Choices and Doing What Matters

Do you ever experience life as if it is just happening to you or as though you are ‘going through the motions’ without a sense of meaning or purpose?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an approach to therapy that supports clarifying what is truly important to you, motivating behaviour that improves your life whilst learning how to accept what is out of your personal control and deal with the difficulty and pain that is an inevitable part of human life.

‘The choice point’ is an empowering concept used in ACT to help you make the most of your life by prompting your reflection on choices in the moment, in the here and now and in dealing with challenging situations. In our lives, every day, we spend our time ‘doing things’ such as talking, eating, exercising, working, parenting, sleeping etc. We can group what we do into toward moves and away moves.

Toward moves are the things we do that are consistent with our values, our hearts deepest desires about the kind of person we want to be, how we want to be in our relationships, how we want to be toward ourselves, what we want to stand for in the face of challenges and what we want our life to be about.

Away moves are the things we do that take us away from our values and the life we want, behaving unlike the person we want to be and doing things that make our life worse at work, in our important relationships, financially, for our health and wellbeing and so on.

When we face challenges in life we often experience difficult thoughts, memories, feelings, sensations and urges (e.g. depression; anxiety and thoughts like ‘I’m not good enough’; ‘I’m going to fail’). These internal experiences can hook us into away moves. We get caught up and we can do things that often make our life worse in the long run. Examples include using drugs or alcohol to try and feel better or block out difficult feelings; avoiding activities such as a job interview not wanting or willing to feel anxious; being caught up in anger and yelling and being aggressive toward our partner.

Skills learnt through ACT support psychological flexibility to enable making values guided and consistent choices, toward moves so that you may take effective action in the present, even when facing very challenging and difficult situations. It utilises mindfulness skills to unhook from difficult thoughts and feelings and to be able to re-engage and focus on what is important, meaningful and effective in daily life.

To get started, try self-questioning every so often throughout the day ‘is what I’m doing in this moment a toward move or an away move?’ If you notice you’re stuck in an away move you have a choice, ‘the choice point’, whether to keep going with the behavior or consider what you could do instead that might be more effective and consistent with your values.

Values are our hearts deepest desires about what we want our life to be about. They are desired global qualities of ongoing behaviour. Values are different from goals. A goal can be achieved whereas values are ongoing and in any moment you can decide whether to act on a value or neglect it. A goal might be getting married whereas values might be qualities like being loving, passionate, available, reliable, trustworthy, sensitive and assertive within your relationship. The goal of marriage can be achieved/completed whereas your values about how you want to be in your relationship are ongoing. When our actions are guided by our values we often feel a sense of vitality, meaning and purpose even in the face of life’s challenges.

Try these ideas for clarifying your values:

1. Imagine your 80th birthday party. In the ideal world, if you’ve been able to be the person you want to be and take effective action in your daily life, imagine yourself at your 80th. Imagine what kind of celebration you would have, fancy restaurant or more intimate celebration, and who would be there to celebrate with you. Imagine 3 people who matter most to you in the world are going to say a short speech about how you’ve been in your relationship with them, what your life has been about, what you stand for and how you’ve dealt with the challenges of life. Hear what they have to say….what does this tell you about who matters to you and what matters to you?

2. Notice your emotional pain, what does this feeling tell you about what is important to you? What do you want to stand for in the face of this?

3. If you are a parent of a young child, imagine your child’s 21st birthday. Imagine them saying what you would most want to hear them say about the kind of parent you’ve been and the contribution you’ve made to their life. Check in with yourself about your parenting in the present. Are there any changes you’re wanting to make or behaviour you want to do more or less of?

4. Notice your worries. What do they tell you that you care about?

5. In as much detail as you can, bring to mind a rich, ‘sweet’ memory. See if you can really get in touch with your feelings. Consider what is meaningful and important about this memory.

Remember ‘the choice point’. In any moment, no matter the challenges you are facing, you can connect with your values and be guided by what is most important to take effective action. That effective action may include seeking formal therapy to learn skills to deal with difficult thoughts, feelings and challenging situations. Sometimes, reminding yourself of the choice point is enough to get back on track with acting in line with your values.

Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. An Easy-to Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA.: New Harbinger Publications. Inc.

Disclaimer: Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only and is not intended to replace advise from your doctor or registered health professional. Readers are urged to consult their registered practitioner for diagnosis and treatment for their medical concerns.

Blog written by CBT Professionals Clinical Psychologist on the Gold Coast, Dr Tamera Wiggins. CBT Professionals are a team of clinical psychologists on the Gold Coast with offices in Coomera and Nerang. Gold Coast CBT psychologists offer services to adults, children, and couples. Please call and make an appointment on 56 683 490.

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