“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” – Henry David Thoreau
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) enlists people to identify their most cherished values, set goals in accordance with those values, and then begin to direct their behavior towards reaching those goals. One way of asking yourself a motivating question to move this direction is, “What valued direction do I want to move in?” The simple idea behind this reflection is that we feel content and purposeful with our lives when we have actively chosen to align our behaviors with our values.
Sometimes people know what their values are and know what they “should” do, but they are still stuck. What to do then? Sometimes we are our own worst enemy, getting in our own way during important times in life. If you feel that you have a sufficient understanding of what matters most to you in life (i.e., your true values) and of where you want to go in life (i.e., your goals), begin to break down the barriers to living the life you truly want.
Barriers to a Values-Based Mindful Life
ACT conceptualizes three primary barriers to values-based mindful living (Harris, 2009):
“What unhelpful thoughts are you fusing with?”
It is common for people to become so attached, or fused, to their thoughts and feelings that there is no longer any separation or distinction between where the thoughts and feelings end and the person begins. When you are fused to your thoughts or feelings, it is difficult to see beyond them… much like having blinders on.
When attached to thoughts and feelings in this way, it is easy to tell yourself very convincing stories about “why” you cannot live the life you truly want or “why” you don’t deserve it in the first place. Recognize that these are stories you are telling yourself. Just because you have a thought (even a very powerful or convincing one) or experience a feeling (even a very intense or upsetting one), that does not make it “true.”
Make the choice to mindfully pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that you experience. Pause and reflect upon what evidence you have for the actual validity of those thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you are very firmly fused to the thought “I’m just not good enough.” Take the time to identify what actual evidence you have for this belief. Recognize it as just that – a belief. Begin to step outside of your comfort zone and take behavioral risks toward actively seeking out the life you truly want to live.
“What private experiences are you trying to avoid or get rid of?”
Many people who understand what they want out of life and see what they need to do to get it still have trouble motivating themselves into action. There is a common tendency to get “stuck” in a repetitive cycle of experiential avoidance. When you are making the choice to avoid painful truths that you would rather not deal with, you are not doing yourself any favors. Through this avoidance, you are essentially ensuring that you will stay stuck for even longer. When you do decide to take your head out of the sand and look around, reality will still be there waiting for you. You might as well choose to deal with it.
Experiential avoidance is not being mindful or accepting. The idea that we must reject all that is painful and welcome only that which is pleasurable is very harmful. Life is not designed this way. Many people who drift into patterns of substance abuse are trying desperately to avoid pain and seek pleasure. Mindfulness shows us that full acceptance of reality allows us to be in the best position possible to make fully informed decisions. When we ignore that which we dislike, we are living in a warped reality that is no longer based on what is. While accepting reality may be painful at first, the long-term effects of avoiding it are much more painful.
The idea that ignorance is bliss is a false and self-defeating belief that perpetuates the cycle of experiential avoidance. When reality seems too painful or frightening, it may be comforting to believe that it’s just “better to not know.” Is it really? For many people, the experience of avoiding painful truths is much like a gnawing sensation that eats away at them. Reality keeps finding new ways to “pop up” until you make the choice to confront it. Often times, the stories that your imagination tells you about what might happen if you deal with reality are much worse than what actually happens. Why not take a risk and find out?
(3) Unworkable Action
“What are you doing that restricts or worsens your life in the long run?”
This type of action keeps you stuck in repetitive patterns that you already know don’t work, yet you continue to engage in them, hoping for a different outcome each time. These behavioral patterns take you away from a mindfulness-based life and towards a life built upon distractions, impulsivity, and repetitive mistakes. Try to be compassionate toward yourself as you step out of ineffective patterns of behavior. It has taken you a long time to develop them and it can take time to let them go.
Begin to notice what your own patterns of unworkable action are and how they keep you from living the life you truly wish to live. For some people, patterns of unworkable action involve unhealthy relationships, substance abuse, or social isolation. No matter what your pattern is, the common theme is that they all allow you to “check out” of the present moment and “stay stuck,” spinning your wheels.
As you reflect upon your personal patterns of unworkable action, begin to ask yourself what benefits those behaviors are giving you. Perhaps unhealthy relationships allow you to feel wanted or needed in some way. Maybe patterns of substance abuse allow you to numb your emotional pain or ease distress/anxiety. Perhaps your tendency to isolate yourself from others allows you to avoid things that seem too painful to confront. Whatever it is for you, the first step is clearly identifying your personal tendencies.
It is unrealistic to expect that you will turn your life upside down in a single day and let go of every self-sabotaging behavior that you engage in. To believe this would be to set yourself up for failure… and to engage in yet another pattern of unworkable action. Instead, use this process of reflection as an opportunity to be honest with yourself, recognize what behaviors you have the power to change, and begin to do it.
There is no magic formula and there is no one responsible for you having the life you want except for you. Begin to notice whose behavior you can control (hint: your own!) and whose you can’t control (hint: other people’s!). Once you have identified your true values and set goals in line with those values, identify specific behaviors that you can change to begin to move towards those goals. It is as easy and difficult as that.
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Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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