved to do. But minds cannot pick the ultimate directions that make all of this decision making meaningful.
With nonverbal organisms, all selections between alternatives are choices, because nonverbal organisms do not have the verbal tools to make literal judgments. Scientists studying these kinds of things in the laboratory generate and test the reasons for choices, but the animal is not guided by the “reasons” the scientists come up with in a literal sense. The animal simply chooses. In a similar fashion, if we were sitting on Mt.
Olympus and knew every detail of our own lives, and how to interpret all of these influences, we might be able to reason why we made certain choices at certain points in our lives. But we are not sitting on Mt. Olympus; from the inside out we simply choose.
It is essential that human beings learn to do what all the other creatures on the planet do with ease, even though our chatterbox minds keep going on and on about everything we do. It is essential because without choice, valuing becomes impossible.
Making a Choice
In order to practice choosing, let’s start with something trivial. There are two letters below.
Now for the tricky part. Watch what your mind does as this question is asked: “Why did you choose the one you chose?”
For most of you, your mind will now generate a “reason.” But bring all of your defusion skills into this moment. Would it be possible to notice that thought and still pick the other? Remember the exercises we did in chapter 2 when we read a verbal rule and deliberately did something else? Let’s do that again.
This time, we’ll give you lots of “reasons” to be aware of. There are two letters below. Read the sentences below and then choose one. (Not as a judgment! Just notice all of the reasons in a defused, accepting, mindful, open way and pick one or the other for no reason at all and with all of the reasons you may have).
Here are all of the reasons to be aware of: Pick the one on the left. No, pick the one on the right.
No, pick the one on the left. No, pick the one on the right. No, pick the one on the left. No, pick the one on the right. No, pick the one on the left. No, pick the one on the right. No, pick the one on the left. No, pick the one on the right.
Here are two letters. Choose one.
Were you able to do it? Repeat this process until you can simply pick a letter without regard to all the chatter—undefended, naked, and in the wind, without compliance with the chatter or resistance to
If you pass this test with the simple commands in mind of “pick the one on the right” and “pick the one on the left,” why can’t you do the same with the reasons your mind gives you about more important choices? If you apply your defusion skills, it is the same situation, despite the fact that one may be said to be “important” and one may be said to be “not important.”
Let’s try it and see. Try to come up with “reasons” to pick one of the letters. Of course, this is a trivial choice, so, normally, there would be no reason to do such a thing. But for the purposes of the exercise, make your word machine come up with some reasons (for example, “I like the letter A better because it is in my name,” or “Z reminds me of Zorro and I remember liking those reruns on the Disney channel when I was a kid,” or “I like right better than left because I’m right-handed,” or “Left in Latin is ‘sinister’ and I don’t want to pick something sinister,” and so on). Now, write down some reasons to pick one of the two choices below:
Reasons to pick A on the left Reasons to pick Z on the right
Now, you will make this silly little choice again. Read the list of reasons you generated and think about them all again. If your mind gives you any other reasons, deliberately think about those too.
Notice them all as thoughts. Do not resist them. Do not comply with them. Simply notice them. Now, pick one of the two letters again.
Repeat this process until you are clear that you can pick either letter no matter what your mind is saying. That doesn’t mean disobeying your mind, like a child who puts beans in her nose as soon as she’s told not to. In that case, your mind is still in control; it’s just the form that has changed (this is why we say that neither rebelliousness nor compliance are, at their core, forms of independence). It means noticing all of these mental events and simply picking one of the letters, with these reasons, but neither for nor against these reasons.
Minds hate this exercise! Minds can’t understand it because minds generate and apply verbal reasons to all alternatives. But humans can do this. That’s because humans are more than their verbal repertoire.
This small exercise was done with a meaningless choice. Values, however, are anything but meaningless. So the chatter will be louder, and the reasons will be stronger. But the action will be the same.
We can be about anything we want to be about. Who can stop us?
WHAT VALUES ARE AND ARE NOT
In the next two chapters you will explore your values in some detail, and you will learn how to become clearer on what you want them to be. In this chapter, we are simply describing what values are and what they are not. This relatively wordy task is worth doing because the process of valuing is hard for minds to understand. Values go beyond words, but minds try to claim them, and if we are not careful, they can become distorted to fit with the ordinary evaluative and predictive relations that our verbal word machine knows how to use.
Values Are Not Goals
Goals are the things you can obtain while walking a valued path. Goals are concrete achievable events, situations, or objects. They can be completed, possessed, or finished. Goals are not the same as directions. If goals are confused with directions, once they have been achieved, progress must necessarily stop.
This actually happens all the time, which is one reason why depression sometimes follows getting a degree, getting married, or getting a promotion at work. If, say, getting a degree is an end in itself, there is likely to be an enormous loss of life direction immediately after graduation. Someone who gets a degree as an end in itself, or as a way to reach still other goals (for example, feeling better about herself) may only be mocked by her achievement.
Goals are wonderful and empowering once the distinction between goals and values is clear. It sometimes helps (after a direction is chosen) to focus on goals as a way of keeping on track. If you are standing in a valley surrounded by mountains, hills, trees, and rock formations with only a compass, it may help to sight along your chosen direction to a prominent landmark and then head for that.
There is a competitive sport called “orienteering” that relies heavily on this process: participants find their way from point to point on a map, usually using a compass and natural or manmade objects to provide an anchor for that direction.
Similarly, a person who values, say, helping others, might get a degree to be in a better position to help others. Immediately after getting the degree there will be lots of interesting and vital things to do that are not about the degree but about the value, that of helping others.
If you are using goals in that way, it helps to have goals close enough to be seen and achievable, but far enough away to be useful. A goal that is an inch in front of your foot will help you get started, but as you learn to move, it won’t be very effective in helping you “orienteer” in your life. Conversely, a goal somewhere on the other side of a mountain range won’t help you maintain your direction. In the same way, it usually makes sense to set concrete, short-term goals to get going, but then, as you learn to move, to set more medium-range goals for yourself.
Values Are Not Feelings
Presumably, all of our experiences inform our values, in the sense that a whole person makes the choices. Sometimes that means there are feelings that accompany valued choices. Over time, you will learn the degree to which feelings can help you know when you are living in accord with your values. For example, many people feel a sense of vitality when their actions line up with their chosen values. That doesn’t mean that values are feelings. Most especially, it doesn’t mean that values are doing what feels good, particularly in the short-term.
A person with a drug addiction feels good when using drugs. That doesn’t mean that being high is a valued outcome. Suppose the person really values being close to others, but when he takes steps in that direction, he feels frightened and vulnerable. He hates that feeling, so he uses drugs or alcohol again. If this person stops using and begins to walk in a valued direction, he won’t “feel good” anytime soon. He will feel frightened and vulnerable. Thus, walking in a valued direction may not feel good for this person, but it will “work good” or “live good.”
There is another problem with thinking of feelings as values, or with valuing feelings per se, and we will explore that problem in chapters 12 and 13. Feelings are things you can have. By definition, values are not anything you can possess the way you can possess an object. Moreover, feelings are not something you can control, while choosing a direction is something you can control. For those reasons, statements like “I value feeling good about myself” are based on a misunderstanding of values.
Pain and Values
Feeling can be related to values in a different, and less obvious, way than the linkage between good feelings and values. Suppose someone who is a social phobic shudders at the thought of going to a party.
Why? Very likely, this is a person who values connections with others. If connecting with others was not of any importance, the person would not be socially phobic. One reason we began this book with an emphasis on acceptance is that, in our pain, we are given some guidance toward our values. The reverse is also true: in our values, we find our pain. You cannot value anything without being woundable, indeed, your values are the most intimate part of you.
An ACT client once said in a therapy session something like “I don’t really value family, or intimate relationships, or children. I just don’t think that life is for me.” A week or two later that person came in and said, “I’m such a liar, even to myself.” Then he reported the following incident: He had been sitting in a Burger King having a hamburger when a family came in and sat down at the next table:
Mom, Dad, and two small children. He looked up from his burger at the family and began to cry. At that moment, he realized he wanted a family and children of his own more than anything else. His parents had treated him badly and his history of betrayals had led him to deny his strongest desire, because when he admitted it, he felt such pain and vulnerability. As a result of this admission, he was enabled to go on and have a family, using his acceptance skills to deal with his fear and vulnerability, and using his values
as a guide for the direction he wanted his life to take.
