ACT Therapy #3 – Values

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning


In this article we will look at the next piece of the ACT puzzle – Values.  In previous blogs I mentioned the overview of ACT which gave a general introduction to the six core principles of this elegant and comprehensive system of therapy.  Then I wrote about the Present Moment and Acceptance.  However, it needs to be said that there is no “order” in the principles – they all work together simultaneously when we are in optimal health.  And so in counselling sessions, what part we look at will depend on what we are working on in either that day, or that phase of treatment.

It only makes sense to look at Values next, because without clarifying our values, there is little sense of why we’re actually doing all of this in the first place.  First, what do we mean by values here?  I often say that values represent core characteristics of yourself that are important in every realm of life.   A value word for me personally, for example, would be “unconditionally loving”.  It is a statement about what I choose to stand for, what I want to prioritize, and what qualities I want to inform my actions.  Unlike goals, values are like a compass that gives us a general, underlying direction in life that we will never perfectly achieve.  I can be unconditionally loving while I drive my car to the store, and it can also inform what I buy, and even, I suspect – how I breathe when I’m waiting in line.  Compare that to a goal that is informed by my value – which might be to “take my elderly mother out for lunch next week”.

So that’s what values are.  But why do we bother with this?  Because quite simply, without a clear sense of values, your life can easily lose meaning and purpose.  And this is actually an enormous problem!  Viktor Frankl, author of what the US Library of Congress states is one of the most influential books of the whole last century (Man’s Search for Meaning), shows us that when we have meaning in our lives, we can thrive in almost any condition.  And it has to be pointed out that he discovered this by observing himself and others as he lived through a Nazi concentration camp.  And in the study of depression and mood disorders psychologists have noted that one of the primary roots of pervasive and consistent low moods is a lack of meaning and purpose.  Without values, we no longer have a point in living – motivation drops, the glass becomes half empty, energy plummets, and apathy and past conditioning take us over.  Doesn’t sound too nice, does it?

Fortunately, even if you have never articulated them clearly, you probably have some very important values that already guide your life.  But by clarifying them and deliberately using them to inform our choices, we harness a turbocharger up to our lives that streamlines our behaviours and facilitates positive change.

Russ Harris, the ACT grandmaster, states that there are five key points about values

  1. Values are here and now; goals are in the future
  2. Values never need to be justified
  3. Values often need to be prioritized
  4. Values are best held lightly
  5. Values are freely chosen

(ACT Made Simple, 2009)


Take a moment here and check in – what might be some of your core values?  Here is a list of a few common values I come across regularly:

  • Kindness
  • Creativity
  • Strength
  • Justice
  • Beauty

There are many exercises that we can do to get more clear on this, but a simple question to ask is:  what characteristics would you WISH that people could use to describe you?  Consider this for a moment, and choose one word that might mean the most to you.  Now, how could you be more of that right now, and later today and finally, how could you create a future goal that might show this quality in you?  Without putting much thought into this, you can see that any time that we clarify our values, and put into action, you are going to end up having a better quality of life.  And that is what all of this is about!

If you are having a hard time finding motivation to do something in your life, or making a big choice, this is when values work becomes critical.  If that sounds like you, I would recommend taking some time to do a few exploration exercises.  Open up a blank document or journal page, and just start writing about what you really want to stand for in life.  Or, talk about what you would hope that you would be remembered for at the end of your life.  These are just simple prompts, but there are much more elaborate and in-depth exercises that you can find online (here) or that can be explored in session with an ACT therapist.

Even if further effort on this is not interesting to you, I would leave you with a simple challenge that I bet any money will end up making your day more enjoyable:  think of a quality of being (value) that you think is really important.  Just one.  Now, set your intention to do just one small thing today that really embodies that quality.

It’s not magic, but for some people, this fairly simple work is enough to shift their whole direction.

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