Understand your Values in ACT

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), we are interested in developing the psychological flexibility needed to become unstuck from our difficulties and begin a life that is consistent with our personal Values.  As we learn how to defuse from difficult thoughts and change our relationship to strong emotions, we can then move on to make decisions about the kinds of things that are truly important in our lives.  We want to use our newfound ACT skills to move towards the rich, full meaningful life that we desire – the problem is however, sometimes what we truly want may be unclear.

This is where we need to talk about our Values.

When we talk about values in ACT, we are talking about a set of ideas which are important to us as individuals in the context of our lives.  By identifying our Values we are then able to identify behaviours which are consistent with them – to take the action that matters to us in the service of living our value based life.

So, in this section we are going to look in-depth at your values – we are going to work out what are the things that are truly important to you and how we can organise our lives in the service of them as we move towards the meaningful life that we want.

The word “Values” can mean different things to different people.  It can sometimes be poorly defined or can have negative associations for some people.  So, from the outset, let’s look at some nice and simple meanings of Values…

Values can mean…

  • Living your life based on what’s important to you
  • Doing what truly matters
  • The things that give our lives purpose

So Values in ACT refers to understanding the deeper things that are important to us and choosing to live our lives in way that closely aligns with them.

For the more technical amongst you, a radical behavioural definition, suggested by Psychologist Kelly Wilson is:

“freely chosen, verbally constructed consequences of ongoing, dynamic, evolving patterns of activity, which establish predominant reinforcers for that activity that are intrinsic in engagement in the valued behavioral pattern itself”

What we’re getting at here ultimately is that Values are the things which we want to organise our lives around, the things that give it meaning and resonate with what is important to us.

A good way to think about this is like a Value as being a compass direction.  I can choose an area of life which is relevant to me – say, my career.  Now for me personally, in my career, the opportunity to engage in self-development is an important Value.  I currently like to feel that I am learning new skills and knowledge and developing in my career and I’m pretty sure that I’ll still be wanting to develop myself in my career in another 20 years-time.  So, in identifying “Self-development” as being one of my Career Values, I can place this Value – at the top of my compass.  It points in the direction of what is important to me in my career – if I’m ever feeling lost, stuck or otherwise drifting then I can always think about my Value compass and compare it to the direction that I’m actually heading.

There was a time in my life when I was feeling unfilled in my career.  I was working as a therapist in the NHS and opportunities for self-development were scarce and not always reflective of the direction that I wanted to develop in.  So, in this case, I started to feel despondent and unfulfilled in my career.  I was not living in a way that was consistent with my personal values.  If I would have continued down this path then I would continue to feel unfulfilled.  By identifying that I needed to live more consistently with my “self-development” value, I was able to then take committed action in a direction that more closely supported me.  When we drift away from living in relation to our Values, we are drifting away from the rich and meaningful life that we truly want.  We need to get back on track in the direction of our Values Compass.

Understanding my Values enables me know where and why I want my life to move.  By establishing what my values are in relation to life areas like Family, Relationship, Career, Health, Development, Finance, etc, I can readily make behavioural changes when I find myself going adrift.

In establishing your Values, we can undertake a Values assessment.  I’ve already covered this in another article and you can read through that here – Values Assessment.  However, there is more than one way to get to know your Values.  Here is another exercise for you try:


Rocking chair exercise

I’d like you to use your imagination to move yourself forwards to your old age – 80, 90, 100 years old.  You’re feeling peaceful and relaxed and gently rocking back and forth on a comfortable, familiar old rocking chair.  You’ve got your eyes closed, breathing slowly and reflecting on the life and times of all the years gone by.  You’re fondly remembering the fun times, the things that have made you proud and the challenges that you’ve overcome.  You smile as you bring to mind all of the things that you’ve learned, everything you’ve achieved and the relationships you’ve contributed to and experienced.


Family relations

What sort of relationships would you have enjoyed with your family?  Parents, siblings, children, grandchildren?  What would you have brought to these relationships?  How much would you have contributed to the lives of your family?  How would others look towards you in your valued relationships – what qualities would they have seen in you?

Marriage/couple relations

What sort of partner would you have been in your intimate relationships?  What would have been the main ways that you would like to have been with your partner or partners?  What would your relationships have looked like? How would you have handled the good times and the less good?  How loving would you have been?  How intimate?  How supportive?


If being a parent was important to you, what sort of parent would you have been?  What qualities would your children or people under your care have seen in you – what would you be most proud of?  How would you have spent your time with them?  What knowledge, advise and wisdom would you be most happy to given to them?

Friendships/social life

What sorts of friendships would you have enjoyed?  How would you have spent your time with friends?  What would have brought to your friendships and your social life?  What would people have thought of you?


What sort of career or jobs would you have like to have had?  How would you have liked to find meaning in the jobs you had done?  What contribution would you have made in your work and who would have benefitted from your input?  How far would you have gone in your work?  Would you have been part of an organisation or a team or would you have pursued work that was more personal to you?  What would you be happy to have left to the people that have followed?

Education/personal growth and development

What would you be happy that you had taken the take to learn or develop in?  What qualifications might you have?  What knowledge would you possess?  How have these helped you and others across the course of your life?


How would you have spent your free time?  What would have been the things that you had enjoyed the most in your leisure time.  Would you have been playful, took time to relax or maybe you would have used your leisure time to relax or create?  Would you have liked to use this time alone, or with others?  What would you be most proud of in your use of your leisure time?


What kind of spiritual, religious or otherwise sense of connectedness would you have developed?  How would you have explored your relationship to the world, the universe or God?  What would have been that most important steps that you would have taken on this journey?

Citizenship/environment/ community life

What sort of contribution would you have liked to have made to your community or the environment?  What social causes would you be proud of participating in?  What sort of difference would be most important to you?  What would your legacy be?

Health/physical well-being

What sort of health would you be in?  What sorts of health-based activities would have been important to you on your journey through life?  What would be the biggest changes that you made to arrive as you are in your rocking chair today?  What was important to you in giving up or taking up the health behaviours that truly mattered?

Just allowing your mind to focus on your achievements – the outcomes of living a life based around your deepest Values.  Just noticing how this feels as you rest, relaxed in your armchair in the winter of your life.

Just take a few moments to write some of the things that came up for you in this exercise down.

If you have done this exercise, you will now have a list of all of the main Values that are important to you in all of the main areas of your life.

In the next section, Committed Action, we are going to look at how we can then take the, sometimes challenging, steps that we need to take as we move in the direction of our personal Values.

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