Clarifying values

One of the primary reasons for promoting mindfulness skills in ACT is that they can help to ensure that people do not aimlessly go about their life, failing to pursue a direction that is meaningful to them. As noted earlier, in ACT, a value is a chosen life direction that is never achieved, or at least achieved indefinitely; for example, one must work constantly at being a caring partner: Even if one is caring today, further caring actions need to be undertaken tomorrow in order to remain caring. In contrast, goals are specific and have discrete outcomes that constitute observable steps in the direction of one’s values; actively listening to one’s partner instead of watching the television could be a goal that is in the service of the value of being a caring partner.

Mindfulness is useful in clarifying values in at least two ways. First, it facilitates the “accuracy” of a values assessment exercise that we use in our workplace ACT training program. In this exercise, participants are presented with ten core areas of life (e.g., family relations, work/career, recreation/leisure, physical health, and so on) (adapted from Hayes et al. 1999, pp. 224-225). Participants are asked to write down their “chosen life directions” (i.e., values) in each area of life that they rate as personally important. To facilitate this process, the trainer introduces various questions, such as “Imagine you are now 80 years old and looking back. What footprints would you like to see behind you in this area of your life?” and “What do you want to be about in this area of your life?” and “If you have goals in this area of your life, in which direction are they taking you?” These questions can themselves help to increase mindfulness by promoting defusion and the perspective-taking that can enhance SAC. According to ACT theory, though, people who approach this exercise from a mindful perspective to start with are more likely to contact the values that are truly meaningful to them, rather than what is meaningful to others or what they feel is expected of them.

Mindfulness is further helpful in values clarification in that it helps people to identify honestly “internal barriers” (e.g., difficult or unhelpful thoughts, memories, moods, or emotions) that have the potential to interfere with clarifying and pursuing their valued directions (e.g., fear of rejection). These barriers often provide the richest material around which to practice and develop mindfulness and acceptance skills, as they are the internal events that can most effectively block people from living a life that is meaningful to them.

Finally, mindfulness can help people to distinguish between internal barriers to living a valued life (e.g., anxiety) and external barriers (e.g., lack of relevant skills). It is not unusual for these two types of barriers to interact, so that people fail to address an external barrier because they do not recognize or acknowledge the internal one. Thus, the reason given for not pursuing one’s values is the external barrier when, in fact, it could be overcome if only a person were willing to address the internal one.

Unsurprisingly, reflecting on one’s values in a considered and methodical manner can be powerful, and participants occasionally become upset while completing such exercises, especially if they realize that they have been mindlessly pursuing life directions that they would not ultimately choose for themselves. Here, mindfulness skills help people to make room for that upset so that they are freer to identify, accept, and move in directions that are meaningful to them. Finally, and reflected in the hexagon, clarifying values and identifying internal barriers to pursuing them can serve as an impetus to practice the mindfulness exercises that will help them to create their meaningful life; a point that we often make in our training sessions.

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