Values Are Not Outcomes
Although living your life according to your values often leads to wonderful outcomes, they are not a sneaky way to “getting what you want” in the concrete world. Values are directions, not outcomes.
You can think of it as similar to the way that gravity acts on water in a bowl. Gravity specifies that down is the direction, not up. Gravity is a direction, not an outcome. If there is any way for the water to follow that direction (for example, if there is a hole in the bowl), it will. If there are no ways to move, however, you will not see the water flow. From the outside, it might appear as though there is no “direction” at all, but it is there all along, and it will be revealed given any opportunity.
Values are like gravity. Suppose you value having a loving relationship with your father, but your father wants nothing at all to do with you. Your letters are ignored; your calls and visits are refused. Like water contained in a bowl, the value may rarely be manifested in a way that others can see beyond the small “leaks” in the form of birthday cards you send (whether or not they are read), or comments you make to others about your father. Like water held in a bowl, this value can be continuously present, waiting for better opportunities to manifest itself. If the opening comes, if one day Dad calls and says he wants to meet with you, the value will be visible in a more obvious way.
Values Do Not Mean Our Paths Are Always Straight
If you were on a bus trying to go east in a maze of dirt roads in a large valley, you might not be able to tell your direction from moment to moment. If someone took a series of snapshots, sometimes the bus might be facing north, or south, or even west, even though all the while this is a journey to the east.
Paths are not straight because obstacles sometimes prevent movement in the desired direction. A person who values creating a loving family may nevertheless have to go through a divorce. In that situation, the intention to be loving may be revealed only in limited ways, such as not establishing oppositions between yourself and your spouse that will negatively affect your children, or treating a soon-to-be ex-spouse fairly in the division of assets. Only over time will the underlying value become evident, like tracks left in the snow that show, even though the path is not straight, it is headed east.
Paths are also not straight because we are human. We may intend to go east, but our attention may wander, and we may find ourselves heading north. Someone in recovery from a drug addiction who values sobriety and helping others may still relapse. That person’s mind may be screaming, “See, you can’t go east! You are a liar and a failure! You can’t be trusted!” as if to say, “Because you are heading north, as usual, you cannot value heading east.” In such an instance, that person’s task will be to thank his or her mind, feel the sadness and pain that comes from relapse, and then turn and head east once again.
Values Are Not in the Future
Let’s go back to our valley. Notice that from the very instant you chose to go east, every action you took was a part of that decision. You looked at your compass. That was part of going east. You noticed the direction you were heading toward, and that was part of going east. Perhaps you noticed you were veering north; if so, noticing that was also part of going east. You began to turn to your right until you were actually heading east, and that turn was part of going east. Then you took a step, which was part of going east.
Then another step was taken, which was more of going east. All of this was about going east.
Suppose you were asked, “Which of all of these moments, including the choice to go east, is part of going east”? The only sensible answer seems to be All of them—no one more than any other. One of the useful implications of this answer is this: the very instant you choose your values, you are taking a valued path. Another useful implication: you have the benefit of values being lived now. They are seemingly “about” the future but, in fact, they are really about the present.
We have another way of saying this: We say, “The outcome is the process through which process becomes the outcome.” Your values are themselves the “outcome” you are looking for and you get to have that “outcome” now because those values empower the process of living now. Every step you take in the direction of those values is a part of that process. Once you have chosen your values, the process you take to head in that direction is all values-laden.
Having a direction allows a coherent trip to be taken; and it is the trip that is actually worthwhile. Your life becomes empowered by your values. It is like a journey down a never-ending path. This is a trip that has no finish line; it is not literally about an outcome. It is about the journey you take on your way there.
Suppose you value being a loving person. This is a trip that never ends. No matter how many loving things you do, there are always more loving things to do. The benefits of this path are not in the future; you get to have a life that is about loving relationships now. And now. And now. But you never strike your hands together because you are done. This is a direction that will not end.
Values and Failing
Values entail responsibility: that is, acknowledging that you always have the ability to respond. The response you can always engage in is valuing, even when there is little you can currently do in a specific situation to make your values manifest (like the water in that bowl).
Most of the time, however, there are things we can do and our values allow us to see when we’ve failed to live up to the directions we’ve chosen. Like a bright beam on a roadway, our values bring us back to our path even when road signs tempt us to take wrong turns crowd the roadway, or even when we have mindlessly driven down yet another embankment. The pain of failure supports us in starting anew.
No one always lives according to his or her values. But that is different than being a failure. If we use our values to beat ourselves up, we are buying into the thought that we can’t be about the values we actually have, merely because sometimes we wander. Ask yourself this question when you think you’ve failed: What is buying that thought in the service of? What value does it comport with? Being right? Never failing? Never being vulnerable? Is that what you want your life to be about? If not, take responsibility even for your mind chattering on about what a failure you are. Feel the pain. Learn from it. Then move on.
When you feel guilt or shame at your limitations, it is time to use your defusion and mindfulness skills to acknowledge the chatter that comes in at those moments. It is time to use your acceptance skills to acknowledge the pain that comes in at those moments. And it is time to use your capacity for choice to reconnect with your chosen direction so that you can once again begin moving in the direction you choose to move, as the situation allows.
Values Are Always Perfect
One of the joyous facts about values is that ultimate values are perfect for the individual valuing them. We do not mean “perfect” in the sense of “evaluated as good.” We mean it in its original sense: thoroughly made or whole (from the Latin “per” meaning “thoroughly” and “fect” meaning “made,” the same Latin root found in “factory”). If you view your values as being broken or wanting, it must mean that you actually already have some other values that allow you to see that.
Suppose a businesswoman bemoans her frequent absences from her home because she “values work too much.” Clearly, this means that in addition to her work she also values being with her family. What she needs to work on is finding a way to balance and integrate these two different sets of values. Her values are perfect—it is her behavior that needs work.
This means that if you are willing to value, you immediately win. Since the joy is in the journey, not the outcome, and your values are perfect so far as you know (which doesn’t mean they can’t change, it means they can’t be evaluated), nothing is missing. It is just a matter of living, moment by moment, day by day, staying true to your values as an act of self-fidelity.
The usual mental game is that you “win” when you get positive outcomes. But minds always demand more and more. Even if you “win,” your mind will suggest worries about “winning” the next time. A recent newspaper story about a world-class athlete is revealing in this regard. She was number one in the world in her event and had won two consecutive world championships. Only a few handfuls of human beings on the planet ever reach that level of athletic achievement. Yet, upon winning her second championship, she said her primary emotion was neither elation nor satisfaction, but fear. The reason? She was afraid she wouldn’t win next year.
Minds are like that. They will never change. They are evaluative, predictive, comparative, worrying “organs.” But in the case of values, it is different. Once you choose them, you are in fact choosing them.
You’ve won. Then they allow you to follow your path and to measure your progress on that path.
Choosing to Value
If it didn’t matter where you were going, it wouldn’t matter where your internal struggles took you.
The very fact that you are reading this book demonstrates that where you are going does matter to you.
Examine yourself and see if it isn’t true that the largest pain in your life isn’t your anxiety, depression, urges, memories, trauma, anger, sadness, and so forth, but that your life is not being thoroughly and whole-heartedly lived. Your life was put on hold while that war we discussed in the introduction was being fought. So each tick of the clock mocks you: it is one more second passing of a life not fully lived.
The key problem here is not that you have problems, it is that you’ve put the choices that are here to be made on hold. Vitality and engagement in your life does not require you to eliminate your pain first. It requires quite the opposite: opening up to the joy (and pain!) that comes from having your life be about what you really, really want it to be about.
So, here’s a question to ask the person you see in the mirror. What do you want your life to be about? Really?
Choosing Your Values
Defining what matters to you and actively choosing to pursue that direction is what this book is ultimately all about. Although the defusion, mindfulness, and acceptance exercises you’ve explored up to this point are useful in themselves, this information is an empty shell if it isn’t used in the service of living a meaningful life.
Chapter 11 should have helped you understand what we mean by “values.” Choosing what you value and pursuing that path can make your life rich and meaningful, even in the face of great adversity.
This chapter is about doing just that.
THE MASTERS YOU SERVE
To live a valued life is to act in the service of what you value. It was Bob Dylan who wrote, “You’ve got to serve somebody.” The question is: Who (or what) will you serve? Your experience, this book, and your current psychological dilemmas have probably shown you that living in the service of pain reduction is no way to live at all. If your agoraphobia tells you that going outside isn’t an option, when everything else in you knows that going out is the vital thing to do, serving your agoraphobia probably won’t lead you down
the path you want to follow.
