There is a point of view that comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that can make it easier to do what’s important in your life. The point of view is that many people find it useful, in the face of obstacles, to still take actions that move them towards what matters most in their lives.
A rabbit in your backyard might not move towards the delicious carrots in your garden if there’s a barking dog in the next door neighbor’s yard. Like rabbits, human beings will move towards things that are rewarding (like carrots) and away from threats and dangers (like barking dogs). But unlike rabbits, human beings will respond not just to things in the immediate environment but also to internal stories, memories, emotions, and thoughts as though they were actual dangers that need to be avoided.
Step One: Identify Your Values
Take a moment and think about your values. Who and what really matter in your life and in your heart? Values are those things and people that we most deeply care about simply because we care about them. They are freely chosen. They are different from goals. Like a compass, they point to directions we would like to move in. They are not goals to be checked off when completed.
So who do you really care about? What type of romantic partner do you want to be? What type of parent? What do you value in friendships? How about your education – what matters there? What values do you have about work, community, spirituality, health, and self-care? As you reflect, think about which values matter the most to you at this point in your life.
Step Two: Notice The Internal Obstacles That Get In The Way
We’re not consistently moving towards who and what matters to us every day because obstacles show up. Some of them are external, like time, money, and physical capacity. But many of them are internal. Difficult feelings show up, like depression, fear, and resentment. Difficult thoughts show up, like “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not lovable,” or “I never finish anything I start.” When unpleasant things show up , it’s natural to want to move away from them
Step Three: Notice What You Do When Internal Obstacles Show Up
It makes total sense to move inside if the weather outside is nasty. But when we apply this same principle to our internal experiences – painful thoughts and feelings – we get in trouble. While it feels natural and normal when we encounter a bad feeling or thought to try to get away from it, unfortunately it doesn’t often work out so well.
If I try to avoid my depression by staying in bed and distracting myself with social media, in the short run I will feel some relief because I’m not wrestling with a difficult emotion. But in the long run, the more I withdraw from life, the more unhappy and depressed I become.
I may try to get away from anxiety by avoiding situations that make me anxious, such as starting a difficult project at work or school. Once again, in the short run I’ll feel a bit less anxious, because I’m not stirring up more anxiety by beginning the project. But in the long run I’m likely to feel worse about myself and more frightened of whatever I was avoiding in the first place.
Step Four: Notice What You Do To Move Towards What Matters
What actions – small, medium, or large – can you take that move you in the direction of who and what matters the most in your life? Taking actions in the direction of what matters the most to you makes up the “commitment” part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Creating a pattern of making moves towards who and what you value the most in your life, even in the face of obstacles, is the most effective thing you can do to improve the quality of your life. Behavioral scientists call this “behavioral activation,” and it has been shown to be the single most critical factor in treating depression and anxiety.
Actions towards who and what matters to you don’t need to be dramatic. It’s more about beginning to create a pattern of actions over time that improves the quality of your life.
For example, I value friendship in my life. But I seem to always be too busy, tired, or distracted to do anything about it. Inside, fears of rejection or thoughts like “I’m too busy” might show up. A move “towards” my values would be to pick up my phone and ask a friend out for lunch. A move “away” from those unwanted thoughts and feelings would be to pick up my phone and browse the news.
Step Five: Practice Moving Towards What Matters
Many of us find it useful to move towards who and what matters the most to to us, even in the face of painful inner obstacles, and without waiting for the unwanted thoughts and feelings to somehow go away first.
Imagine you could choose between two possible lives, and this choice would determine the rest of your life from now on. “Life A” would be mostly trying to move away from unwanted internal stuff like difficult thoughts and feelings. “Life B” would be mostly trying to move towards who and what you care about the most. Which life would you choose? Which one have you been choosing? What are you choosing right now?
All these unwanted internal experiences can feel like huge waves we have to hold back or swim away from. But no matter how hard we try, the waves always seem to catch up to us. There is an alternative. When you surf, you don’t have to hold back the waves or run away from them. It’s possible to learn to surf the waves of difficult thoughts and feelings and still move in the directions that most matter to you.
You can start now by just noticing. Each day notice at least one example of your moving away from an unwanted internal experience and at least one example of you’re moving towards something that really matters to you. Notice what and when. And notice the consequences. How did you feel before, during and after? How did each move affect the quality of your day? Take some time with this reflection, and either write about it or talk it over with a friend. If you simply track this over time, you may find yourself naturally choosing more “towards” moves.
Many of the concepts and metaphors used in this post come from “The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix” by Kevin L. Polk PhD and Benjamin Schoendorff MA MSc