The Role of Values in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

values in acceptance and commitment therapy - icons showing examples of values

Values play a key role in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a psychotherapeutic approach that aims to increase psychological flexibility. ACT emphasizes acceptance rather than resistance, and the “commitment” part of the name comes from taking committed actions in service of our values.

Values as directions

We live in a very goal-oriented world. Goals serve as endpoints; we set a goal, we work towards it, and hopefully we reach it. At that point, the goal is done, and it may be time to set a new goal. Goals can serve a purpose, but whether or not we succeed at reaching a given endpoint isn’t always in our control. When we don’t meet our goals, it can be easy to label ourselves as failures. We may see ourselves as a failure at achieving a specific goal, or our inner critic may generalize that to being a failure as a person.

Values, on the other hand, serve as directions. You never arrive at your values; they continue pointing you in the direction of the life you want to live. If you veer off your chosen valued path, that’s not a failure, because you can always reorient in the direction of your values. Goals can serve as milestones along the way in valued directions, but being values-consistent doesn’t require achieving specific goals.

Values represent the things that are most important to us. They’re things that we choose, rather than something that’s imposed upon us. They tend to be relatively stable over time, although the relative importance of each value may vary.

Committed action

Values serve as a solid foundation for evaluating decisions about our actions, and they make better guides than the shoulds weighing us down or whatever the inner critic might happen to be nattering on about. When we move towards our values, we move in the direction of the life we want to live. Self-sabotaging, on the other hand, can lead in the opposite direction.

Moving in valued directions isn’t always easy; it can involve vulnerability and it can feel scary. On the other hand, it’s hard to live the life you want to live when you’re running in the opposite direction of the signs pointing you in that direction.

Your inner critic probably tends to get loud when it comes to goals—specifically goals that you’re not reaching. That can get distracting, making it easy to lose sight of what really matters. I’ve written before about the ACT life compass, which is a tool to help you explore whether you’re following your values in key domains of your life.

Values clarification

Before we can consider where we go with our actions, though, it helps to reflect on what our key values are. Some might be immediately obvious (for me, independence has a big neon sign), while others you might have to think about for a bit.

There are various lists of values to be found around the web, including ones here from Brené Brown and ACT Mindfully author Russ Harris. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to values; your top picks can be entirely different from mine, and that’s totally okay.

Getting personal

Some of my values taken from that list are:

  • compassion: I think this is a big part of why nursing was a good career fit for me
  • curiosity, knowledge, and learning: learning more about the world makes my mind sing, and that’s a major factor in the way I approach my blog
  • equality
  • gratitude
  • home: home has always been my sanctuary
  • humour: being able to laugh at oneself and the world makes everything easier
  • independence: I’ve always been fiercely independent; try to take that away and the claws will come out
  • openness and self-expression
  • reason: I’m very left-brain-dwelling, and I like it there
  • simplicity: this is one of the things I love about my guinea pigs
  • career and travel: these were important for many years, but depression knocked them both off the list completely

Besides ousting career and travel, I think depression has mostly contracted my values to focus on what’s most important to me. Luckily, those values are consistent with a pretty hermit-ish (at least in person) lifestyle with restricted functioning. I’m still able to engage with life in ways that are meaningful to me.

Have you given any thought to your own values? Do you find that shoulds, illness, or other influences drag you away from them?


21 thoughts on “The Role of Values in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy”

  1. I don’t think I have ever thought about my ‘values’ – not even sure what that means – what do I think is important in living my life? Is that what is meant by values? Do you mean inner values or outer values? An outer value being something like the Golden Rule – which is all you really need to be a good person/world citizen. An inner value would be something like – independence which carries with it a self-obligation to ask for and receive help/assistance when needed. I think that’s all the thinking I’m going to be doing about this.

  2. When I’ve been at low points, I focus my feelings on my children, or I try to. This last time, in 2017, was really rough. I kept having end-it-all thoughts because I finally accepted that I’d completely failed at finding a partner and would be alone forever. I had to keep reminding myself that I WAS NOT alone because I had daughters who love me. Gradually, my mood lifted, but it still dips sometimes. I realize this is not true depression, since I was always functional and could work.

  3. I like the sound of ACT. Acceptance itself is a value of mine – practising both presence and compassion. I put honesty high on my list which has historically been a hard one for me. Mainly because I’m not very good at being honest with myself 😂

  4. Hiya. I like this post and the focus on values. Ideally values bring us closer together. Mine include:
    – Health
    – Environment
    – Home
    – Making a Difference
    – Community
    – Giving Back

    While my illness often means I cannot work a regular 9 to 5 job, I have been able over the years to volunteer for various environmental and environmental health positions. This is a top priority for me after self-care.


  5. This was more uncomfortable for me to read than it should have been. I think because I feel tension between what I feel my values ought to be, what I think my values actually are, and what values I have actually been living by through my actions/choices.

    I’m glad you posted this because it is was good for me to read, but I do feel uncomfortable now.

  6. I was raised to have values, mostly by my mother and maternal grandfather/mother.
    !. Never make fun of people with disabilities
    2. If you didn’t have something nice to say about a person, do not say anything at all.
    3. Respect the police.
    4. Never get into trouble with teachers or the principal at school.(My mother stressed that quite clearly. Straps at school meant a strap at home. Funny though, I do not think it ever happened.)
    Those are some values I hold to even now.

    1. I learned about values in 2010 after a divorce. I believe intelligent and well thought-out self-affirmations, family, hobbies, life purpose, experiences, strengths are my values. Thanks for your post!

  7. I know I made a values list in therapy when I was still having a lot of chronic passive suicidal ideation. My therapist is a huge fan of ACT and I had no sense of who I am etc and felt life was just “meh what’s the point? We’ll all die eventually. Maybe I’ll eventually kill myself.”

    So values clarification helped me understand what I value. Even when I was not acting in accordance with those values due to particular situations at work or with my family, it helped explain my unhappiness.

    And before that list of values, I was given a handout of how values are our compass as we change and grow.

    It can be hard to act according to my values sometimes but I’m happier in general. 🙂

  8. I’ve been listening to a podcast recently that really favours ACT for OCD, and I’d never heard of it before believe it or not. I’m definitely going to do a bit more research into it, it sounds like it might come in useful!

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