Understanding this can be a scary place to be in some ways. If you decide that basing your decisions on what your mind gives you isn’t an option, then on what can you base your actions? If you can really be about whatever you choose, how do you know what you want to do? What should your compass point be in this seemingly endless sea of options?
We believe that right now at this very moment, you have all the tools you need to make meaningful and inspiring life choices for yourself. You not only have the opportunity, but the actual ability to live in the service of what you value. That doesn’t mean that circumstances will necessarily allow you to achieve all of your goals; this is not a guarantee about outcome. And it doesn’t mean you have all the skills you need to accomplish your stated goals. But it does mean you have what you need to choose a direction.
The word “values” comes from a Latin root that means “worthy and strong.” It carries an implication of action, which is why that same root leads to the word “wield.” It connotes actually using what is important and strong. Values define not only what you want to pursue from day to day but what you want your life to be about. In some sense, what’s at stake here is a matter of life and death, or at least the difference between a vital life and a deadened life.
EXERCISE: Attending Your Own Funeral
When people die, what is left behind is what they stood for. Think of someone who is no longer alive but whose life you look up to and admire. Think of your heroes. Now see if it isn’t true that what they stood for is now, after their passing, most important. What’s important is neither their material possessions nor their inner doubts. The values reflected in their lives are what’s important.
You have only so much time on this earth, and you don’t know how much. The question “Are you going to live, knowing you will die?” is not fundamentally different than these questions: “Are you going to love, knowing you will be hurt?” Or, “Are you going to commit to living a valued life knowing you will sometimes not meet your commitments?” Or, “Will you reach for success knowing you will sometimes fail?” The potential for pain and the sense of vitality you gain from these experiences go together. If your life is truly going to be about something, it helps to look at it from the perspective of what you would want the path your life leaves behind to mean.
One of the foundations for avoidance is our verbal awareness that life on this planet is finite. We recognize that it might seem macabre to go to the end of your life in imagination and look back. It is not meant to be morbid but to be grounded. If you could live your life so that it is actually about what you would choose to have it be about from here until it is over, what would be evident? That is, what would be clear about the kind of life you led?
This is not a prediction, or guess, or description. The question is not about what you’ve done or expect to do. We ask this question in the form of what you would hope those close to you will see. But this is not a question about social approval; rather, if your values mean something, they will be evident.
We are asking only this: What would be evident if you could freely choose what your life stood for?
You may only whisper this question to yourself, but since this is a choice, we are asking you open yourself up to your own yearning to be about something. If your life could be about anything; if it were just between you and your heart; if no one would laugh or say it is impossible; if you were bold about your innermost aspirations, what would you want to be about? And to be that—so powerfully—that it was evident to those around you?
Now, find a place and time in which you can quietly concentrate. Make sure there aren’t too many distractions, and give yourself plenty of time to completely visualize the following scenario, then answer the questions below.
Keep in mind that if you take the time to do this exercise, it can be a powerful and emotional experience. It is not our intention to have this be about “facing your death”; it is about facing your life. Nevertheless, part of what often prevents people from embracing a valued life is that any value carries with it
knowledge of how finite our lives are. Avoiding that knowledge means you can’t really, fully be about anything, and see if that’s not too high a price to pay. If you find yourself becoming wrapped up in your emotions and unable to “carry on,” remember the techniques you’ve used throughout this book, implement one or two of them, and know that you are doing this exercise in the service of something potentially very powerful.
Now close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Once you’ve calmed your mind, imagine that you’ve died, but by some miraculous circumstance you are able to witness your own funeral in spirit form. Think about where it would be and what it would be like. Take a few moments to visualize a clear
picture of your future funeral services.
In the space below, imagine that a family member or friend is there who has been asked to stand up and say a few words about what you stood for in your life; about what you cared about; about the path you took. You will write this eulogy in two ways.
First write down what you are afraid might be said if the struggle you are currently engaged in continues to dominate in your life, or even grows. Suppose you back off from what you really want to stand for, and instead you follow a path of avoidance, mental entanglement, emotional control, and selfrighteousness. Picture your family member or friend. What might he or she say? Write it down, word forword:
Now suppose you could see inside this person’s head in that moment. If no censoring was going on, no playacting, and this person’s thoughts were visible to you, what else would be said (this time just privately to himself or herself) that might not have been said publicly. Write it down, word for word:
That eulogy was a description of what you fear, and perhaps a description of where your past path has been leading you. If you didn’t like writing what you wrote, channel that pain into the next process.
Your eulogy doesn’t not have to be like that. Imagine that from here forward you’ll live your life connected to that which you most value. This doesn’t mean that all of your goals will be magically attained; it means the direction you are taking in your life is evident, clear, and manifest.
Now imagine who’s at your funeral. Certainly your spouse, children, and closest friends would be there. Perhaps people from work, class, or church (depending on which of these you are involved with) are in attendance as well. Anybody you like can come to this funeral. There are no limits. If you have old friends or have lost contact with people whom you would like to see there, don’t worry about it.
They can all make it to this imagined service. Think of all the important people in your life and place them in that space. Look at them. See their faces. Watch them watching your funeral.
Now imagine that someone (you can pick which one) gives a eulogy about you that reflects what all of these people might see if your life had been true to your innermost values. Imagine what you would most want to have manifest in your life. This is not a test. You won’t be judged on this and no one else need ever know what you are thinking.
While you get a clear idea about this, take a few minutes and write out, word for word, what you would want to hear in your eulogy about how you lived your life. Be bold! This is not a prediction. This is not self-praise. Let these words reflect the meaning you would most like to create, the purposes you would most like to reveal about the time you spent on this planet. Picture your family member or friend preparing to speak about you. What might he or she say? Write it down, word for word:
What was doing this exercise like for you? Besides the strangeness of watching your own funeral, what else came up for you in this exercise?
Now, go back and read what you wrote. If you said anything that seems incomplete, or off the mark, you can rewrite it. Hey, it’s your funeral.
If you really reached for it, you might see inside the words you wrote something of what is already inside you. Can you see some of that which you want to manifest in your life?
The way you would want to be remembered once your life is over should give you a very good idea about what you value now. We don’t know what anyone would say at your funeral, but we do know that your actions today can make a profound difference in how your life works from here. It is not your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations that your loved ones will remember you by, but the choices you make and the actions you take each day of your life. Couldn’t that begin today? Couldn’t that begin now?
Let’s see if we can use the method of looking back at your life to dig out what is most dear one more time. Let’s try to distill all of this down to a shorter version.
When people are buried, an epitaph is often written. They say things like “Here lies Sue. She loved her family with all her heart.” If the headstone below was yours, what inscription would you like to see on it? How would you most like your life to be characterized? Again, this is neither a description nor a prediction; it is a hope; an aspiration; a wish. It is between you and the person in the mirror. What would you like your life to stand for?
Think about it for a moment, and see if you can distill your innermost values into a short epitaph and write it out on the illustration of the tombstone below.
TAKING IT A STEP FURTHER: TEN VALUED DOMAINS
The short exercises you’ve just completed provide a broad beginning. Hopefully, they’ve stirred up something in you that will allow you to become bolder and clearer about what it is you really want to be about.
You are alive, not dead. How to you want to live?
To give this question some structure, consider the following ten domains that might be of some importance to you:
1. Marriage/couple/intimate relationship
3. Family relations (other than intimate relations and parenting)
4. Friendship/social relations
6. Education/training/personal growth and development
What follows is a brief description of each of these domains as well as space for you to describe your own values in that domain. Keep in mind, as you go through this, that values are not specific goals, but general life directions. We’ll get to concrete goals later. If you find yourself writing down material things that can be obtained such as an object, stop and rethink what it is we are asking for; that is, directions that can always be made to manifest but that can never be fully obtained or finished.
Take what you’ve learned about values up to this point in this book and apply that to the following exercise. Remember the eulogy and the epitaph you just wrote, and see whether elements from them apply to one or more of these domains.
As you work through this exercise, you may discover that certain domains are very important to you and others are not. Some domains may be areas in which you are currently doing little. That’s to be expected. It’s not as though you need to value each of these different areas of life to the same degree.
