Setting sail with the ACT life compass

ACT life compass

Image credit: Dr. John Forsyth

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 out 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.

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 rates 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.

Community life/environment/nature

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.

Friends/social life

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.

Health/physical self-care

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.

Not applicable

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?


psych meds made simple


My first book, Psych Meds Made Simple: How & Why They Do What They Do, is now available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.  It’s everything you didn’t realize you wanted to know about medications!

Adapting ambition to circumstances

What were your ambitions for yourself when you were a kid?  Ballerina?  Astronaut?  President of the whole world?  When we get a little older, reality intrudes on some of the fantasies, and we make some adjustments.  Then maybe we get on track and things are chugging along just fine, and suddenly reality comes knocking again.

I’ve never been a particularly competitive person, but I’ve always wanted to find things I enjoy and that I’m reasonably decent  at and make the most of that.  I knew by the time I was in high school that I wanted to work in healthcare.  When I got to university I did a degree in pharmacy, but was fairly certain all along that was just a stepping stone.  I had medicine in the back of my mind, but then in my final year of pharmacy school a close friend had started nursing school and really enjoyed it, and that sounded quite appealing.  So I applied to both medicine and nursing, leaning more towards nursing because it would involve a lot fewer years in school.  I bombed my med school interviews and didn’t get it in, so nursing it was.

A few years into my nursing career I decided I wanted to do a masters degree, but initially I wasn’t sure if I should stick with nursing or switching things up and do something like a masters in social work.  A Canadian university had recently started up a Master of Psychiatric Nursing program by distance education, so I decided to go with that.  It’s not all that common for nurses to do graduate work, and those that do often end up going into management roles, which I had no interest in.  The psychiatric nurse practitioner role hasn’t caught on in Canada yet, so that wasn’t option.  Even though I didn’t have any particular career goal in mind, I still wanted to do grad school.  My illness and some hospitalizations posed some challenges along the way, but I defended my thesis at the end of 2014 and received my degree in 2015.

There I was, with a fancy new degree, and things should have been looking up.  Except life got in the way.  The workplace bullying began, which resulted in me quitting my job.  Then my depression struck with a vengeance.  The aftereffects of the bullying significantly limited the potential job options open to me, and the effects of my illness have had a major impact on my capacity to work.  Now I have 2 casual nursing jobs, neither of which is really the kind of work I want to do (and am skilled at).  I’m over-educated and under-functioning.

Whatever ambitions I may have had before really aren’t relevant now.  To try to hold on to some of those ideas seems more likely to be counterproductive than helpful.  So expectations need to change.  The ebb and flow of my various symptoms means that it makes more sense to come up with process-oriented things to work on rather than target specific endpoints that may or may not turn out to be reachable.

Right now my ambitions revolve around writing.  Part of adapting to these changes in my life is recognizing that outside factors are a lot more unpredictable and unreliable than I once thought they were.  As a result, the things that I’m choose to reach towards are mostly within my own sphere of control.

That sense of sphere of control has become very important to me.  Being non-competitive, I never really worried about surpassing others, but things like career ambitions were dependent at least to some extent on others allowing certain things to happen.  Depending on others in any way for my own internal sense of success doesn’t feel safe anymore.  I suppose that limits to some extent what I am willing to reach for, but as long as I’m setting my process goals for myself I’m moving forward rather than stagnating.

Have your goals and ambitions changed over time?  Has illness played a role?


psych meds made simple


Speaking of writing ambitions, my first book, Psych Meds Made Simple: How & Why They Do What They Do, will be available soon on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.  It’s everything you didn’t realize you wanted to know about medications!  Find out more on my Psych Meds Made Simple book page.


Happy New Year!


TheDigitalArtist on Pixabay

Happy 2019!  Wishing each and every one of you amazing people a joyous and healthy new year.  I appreciate all of you so very, very much.

For me, the biggest accomplishment in 2018 was really committing to blogging.  My main goal for 2019 is to expand where, how, and what I write.  I’ve never made new years resolutions  because it seems like such an arbitrary way to try to make behavioural changes.  Instead, I’m committed to doing the things that I know have positive effects, however small, on my life.

Where would you like to focus your energy for 2019?