Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of psychotherapy that takes the stance that avoidance and resistance to internal experiences identified as negative is what causes cognitive distress. To resolve distress, ACT suggests that we need to employ strategies like mindfulness, de-fusion from our thoughts, and recognizing the self as the context in which inner experiences occur rather than the content of those thoughts and emotions. The commitment part of the ACT name refers to committing to actions that are consistent with our identified values.
ACT has a tool for this called the life compass. You can find out more about the life compass and other ACT tools on the website of Dr. John Forsyth. Dr. Russ Harris’s ACT Mindfully website also has some great resources.
What the life compass is
The life compass looks at where you’re headed in ten key life areas: recreation/leisure, work/career, intimate relationships, parenting, education/learning, community life/environment/nature, friends/social life, spirituality, family of origin, and health/physical self-care.
For each life domain, you’re supposed to come up with intentions that are based on your personal values and reflect the way you would like your life to look in terms of that domain. As an example, you might consider why learning is important to you and what type of skills or knowledge that you would like to gain that would be consistent with that. For the friends domain, intentions may include what type of friend you would like to be and what a good friendship would look like. This process is less about specific goals or endpoints and more about valued directions.
Each direction of the life compass is rated on a scale of 1=10 for the importance (i= on the diagram above) and recent committed action (c=) towards those intentions. You can also rate current satisfaction in each area. Pay particular attention to areas where there is a large discrepancy between importance and either action or satisfaction. Also identify any potential barriers you may face. Then consider the actions that you can do now that lead you in the direction that your compass points.
Life compass domains
To illustrate, here’s a quick overview of what my life compass would look like.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S)/Committed action (C):
Blogging is my primary leisure activity, and I hope that continues. It’s very important to me as a form of connection and self-expression, and the amount of time I spend on it reflects that.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S)/Committed action (C): 2/0/0
Because of my mental illness, I haven’t been able to work for the last 7 months. Being a nurse used to be a major part of my identity, but treatment-resistant depression has gotten in the way. Right now I’m in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting to see if I can return to work at least a little bit, or if I need to apply for disability. At this point, no action is required.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S)/Committed action (C): 10/10/10
I’ve always loved to learn. My formal schooling is finished, but the internet makes it easy to be a lifelong learner. Researching for blog posts and my book projects has been a great way to satisfy my desires in this area.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S): 3/5
I like the neighbourhood where I live. I’ve never been particularly community-oriented in a social sense, but I do feel a sense of belonging where I am. The natural environment is pretty spectacular, and I guess my attention would be to continue to actively appreciate and be mindful of that natural beauty.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S): 5/5
Almost all of my social interaction is online these days, because that’s the only thing that really works. I have valued in-person connections with friends in the past, but that just hasn’t been compatible with my depression.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S): 2/5
I’m not religious, nor am I particular spiritual. I think what matters to me in this area is recognizing the shared humanity among all of us. I’m not sure exactly what that would look like in practice, but I suppose showing compassion is part of it.
Family of origin
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S):2/3
I’ve felt really disconnected from my family for quite some time now because of my depression. My brother had his first child not long ago, and it’s important to me to see her, but otherwise family just isn’t something that feels good.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S): 10/2
I’ve accepted that I have only a limited degree of control over my life. My intention in this area is to continue to be an active participant in my health, and to incorporate both pro-wellness and anti-illness strategies. My health has been declining, and it’s hard to think about committed actions when there’s so little that helps.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S): 0/0
I’m not a parent, nor did I ever wish to be, so I’m totally fine with that.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S): 0/0
I’ve been single for the past 10 years. I can’t imagine how I would fit someone into my life in that way at this point, so it’s really not on my radar at all.
What are some of the intentions that would play an important role in your life compass?