Different people have different values. A little later, we’ll help you rate these values for yourself. For the moment, try to find a value that you hold in each domain. If there is an area for which you really can’t think of anything, it’s okay to skip it.
It may also be difficult to distinguish sharp boundary lines in certain areas. For example, some people have a hard time distinguishing between intimate relationships and family relations. Others may find it difficult to mark the difference between leisure and social relations. Read the description of each domain and try to keep the boundaries as clear as you can. If certain entries overlap, or you repeat a value in more than one domain, that’s okay, but we encourage you not to overdo it.
This isn’t a test. You need not show this to anyone if you don’t want to. So be honest and open and give yourself the opportunity to explore what you value. Don’t base this exercise on what you think your friends’, family’s, or society’s expectations are. Write about what you value. There are no right or wrong answers.
For most people, intimate relationships are very important. This is the relationship you have with your “significant other”: your spouse, lover, or partner. If you are not in such a relationship right now, you can still answer these questions in terms of what you aspire to find in such a relationship.
What kind of person would you most like to be in the context of an intimate relationship? It might help to think about specific actions you would like to take, and then use those to dig down to the underlying motives for such actions. What are those underlying motives? How do they reflect what you value in your relationship? Do not put down goals (like “getting married”); there will be an opportunity for those later.
Think about what it means to you to be a mother or father. What would you like to be about in this role? If you don’t have children, you can still answer this question. What do you want to be about in supporting this role in others?
Family Relations (Other Than Intimate Relations and Parenting)
This domain is about family, not about your husband or wife or children, but about other areas of family life. Think about what it means to be a son, daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent, or in-law.
What would you like to be about in your family relationships? You may think about this broadly or only in terms of your nuclear family. What values would you like to see manifest in your life in this area?
Friendships are another area of personal relations that most people value. What kind of friend would you like to be? Think about your closest friends and see if you can connect with what you would like to have manifest in your life regarding your friends.
Work and careers are important for most people because that area is where a great deal of your life is spent. Whether your work is humble or grand, the question of values in work pertains. What kind of an employee do you most want to be? What do you want to stand for in your work? What kind of a difference do you want to make through your job?
Education/Training/Personal Growth and Development
This area can cover all kinds of learning and personal development. School-based education is one.
But this area includes all the things you do to learn, as well. Working through this book could be an example. What type of learner do you want to be? How would you like to engage with that area of your life?
Recreation, leisure, and relaxation are important to most of us. It is in those areas that we recharge our batteries; the activities in this area are often where we connect with family and friends. Think about what is meaningful to you about your hobbies, sports, avocations, play, vacations, and other forms of recreation. In these areas, what would you like to have manifest in your life?
By spirituality, we don’t necessarily mean organized religion, although that could certainly be included in this section. Spirituality includes everything that helps you feel connected to something larger than yourself, to a sense of wonder and transcendence in life. It includes your faith, spiritual and religious practices, and your connection with others in this domain. What do you most want to be about in this area of your life?
How would you like to contribute to society and be a member of the community? What do you really want to be about in social/political/charitable and community areas?
We are physical beings, and taking care of our bodies and our health through diet, exercise, and sound health practices is another important domain. What do you want to have revealed in your life in these areas?
Sometimes, we find that clients get confused about what values are, even at this point in the program. People often make the mistake of stating that they value something when, in fact, that chosen value has been dictated by the desire of others.
To test your values, look over the exercises above and ask yourself the following question in regard to each of the values you wrote down: “If no one knew that I was working on this, would I still do it?” If you find that you’ve written down statements that don’t “ring true,” or are more a matter of “being a
good boy or girl” than stating what is truly in your heart, go back and edit what you wrote. This list is not for anyone else. It is for you.
RANKING AND TESTING YOUR VALUES
In some ways, it’s not very important that certain values are more meaningful to you than others. All of the things you wrote about in the exercises above are areas of your life that you would like to pursue in order to live more completely. However, it can be useful to put a rank marker on your values in order to see in which areas of your life you might begin to take action. Chapter 13 is about committed action. But before we get there, let’s figure out what you might want to commit to.
Look back over the work you just finished. Now, distill each area down to one key value (if you have several, you can pick the most important one), and write a phrase to remind you of that key value in the space below. Now rate each area in two ways. First, ask yourself how important this particular area is to you right now on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 meaning not at all important and 10 meaning extremely important. We aren’t asking if this area is important in your actual behavior; we are asking what you would want if you could have your life be as you would want it to be.
Then, rate each area according to your actual current behavior. How well have you been currently living this value on a scale of 1 to 10? With 1 meaning it is not at all manifested in my behavior to 10 meaning it is extremely well-manifested in my behavior.
Finally, subtract the score you got for your actual current behavior from the importance score
above that to arrive at the total of your “life deviation” score.
Table 12.1: Ranking Your Values
Other Family Relations
The number on the far right is probably the most important. The higher that number, the more your life needs to change in this area to bring it in line with what you really care about. High numbers under the Life Deviation column are a sign and source of suffering. You may want to highlight or circle those numbers that show the largest gap between the importance of your values and their actual presence in your life.
In chapter 13, you will take the information you gathered here, and we will help you to develop a specific means by which you can pursue the values you have uncovered in this chapter. The wonderful thing about values is that you can live them. Everything you have written about in this chapter is achievable.
Note that we haven’t discussed “getting over” your emotional pain as a value. It isn’t. We have been discussing the kind of life you want to live. That life is available to you right now. What would your life be like if you truly got out of your mind and into your life?
Committing to Doing It
You know what you want to be about. You probably knew before you even opened this book, although you may have kept it hidden from yourself to try to avoid your own vulnerability. When we care about something, we open ourselves to the possibility of feeling pain. If you really risk loving someone, you open yourself up to rejection, betrayal, and loss. If you really care about eliminating hunger, you open yourself up to a special pain when you see children having to go without.
“If I do not care, I will not be hurt” is how human minds keep values at arm’s length. Unfortunately, this move hurts even more than caring; it’s not the biting, alive, occasional hurt of caring and sometimes losing, but the dull, deadening, constant hurt of not living your life in a way that is true to yourself.
In the last chapters we put values on the table in some detail.
The question you are now faced with is the same one we asked you earlier in the book: Given a distinction between you as a conscious being and the private experiences you’ve been struggling with, are you willing to experience those private experiences now, fully and without defense, as they are, not as they say they are, and actually do what
takes you in the direction of your chosen values at this time and in this situation?
This question requires a yes or no answer. Answering yes involves both a commitment to a course and actually changing your behavior. Some time from now, perhaps just moments from now, life will ask it again. Then again. And then again. And each time you will get to choose how you answer.
We’ll ask it in a less precise form: Are you willing to accept whatever discomfort your mind provides you AND commit to the values you explored in chapters 11 and 12 and to the behavior change they imply?
Saying yes doesn’t mean that your life will suddenly get easier, but it is guaranteed to become more alive. The alternative is something you already have experience with (and we’ve addressed it quite a bit throughout the book). You know what the costs are of sacrificing the life you want to live in behalf of your futile attempts to regulate your emotional pain. You know what it feels like to be confined and have the meaning and vitality drained out of your days by your struggle with your thoughts, feelings, behavioral predispositions, urges, memories, and bodily sensations that cause you discomfort. You know what it feels like to be trapped in your mind at the cost of your own vitality.
This chapter is all about doing it. It’s about making bold, committed steps in the direction of your values. It’s about doing this, not in spite of your pain (note that “spite” is a fighting word), but with your pain, if there is pain.
AKING BOLD STEPS
It’s time to take some bold steps in the direction you want your life to move in. In the last chapter you explored and developed some ideas about what you value. Each of those values is a compass point by which you can chart the course of your life. The next thing to do is start walking in that direction. This is basically a four-part process that repeats itself endlessly: Contacting your values, developing goals that will move you in a valued direction, taking specific actions that will allow you to achieve those goals, and contacting and working with internal barriers to action.
Creating the Road Map: Setting Goals
Go back to the final worksheet you did in chapter 12. In it, you listed some values and assigned importance, manifestation, and life-deviation scores. It’s now time to decide which of those values you want to work toward enacting in your life right now. Ultimately, you’ll work on all of them, but for now let’s start with one. This will give you a model to follow for the other valued directions you want to take.
The values you choose to work on first can have a high life-deviation score, or if you sense that there are barriers there you are not yet ready to confront, you can choose something lower on your list.
