July was a heck of a month. Having just returned from a 5-month sabbatical, I was ready to get settled back into my life here in Portland when I got a phone call that stopped me in my tracks. We’ve all had those moments, when an unexpected event challenges us to consider what really matters, often with shocking, jarring clarity. Maybe it’s a phone call that a loved one is being rushed to the hospital. Or maybe it’s the day you lose your “dream job” or your physician gives you that unexpected diagnosis that will change the trajectory of your life. Or maybe it’s the moment your loved one looks into your eyes and says they are leaving you. These things can happen to any of us and if you’ve ever been confronted with one of these crises then I’m guessing it gave you pause to reflect.
Crisis and loss often have a way of clarifying what is most important to us. It often takes a crisis or significant loss to make us stop the autopilot of our lives and focus on what really matters. But what if it were possible to live with that kind of clarity of purpose and values without something terrible needing to happen? And what if your work could be about helping people do that?
At its heart, I think that’s what values work in ACT is all about. Living a values-based life is about living with intention, consciously choosing to live out a well-lived life, whatever that would mean for you personally. Values work in ACT is about creating a context where your clients are able to be connected with and live out their deepest values in a sustained and consistent way, not just when the crisis happens.
Our main tool in being able to help clients connect with what is most important to them (without the need for a crisis to shove that in their face!) is language. Although language often gets a bad rap in ACT, language is our ally when it comes to values work. Language and cognition are the very medium of meaning, purpose, and valuing, experiences which are central to what makes us human. Through various perspective taking exercises, for example, we can use language to enter into a remembered past or an imagined future to help us connect with what may be important to us in the grand scheme of things, beyond simply our immediate wants or preferences.
Over the next several months we’re going to be posting a series of pieces on this issue of values, how to have values guide your therapy and specific tools you can use to help your clients live with intention and clarity of purpose without the need for a preceding crisis. So if this is something you are interested in, stay tuned. Also, we’re currently working on a book on this topic called Values in Practice: A Clinician’s Guide to Helping Clients Develop Psychological Flexibility and Live a More Meaningful Life, to come out through New Harbinger Publications sometime next year. If you are interested in getting an announcement about when that will be released, feel free to send us an email and we’ll keep you posted about the publication date.
Author: Jenna LeJeune, Ph.D
Jenna is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with people who struggle with relationship and intimacy difficulties and with those who have a trauma history. Her research focuses on developing compassion-based interventions targeting stigma, shame, and chronic self-criticism.