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, and the life compass is a tool for exploring that.
What the life compass is
The life compass looks at where you’re headed in ten key life areas:
- intimate relationships
- community life/environment/nature
- friends/social life
- family of origin
- 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 can be rated on a scale of 1-10 in the areas of:
- importance (“i= ” on the diagram above)
- recent committed action (“c=”) towards those intentions
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, and how it’s changed from when I first wrote this, in 2019, to now, in 2021.
Importance (I)/Satisfaction (S)/Committed action (C): 10/10/10 (2019), 10/9/9 (2021)
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.
The 2021 rating has dipped a smidge only because blogging has gotten harder because of the effects of my illness. Blogging is still a super positive thing for me, but it just doesn’t come quite as easily.
I/S/C: 2/0/0 (2019), 1/5/1 (2021)
Being a nurse used to be a major part of my identity, but treatment-resistant depression has gotten in the way, although my meds still help somewhat. Right now, I’m in a bit of a holding pattern to see if I can continue to work or if I need to apply for disability.
I ended up not being able to continue working. I applied for disability benefits in 2020 and just recently got approved in early 2021. It’s a big life transition, but it’s one of I’ve been working my way towards gradually for a while now. This area is pretty much a write-off now, with emphasis shifting to other areas of the life compass.
I/S/C: 10/10/10 (2019 and 2021)
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.
This remains unchanged in 2021. Blogging and writing have been excellent opportunities for ongoing learning, and I’ve tailored my writing approach to tie in to my desire to learn.
I/S/C: 3/5/6 (2019), 3/4/4 (2021)
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.
In 2021, I care even less about community than before. Nature is something I find beautiful and soothing, but walking has been difficult because of my illness, so it’s been more inside looking out rather than getting outside.
I/S/C: 5/5/5 (2019), 7/8/6 (2021)
Almost all of my social interaction is online these days, because that’s the only thing that really works. I’ve valued in-person connections with friends in the past, but that just hasn’t been compatible with my depression.
For most of my life, I had all in-person friends and no online friends, and now it’s swung to the opposite end of the spectrum. I have one in-person friend who I rarely see, in part because of COVID. Other than that, it’s all online, and I find it so much easier to interact with people virtually rather than in-person, so that’s worked out well.
I/S/C: 2/5/1 (2019)
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.
I don’t really know what to say for 2021. I try to pay attention to the goodness in the world, but sometimes it doesn’t seem like there’s much point.
Family of origin
I/S/C: 2/3/1 (2019), 5/4/6 (2021)
I’ve felt really disconnected from my family for quite some time now because of my depression. Contact with them just doesn’t feel good, so there’s not much motivation to increase that.
The big change since 2021 is that my brother had a baby last year, so that was my first niece. I see my brother a lot more than I used to because he brings her over for visits. Depression doesn’t allow me to feel much emotionally towards her, but cognitively she’s important to me.
I/S/C: 10/2/6 (2019 and 2021)
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.
Since 2019, my health has deteriorated significantly, but I don’t think I would change my numbers. My satisfaction is about the same, with greater acceptance counterbalancing the worsening health. Committed action is harder to estimate, because I don’t really have a lot of internal resources available, plus it’s physically difficult to do some of the healthy activities I used to do.
I/S/C: 0/0/0 (2019 and 2021)
I’m not a parent, nor did I ever wish to be, so I’m totally fine with that. This hasn’t budged at all.
I/S/C: 0/10/0 (2019 and 2021)
This hasn’t change. I split up with my last partner in 2010, and have been single ever since. 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, and I’m fine with that.
What are some of the intentions that would play an important role in your life compass?
You can find out more about info and worksheets on the life compass and other ACT tools on the website of Dr. John Forsyth. Dr. Russ Harris’s ACT Mindfully website also has a fantastic selection of free ACT resources.
The ACT Fundamentals mini-ebook/workbook, available from the MH@H Download Centre, provides an introduction to acceptance and commitment therapy, including cognitive defusion and aligning actions to values.
Embrace Acceptance: A Guided Journal draws on concepts from acceptance and commitment therapy to help you move towards a place of greater acceptance. It’s available from the MH@H Download Centre.