They are all important; they simply hold different levels of relative importance and you may pick any one to start with. If you want to live a fully engaged life you will pursue each of them in its course. For now, choose one area you would like to begin with. Write down your stated value on the line below:
If your value is the compass point by which you want to guide your life’s journey, your goals are the road map that can lead you there. Goals, as noted in earlier chapters, are different from values in that they are practical, obtainable events that move your life in the direction of your values. Goals are the guideposts by which you can mark your life’s journey, and they are important for a number of reasons.
Goals give you a practical means to make your values manifest. They also offer you a metric against which you can measure your progress on your valued path. You may know what you want to be about, but without goals, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to live these values in the real world.
There is a danger that attaches to goals that we need to emphasize before we begin: goals can be obtained. This presents a danger because our verbal faculties are very much outcome-oriented, and the whole point of values is that they are process-oriented.
Suppose you are out skiing, and when you got off the lift, you mention to the person who rode up the lift with you that you plan to ski down to the lodge where you’re going to meet up with some friends for lunch. “No problem” this person replies, and suddenly he waves to a helicopter above, that upon his signal, swoops you up and speedily deposits you at the ski lodge. You protest vigorously, but the pilot is incredulous. He says, “What’s your beef, my friend? It was you who said the objective was to get from the summit down to the lodge!”
The helicopter pilot would have a point if getting to the lodge were the only issue. If it is, flying down the slope achieves exactly what skiing down achieves. Both have you start at the top and end up at the lodge. The helicopter even has notable advantages: you don’t get cold, or tired, or wet, for example.
There is only one problem with this. The goal of getting to the lodge was meant to structure the process of skiing. That process was the true “goal.”
That’s what we meant when we said in chapter 11 that “outcome is the process through which process becomes the outcome.” You have to value “down” over “up” or you can’t do downhill skiing. Aiming at a specific goal (the lodge) allows you to “orienteer” one way to go down the hill. But the true goal
is just to ski, not reaching the goal (the lodge).
In precisely the same way, the true goal of goals is to orient you toward your values so you can live a valued life, moment by moment. A successful ACT patient put it this way toward the end of therapy:
“I just want to do this because that’s what I want my life to be about. It’s not really about any outcome. I want to be alive until I’m dead.” Goals can help you do exactly that. But be careful! Your mind will often claim that the true goal is the goal itself (after all, evaluating outcomes is what this organ evolved to do), and it will suggest that you should cut corners (like violate your integrity, or ignore other valued aspects of your life) to get there. That defeats the whole purpose, and if you succumb to cutting corners, accomplishing your goals will only mock you.
To start developing your goals you’ll need to consider both short-term and long-term objectives.
Short-term goals are the points on the map that are attainable in the near future; long-term goals are further down the road. Having both short-term and long-term goals makes for a paced journey that leads from one guidepost to the next. This is a very efficient way to travel. Theoretically, you could just wander around until you found your destination. But, as you know, that’s not very effective. Goal-oriented travel is much more practical.
Look back at the value you wrote down above. Now think of one thing you could do that would allow you to make that value manifest in a practical way. In the last several chapters, there have been various discussions on values and goals. There also have been a number of examples that may offer you some guidance. Remember to think about this in terms of a practical outcome. Don’t come up with something that is obviously outlandish.
If you’re a fifty-year-old salesclerk who values public service, and you decide your goal is to become the president of the United States, that isn’t likely to happen. Choose a goal that is a workable step in the direction of your values. If you are that fifty-year-old salesclerk who values public service, there are hundreds of ways you might approach making a public service contribution that is both practical and obtainable.
For example, you could do volunteer work in your community, perhaps serve food at a soup kitchen. Or, you might want to campaign for someone running for local office.
This isn’t said to discourage you from taking bold steps. Be bold. But be real. Don’t be too easy on yourself, but be realistic and decide on something you can achieve.
Once you have your goal firmly in mind, write it down in the space below:
Now check your goal for the following items:
! Is it practical?
! Is it obtainable?
! Does it work with your current situation?
! Does this goal lead you in the direction of your stated value?
If you answered yes to these questions, then you have successfully created a goal for yourself. If you couldn’t answer yes to whatever you wrote down in the space above, go back over chapters 11 and 12 and try to get clearer on what a goal is. The next step is to figure out whether this is a long-term goal or a short-term goal and whether or not you will need to complete additional goals to get there.
Next, on the following time line, plot a point where this goal would fall for you. The far left of the time line is your life, starting today. The end of the time line is your death, some reasonable amount of time in the future. Where on this line does your goal fall?
Life today End of life
The relative distance between where you are today and when you think you could reasonably achieve this goal will tell you whether it is a long-term or short-term goal. If you’ve established that your goal looks like a long-term one, you’ll need to develop some additional short-term goals to get there. If it’s a short-term goal, you might ask where this goal is leading you and where you’d like to go after it’s completed. Either way, you can return to the process described above until you are satisfied that you’ve produced a good set of long-term and short-term goals for the value you chose to work on. The following exercise will help you keep track of all this information.
EXERCISE: Goals Worksheet
This value will be manifested in the following long-term goal:
Which, in turn, will be manifested in these short-term goals:
This value will be manifested in the following long-term goal:
Which, in turn, will be manifested in these short-term goals:
Repeat this process until you have a good working set. (It need not be comprehensive; you can always add and subtract from these at any time.)
There are no hard and fast rules about how many goals you need to have. This is about your life.
Think about what you would like to accomplish, and set your goals in terms of how they will fit practically into your life. The numeration in the worksheet above is arbitrary. Perhaps starting with one long-term goal makes sense for you. Or if not, a single short-term goal may be a good place to start. You need not have a particular number of goals to be “doing the right thing.” If you’re getting caught in thoughts of this nature, remember your mind is talking to you again. Use the strategies you’ve learned throughout this book and set your compass in the direction you want to live.
Setting goals is all about workability. If you don’t make your goals workable within the context of your life, it’s unlikely you’ll get very far down the path of your values. Choose achievable, obtainable outcomes that can realistically fit with your life. Doing this makes it much more likely you’ll actually be able to live your values every day.
The true goal of this process is to become better able to focus on life as a valued process. Every goal is a step leading you further down the path of your life. The path itself doesn’t
end (at least not until your life ends). Being vital means there will always be some new way to pursue your values. Achieving your goals isn’t an end, but a new beginning; a point of closure at which you can refresh your journey by starting anew. Guideposts are important, but don’t be trapped by them. Celebrate goals achieved and keep on keeping on.
Walking the Walk: Actions as Steps Toward Achieving
You can talk the talk all you want, but if you don’t walk the walk, your life won’t come alive for you. What we’ve been exploring in this book is important, but what are you going to do about it? If you know where you want to go and don’t go there, then the knowledge makes little difference. ACT is all about action. To make a difference in your life, you need to act.
What actions are you going to take to achieve your goals? To move in the direction set by your value compass toward your first goal, what do you need to do?
Choose a short-term goal from the lists above and write it down in the space below:
EXERCISE: Making Goals Happen Through Action
Because life is a process, things happen one step at a time. Once you know what you value and what your goals are, you can choose which steps to take first. You have the compass and the road map. Now you need to focus on your steps. Minds are great at this, so this part should initially be easy, at least until the possibility of action creates barriers to action (more on this in a moment).
In the following worksheet, state one of your shorter-term goals copied from above. After writing that down, define specific actions you need to take to achieve that goal. (We’ve left space for five, but it could be greater or fewer). Make sure you write down what you can actually do.
Don’t be vague (e.g., “Do better”), and don’t write down things you cannot directly control by action (e.g., “Feel better”). Write down a specific situated action: this is an act that has a beginning and an end, a specified form, and a specified context. For example, “Build friendships” is not a specific action.
“Call friends” is better, but it is still too vague. “Call Sally” is fine. It has a beginning and end, a specified form, and a specified context. Try to include at least one thing you can do today.
For example, let’s say, as part of a longer-term goal of letting friends know you care about them, you’ve decided to contact old friends. One specific action might be to call a specific old friend (“Sally”) with whom you’ve lost contact. But this action may require others.
The first thing you have to do is find out how to get in touch with her. To do this, you might call some other friends who know her, look her up on the Internet, find her number in the white pages, or contact members of her family to see where she is. Each of these options would be a specific action that would take you one step further toward your goal of getting in contact with your old friend. Try to get enough actions and subactions written down so that if you did them all, achieving your goal would become highly likely, or even certain.
