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.
Key life compass domains
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.
Here’s a quick overview of my life compass would look like:
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.
My illness is a major barrier in this area, and has prompted a significant reevaluation. My intention now is to continue to have meaningful one-on-one interactions with patients, which fits in with my value of wanting to do meaningful and fulfilling work.
I’m finished my formal education, but I want to continue to learn new things at any possible opportunity, and ongoing learning is a key value for me. This area is of high importance, and I’m satisfied with how I’ve been doing.
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.
Almost all of my social interaction is online these days. For now at least, that’s what works. I have valued in-person connections with people close to me in the past, but realistically depression gets in the way of that.
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
I would rate my satisfaction in this area a fair bit lower than the importance that I place on it (at least some of the time). I really don’t know what my intention is, but I know my illness has been a major barrier (for me, not for them). So all I can really come up with is a big question mark.
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. Sometimes it feels like I’m flailing, but overall I think I’m doing the best I can.
Parenting and intimate relationships are not in my life right now and may well never be, but they are also not things that are of high importance to me, so their absence doesn’t bother me.
What are some of the intentions that would play an important role in your life compass?