Short-term goal: ______________________________________________________________________
Actions and subactions:
What could you do right now (today) from this list? Focus on what is possible. If you are ready to do it, great. Do it. Right now.
Unfortunately, it’s often not so simple. (If it was, books like this would not be needed.) Unfortunately, barriers will come up. Some will come in the form of practical problems you’ll face moving down your valued path. But more importantly for the work we are doing here, barriers are going toshow up in the form of the experiences you’ve been trying to avoid, or in the form of the thoughts you’ve been fused with.
That’s what the first parts of this book were all about. They were about being in a new place when this moment came.
Focus in on one of the specific actions you wrote down above that you could do today, and choose one that you have some psychological resistance toward doing. Write that behavior below:
If you were to do this right now, what would you expect to encounter psychologically that would slow you down? Look for difficult thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, memories, or urges. If you aren’t sure yet, close your eyes and picture engaging in this behavior and watch for indications of the barriers.
Don’t allow avoidance to get in the way of this process! If you find your mind wandering, or you think,
“Damn, I don’t care about this anyway,” or you suddenly get hungry or have to pee, be suspicious!
Avoidance comes in myriad forms. Stay with this process and in the space below write down each barrier
you can detect:
Now that some potential barriers to action are out there, consider the strategies you have learned in this book up to this point. If you’ve developed “favorite” cognitive defusion, mindfulness, and acceptance strategies, you might consider using these. Flipping back through the book could help you remember what these are. If you have no idea at all, it’s time to go back to the early parts of the book and go through them again.
In an ACT approach you do not “get over” barriers or “get around” barriers. You do not even “get through” barriers. You get with barriers. One successful ACT patient described it this way: “I used to run away from pain. Now I inhale it.”
EXERCISE: Expected Barriers
In the following chart fill in a word or two to remind you of the barriers you expect to face along your valued path, as well as strategies you might use to mindfully defuse from and accept these barriers.
Barriers ACT Strategies
You can practice “inhaling” your barriers in your imagination, but the very best way to work on this is in the context of action. Be careful! Your mind will tell you that the strategies you selected are supposed to get rid of barriers. That is very unlikely, and it is a very old agenda. The purpose of these strategies should be to defuse from and make room for the psychological issues that have been stopping you from acting in your own interests.
MANY MAPS FOR DIFFERENT JOURNEYS
So far, we’ve been exploring how you might walk down the path that a single value generates for you. But in chapter 12 we explored ten different valued domains. In each domain you may have written down more than one value. In addition, you may come up with values that don’t necessarily fit the categories we’ve been exploring. If you valued a single thing, life would, perhaps, be simpler.
But it wouldn’t be as full and dynamic as it is when you value many different things. If your list of values is full, that means you have an exciting journey ahead of you.
Different journeys require different maps. Since we aren’t moving toward a destination on a physical plane, we can take many different journeys at the same time. You can and should pursue different values in different domains at the same time. Life would be stripped of its richness if we weren’t given
The work you’ve done in this chapter could be summarized on the following form:
Goals Actions Barriers Strategies
If you wish, you can summarize the information you’ve collected about your values and goals earlier in this chapter on this form. What’s more, you can use this form in conjunction with the questions we pose throughout this chapter as a way to generate road maps for each of your valued paths.
You may want to photocopy it several times and go back to the values you worked out in chapter 12. Start with one of those values, write it down in the space at the top of the form, and do the whole process again. In this way, you’ll formulate a concrete game plan for the next steps on your life path that will span the many different areas you care about.
Sometimes, you’ll find that different valued paths combine quite well. In other instances, they will not. In those cases, you may have to make a choice about what your next turn is, or where you want your life to go. There are no pat answers. We can’t tell you what those choices should be. The choice is always yours to make. We don’t pretend to make life any easier than it is.
BUILDING PATTERNS OF EFFECTIVE ACTION
Many of the problems we suffer with are, in essence, self-control issues. Avoidance and fusion feed patterns that serve short-term interests at the expense of long-term interests.
! Make commitment—break commitment—quit commitment—feel bad about breaking
Or maybe even:
! Make commitment—break commitment—quit commitment—feel bad about breaking commitment—fear making commitments—give up on making commitments
These behavioral patterns are yet to be fully formed. It is your behavior that will, or will not, form them. Nothing else. Rationalizing them is just another part of the pattern. So is rationalizing them and then feeling bad about rationalizing them.
Step back from your own mind, and watch the pattern forming. If it is forming now, you can form it in the way you would like it to be through your behavior. If you want it to be different, then it is different behavior that must occur. If “make commitment—break commitment” has been a pattern for you in the past, when you now find that yet again you’ve broken a commitment, you have a golden opportunity.
You have the chance to create a different pattern: make commitment—break commitment—keep commitment.
If that pattern builds, you can squeeze down the space given to the middle term and get just a notch closer to “make commitment—keep commitment—make commitment—keep commitment.” If there are a few “break commitments” in there, you can gradually weed them out. It is unlikely that you will ever get them all out, but it is empowering to reach toward that distant goal.
The process of building behavioral patterns involves noticing the pattern and taking responsibility for building larger and larger ones that align with your best interests. If you feel guilty when you see these patterns, building effective larger behavioral patterns means taking responsibility for the role that guilt is about to play in the pattern you are creating right now.
If you doubt yourself, the same principle applies.
If you are afraid of making any commitments for fear you will never keep them anyway, same thing. If you feel supremely confident, same thing. If you brag to others about how well you are doing, same thing.
And, if all of this just seems too much, same thing.
You get what you do. Get it?
(And if you react to the seeming arrogance of that statement on our part, you have our apologies
AND … same thing!)
Breaking Up Inflexible Patterns That Don’t Serve Your Interests
The biggest problem with avoidance and fusion and the conceptualized self (and so on) is that they get so rigid because they become such large patterns. Contexts of literality, reason-giving, and emotional control are ubiquitous because the language community (the language-driven world that we are surrounded by all the time) continuously supports them, even when they are not needed. Because the contexts are ubiquitous, the behaviors become so as well. Your word machine starts to take over every inch of your life.
That’s why this book probably felt confusing initially: we were breaking down an habitual languagepattern. We have been challenging the implicit rules of a language game that has most humans ensnared most of the time.
For new things to happen, we must break down the old things. ACT clients sometimes call this the “reverse compass.” They learn that if a habit points north, it may be time to head south. That strange little item in your actual exposure exercise in chapter 10 (remember the exercise “Acceptance in Real
Time” about deliberately doing more of what your mind said you could not do) was a reverse compass
When large, old, inflexible patterns break down, you have an opportunity to establish new patterns where they are needed. Some of these patterns can be consistent if it works for them to be so (for example, you may find that it works to keep your commitments); others can be deliberately established as more flexible patterns if being more flexible works.
Let’s give you an example of some pattern-smashing games that you might play. Suppose you notice that you always have a drink or two when you go to parties. You don’t have a drinking problem, but you suspect that some of this social drinking might be part of your pattern of getting comfortable, so that you can relate to people more easily, and that, in turn, is a part of your pattern of “try not to have feelings that I don’t like.”
That larger pattern has costs, and you see that; so, perhaps you could get a handle on breaking out of your larger pattern by attending to this small aspect of it that you just detected.
So, how about going to the next party without consuming any liquor? Just for fun. Just to see. It might be interesting to see what it’s like not to have any alcohol to grease the wheels of socialization.
And instead of withdrawing, how about looking a stranger in the eye and getting a real conversation going. Instead of holding back, how about saying something slightly personal? Inside all of these smaller changes, you may discover whether you’ve been using crutches, and what they cost you, if anything.
Suppose you notice the pull to “look good” and “be right” when you are with other people. Superficially, your efforts cost you nothing, but you suspect they are part of a larger pattern of trying not to feel small, which, in turn, is part of a larger pattern of trying not to be seen, for fear of seeming small, and that is part of a larger pattern of accepting the idea that you are, indeed, small. If you noticed that pull, you might try doing something that would create social discomfort intentionally, for no other reason than to feel what it is like to be uncomfortable socially.
For example, wear white socks with dark clothing, but don’t talk about it. Skip putting on your make-up or apply it in a silly way. Tell a lame joke deliberately, but don’t explain it. Deliberately misstate a fact you know, but don’t admit you are doing it deliberately. Tell an embarrassing story about yourself to friends. Pay for something using only small change. Purchase something odd (like deodorant) and then return it.
Do you see the point? The goal is not to be silly or to be a fool. Once you’ve broken up the pattern, new behaviors will become possible. The goal is to confront your larger patterns when you detect they have built a box for you to live in that spreads into areas you care about.
For example, if you can return deodorant, you also might be slightly more likely to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for a contribution to feed hungry children (if an action like that appeared on one of the “action” lists linked to your goals and values). Or you could call someone you barely know and ask for a date (if that showed up on one of the “action” lists linked to your goals and values).
One great way to break up unhelpful larger patterns is to do truly new things regularly. Paint a painting if you’ve never done so; learn to dance; sing a song in a karaoke bar; join a social group; take a cooking class; fix or build something yourself; write a poem; start a journal. This can be especially useful
if these “things I just don’t do” are part of a larger pattern of avoiding failure.
Superficially, it seems as though it wouldn’t matter if you can’t give a toast because, “I’ll be embarrassed if it’s bad.” After all, how often would you have to give a toast anyway? But what larger pattern is being fed? If it is a larger pattern of playing small, you may be building yourself a straightjacket withthese tiny choices.
You may be feeding a conceptualized self (“I’m just not good at doing social things” or “I’m just too anxious”) that is systematically narrowing your own ability to live. (See chapter 7 for a discussion about the conceptualized self.) If so, it’s time to kill off that conceptualized self by breaking the pattern. This is the sense in which ACT advises “kill yourself every day.”
We’ve identified some of the key larger patterns that language encourages: experiential avoidance, cognitive fusion, attachment to the conceptualized self, and so on. If you do anything different in the presence of events that normally lead to these patterns, you are helping to create more psychological flexibility.
In the grandest scheme of things, that is the ultimate goal of ACT—the ability to fit your behavior creatively into the larger patterns you wish to create. Said another way, the ultimate goal of this book is psychological liberation. How much has your life been about what your mind suggests, rather than what you want it to be about?
You many wish to return to that exposure exercise in chapter 10. If you haven’t finished working with all of the items, perhaps now is a good time to do so. If you have more lists to work on, perhaps now is the time to begin.
Because You Said So
As you take responsibility for building larger patterns that serve your interests, and as you break down patterns that do not, it’s important to keep your eye on the linchpin in both: Can you do what you said you would do? Building the strength of that pattern is the most important pattern of all. It’s a good idea always to be working on keeping small commitments for no reason at all other than you said so.
Here is why.
You cannot build larger behavioral patterns in agreement with your values unless you can do what you say you will do. But if you limit doing what you say to this one area, a vulnerability opens up: What if your mind gets you confused about what is or is not a value? It seems safer to fill that gap. That way, if you make a commitment and begin to reconsider it because you now think it is not really important, you’ll have the strength to maintain the pattern for long enough to complete the commitment.
The way to fill this gap is to choose to do things for no reason other than you said so. At one time in human history this was a common practice, and was considered a kind of moral training. It still exists in our spiritual and religious institutions, but at a much weaker level than it once was.
Examples might include getting up and going to bed at an early hour just because; foregoing favorite foods for a period of time, just because; fasting, just because; wearing an uncomfortable shirt, just because; writing in a journal, just because.
Such commitments should be clear and time-limited. The need for clarity is obvious, but they should be time-limited because otherwise, knowing they will eventually end, your mind will suggest that the time to end them is now.
It is best that they do not seem important (that way they also provide practice in defusion from the need for importance). The importance comes when life demonstrates that keeping your commitments is useful. This is just a way to practice and build that pattern.
None of this will work, however, unless you maintain the pattern. It is sometimes surprisingly hard to do. This is in itself revealing. If the patterns are trivial, why are they so hard to change? Usually, it’s because there is a strong past pattern of not keeping commitments, or keeping them only when you “have to,” which is all the more reason to practice.
Defusing from What You Are Not Yet Ready to Address
You cannot address all of your unhelpful behavior patterns at once. But there is a huge difference between taking things one step at a time, and creating new forms of rigidity that will later become problems. Suppose, for example, you have an anxiety problem and you use tranquilizers occasionally to try to reduce your anxiety. This is not likely to be harmful as long as you are undermining experiential avoidance patterns and you stay open to considering the role of tranquilizers when you get to them.
What is dangerous is fusing with exceptions (“Whether Valium is a form of avoidance or not, I don’t care. I have to have my Valium.”) as if you get to decide which patterns are workable or not, regardless of their actually workability. What if you go forward so far, and then it becomes clear to you that Valium is, in fact, part of a larger avoidance pattern (we are not saying it must be … but what if?).
Fusion such as this will now create a very difficult barrier indeed. It is far better to take a flexible “wait and see” posture with whatever you are not yet ready to address.
Fused statements like, “If I ever lost my mother I would just fall apart!” or “I can’t face my abuse history. I can’t!” are both unhelpful and dangerous. Moving in the direction you value doesn’t mean getting to have it your way. One step at a time is helpful. Choosing your values is essential. “I get to pick what works and what doesn’t work” is pure fantasy. If you are not yet willing in a given area, fine. Just watch for the cost and stay open and defused.
There is nothing in life that is not made more real by sharing. Intimacy is a matter of sharing your values and your vulnerabilities. If you are building new patterns and breaking up old ones, share that process. If you see a form of avoidance and you are ready to let it go, tell others of what you see. It’s like shining a light down a dark hole where you hide.
It becomes much less appealing to hide there because at least one person will know the game you’re playing. If you have a new commitment, share that too. It
will make it real. Just don’t expect the other person to make that new thing happen, and don’t try to deflect your responsibility by sharing.
Staying Mindful of Your Values
The best way to build larger patterns is to be mindful of them. The worksheet on the next page can be very helpful in this regard. You can fit four months of data at once on it, allowing you to look at very large patterns of progress in each of the ten domains where you have done values work (our thanks to David Chantry for allowing us to use this form, which he developed).
Family (other than marriage or parenting)
Physical self care (diet, exercise, sleep)
Use these charts to keep a record over the next few weeks of your ratings of how important each of these life areas are to you (these ratings may not change very much), and how consistent your actions have been with each of your values.
Each week, mark your ratings by putting in the appropriate box a forward stroke (/) in, say, red ink for your importance ratings, and a backward stroke (\)in, say, black ink, for your consistency ratings.
Guilt, Forgiveness, and Repair
Earlier in this book we discussed the fact that all people have an investment in keeping their “reasons” and their “stories” true, even when their bottom line is pain, or limitation.
Now it’s time to face
another source of pain that is built into growth: that is, guilt over wasted time and opportunities.
Human beings don’t come with owner’s manuals. Most of us have to learn the hard way how normal psychological processes can become traps—by becoming trapped. ACT research demonstrates that the processes we’ve described in this book can be powerful sources of change. But real progress immediately confronts us with the fact that things that happened to us in our lives, which became part of very destructive patterns, did not, in hindsight, have to function that way.
The pull to fuse around a new form of defense is very powerful. In its most extreme form, that pull can destroy progress by using the secret function of maintaining the story “I couldn’t do anything else.”
Usually this pattern is seen when the person realizes how much harm took place in the service of avoidance, fusion, or maintaining a conceptualized self. Marriages may have been broken needlessly.
Children may have been driven away without real cause. Parents may have been blamed too harshly. Opportunities may have been spoiled forever. Sometimes it is not even possible to apologize: people have died or are no longer interested.
In such situations, this is precisely when the processes we’ve been describing are most needed. This is when you need all the kindness and compassion for yourself that you can muster. To accept these painful feelings, defuse from self-critical thoughts, and focus on what it is you really value, you must be kind to yourself.
If you do that, even your pain becomes part of your new, more self-respectful, more values-consistent path. Respectfully decline your mind’s invitation to beat yourself up for not knowingwhat was in the owner’s manual you were never given. You do not need to defend that by fusing with new defensive rationalizations. You did the best you could at the time. You know more now.
Often growth processes require not just self-forgiveness of the kind we have just described, but forgiveness of others, too. Suppose, for example, early in your life, you were abused in some way and the feelings the abuse engendered became a destructive force in your life. As you learn and practice the skills of acceptance, defusion, mindfulness, and directing your life in terms of your values, you may begin to realize (1) that you’ve been trying to hold the abuser responsible by making sure your own life is a mess, and (2) that you have the skills to move ahead, even with your history of abuse, into a life you value.
This can be very painful. It may seem as though you are letting the abuser “off the hook” if your life prospers without that person first admitting his or her wrongdoing, or hurting the way you were hurt, or, at the very least, acknowledging your pain. In some sense this may even be true (for example, an abusive parent seeing your new progress might think, “See, I didn’t really do anything so bad.” Ouch).
But the “hook” went through you first … then your mind put the abuser on the hook. Letting go of keeping that person on the hook means you can now slide off too. It doesn’t mean that now you think that what was done to you was right. It means moving on, and serving your own best interests.
The etymology of forgiveness is “giving what went before.” Forgiveness is really a gift to yourself, not to the events or persons who created hurt in your life.
As this kind of process deepens, you will probably encounter the inverse situation. You may begin to see how avoidance and fusion led you to destructive acts toward others. You may have been selfrighteous, or shown a lack of integrity. You may have been distant, or failed to be there for the people you loved. In your fear, your children may have received less than they deserved. In your addiction, your employer may have been shortchanged.
The flip side of forgiveness is responsibility. When you detect destructive patterns of behavior in yourself, taking responsibility means trying to clean up your past messes, and systematically making repairs where you can. If you skip this step and simply try to move toward what you value now, it will have a hollow ring.
WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?
Life is hard. Life is also many other things. Ultimately your life is what you choose to make it. When the word machine dominates, life works one way. When the verbal evaluative side of you is but one source of input, life works differently. The choices themselves aren’t always easy, but finding the freedom to choose is a liberating experience. It’s your life. It is not the word machine’s—even though (of course) it tells you otherwise.
The Choice to Live a
When you confront a core problem within yourself, you are at a choice point much like the figure below illustrates. Off to the right lies your old path of avoidance and control. This is the path the negative passengers on the bus most want you to take. It is the logical, reasonable, sensible, verbal path. Your mind will chatter on about dangers, risk, and vulnerabilities and will present avoidance as a method of solution.
You’ve been down this path, over and over and over again. It’s not your fault; you’ve done what any reasonable person would do. It just turns out not to be effective, vital, or empowering.
It’s not your fault, but now that you know, it is your responsibility. Life can and will make you hurt.
Some of that you don’t get to choose: it comes regardless. An accident may confront you with physical pain; an illness may confront you with disability; a death may confront you with feelings of loss. But even then you have the ability to respond (the response-ability).
The consequences that come into your life derive from the actions you engage in, and most especially the actions we’ve been discussing throughout this book.
No one but you can engage in acceptance or avoidance; fusion or defusion; living in your head or living in the present; taking yourself Conclusion. Figure 1: The crucial fork in the road. to be nothing but your programming; or taking yourself to be your continuity of consciousness itself.
Most of all, no one but you can choose your values.
There is a crucial fork in the road. You must choose which path to take. The less traveled path to the left is the path of acceptance, mindfulness, defusion, and valuing what you really care about. Down that road is vulnerability and risk, but it is about something.
These two roads lead to very different places. It’s not that one leads to problems and one doesn’t. It is not that one leads to pain and one doesn’t. They both lead to problems. And they both lead to pain.
To the right the problems are old and familiar; to the left they are new and even more challenging.
To the right the pain is deadening and suffocating; to the left the pain is bittersweet and intensely human.
Imagine you are looking down at that fork in the road. From above you can see that this choice before you is part of a larger system of choices. Imagine that you start right in the center with your problems. You hit the fork in the road and if you go left, you go into the acceptance and commitment cycle.
If you go right, you go into the control and avoidance cycle. Both of these cycles are illustrated below.
The Acceptance and
The Control and
Mindfulness and Defusion
(Non-judgmentally observing my
private experiences; seeing my thoughts
as thoughts, my feelings as feelings,
untangling “me” from them)
(The life direction I choose; what I want
my life to be about)
Control and Avoidance
(Acting on “solutions” proposed by
my mind, often with the agenda of
controlling or avoiding my
distressing thoughts, feelings and
sensations; making deals with my
Acceptance and Being Present
(Embracing my experiences in the
here and now fully and without
(Buying into my thoughts; losing me
in the process)
Words, Words, Words
(Endless predictions and evaluations
about my problems; I lose contact
with the present moment and start
living in my head)
Growth and Contacted Barriers
(When I step forward in the direction
of my values, especially into new or
previously avoided territory, my life
grows I also often again encounter
new forms of …)
Commitment and Flexibility
(Choosing to take action consistent
with my values, carrying my passengers
with me; taking heed of them when it
works to do so; thinking and living
Relief and Struggle
(Temporary relief and the illusion
that control and avoidance may
work soon gives way to “this isn’t
working” and struggle)
Life Restriction and Loss
(My life shrinks; I lose vitality and contact
with my values and become more
Conclusion. Figure 2: The Acceptance Cycle and the Avoidance Cycle.
In the control and avoidance cycle, life is all about what your mind tells you. You become entangled with verbal predictions and evaluations. You start trying to do what your mind says to do, even if you’ve tried these things before and found they didn’t work. Your “life bus” is turned over to your mental passengers, and they drive right off into control and avoidance. For a little while it even feels better. At least it is predictable. You feel relieved.
You’ve been down this road before and at least you’ve always survived before. But, sooner or later, you are right back where you started, except now you are weakened. Life is a little bit smaller. More time has gone by, and somehow it’s as if your life hasn’t started. You not only have problems to deal with, they are the same familiar, deadening problems.
How long will this cycle go on? Think of the problems you have been struggling with. When did they start? What if the next five years are like the last five years were in this regard? The next ten years?
In the acceptance and commitment cycle, the sequence is different. You notice the chatter all right, but you don’t become entangled in it. You see that there is a distinction between you, the conscious driver of the bus, and the passengers you carry. You have room on the bus for them. You accept them. You defuse from them. But then you turn your eyes back to the road and connect with that which you really value. You drive in that direction. As a result, your life grows a little, and it becomes a little more vital and flexible.
As you grow, however, you are likely to contact problems again. Often these are not quite the same old problems, they are subtly different. They are new, and perhaps even more challenging. For example, if you move in the direction of loving relationships, you now have problems of vulnerability whereas previously you may have had problems of alienation. If you move in the direction of making a contribution, you now face problems of fear of inadequacy or inability, whereas previously you faced problems of fear that you did not belong or were invalid.
Sometimes, these new problems present themselves as even more fearsome than your old ones. Especially if they feel new or more intense, your mind often will scream out in
fear that you’ve made a terrible mistake, and you are moving backwards.
And there you are. Back at
the fork in the road. The whole
choice gets to be repeated.
If you consistently choose
to go left, life will not become
any easier. It will only become
The Choice to Live a Vital Life 197
Toward a vital,
Toward a narrow,
The Acceptance and Commitment Cycle
The Control and Avoidance Cycle
Figure 3: The spirals of vitality and inflexibility in life.
more vital. Progress is being made. It is like figure 3. As you keep taking that bus of life off into the acceptance and commitment cycle, you move up in a new direction. What looked like a circle in figure 2 is, in fact, a spiral. You still have problems, even big ones. They occur regularly. But progress is being created. You are living a more vital, flexible, and values-based life. When the other path is taken, you are also in a spiral, but very likely it is one that is spiraling down in a narrower, more struggle-based and less flexible life.
Note that the presence of problems, and perhaps even their frequency or their intensity, could be the same or even greater if you take the acceptance and commitment cycle. What is different is that on the left-hand spiral you get out of your mind and into your life. You hurt, AND you are living. On the right-hand spiral you sink into the mental war of human suffering.
You’ve often taken the right-hand path. Haven’t you had enough? By now its results are extremely predictable. Predictability makes this choice curiously “safe” but doesn’t remove its deadening qualities. Acceptance and commitment offers a path with unknown ends. Its newness makes it a more frightening path but it also makes it a more vital one. To illustrate this point, we rather like the following quote:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.
Concerning all acts of initiative there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and endless plans: That the moment one definitely commits oneself then providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never have otherwise occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have
dreamed would come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it! Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. (Murray, partially quoting Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1951.)
Life is a choice. The choice here is not about whether or not to have pain. It is whether or not to live a valued, meaningful life.
You’ve had enough suffering. Get out of your mind and into your life.
(We are rooting for you).