Somehow when I discovered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) a few years ago I had this idea that simply knowing what really mattered to me would make life infinitely easier. How naive I was?!?!
Connecting with my values has meant a lot of things and some of them have been painful, even if only in the short term. It has meant moving on from a loving relationship once it became apparent that we really did want different things, it meant a lot of internet dating to help me find what I did want and then it meant a whole lot of other stuff to be willing to have in order to become a parent. Frankly without ACT skills I wonder how anyone survives pregnancy and parenting in the early years (but that is a topic for another day perhaps!!).
Knowing what matters is a great start to making good choices in life – and it is just the start. Well, it is also our compass to come back to time and time again if we get lost but mostly it is the start. Then come the goals we might choose to set for ourselves and the obstacles that these might bring.
Take dating as an example. So let’s say someone decides they value intimate, loving relationships and they are currently single. They might choose goals that are about meeting potential partners. All simple so far. Until their mind jumps in with a whole lot of things to worry about. “I don’t know what to talk about”, “What if she doesn’t like me?”, “I bet she prefers my friend who is funnier and better looking”, “What if I get my heart broken again?” and so on. Sound familiar?!?!
Another common dilemma that comes up around what matters to each of us is how we juggle the various areas of our life that we hold dear. We can’t be in two places at once as the old expression goes and yet at times we may feel torn to do so. I sometimes find that I can have no exciting invitations for weeks or more and then all of a sudden there is a birthday party for a niece and a friend’s wedding on the same day!
Obviously there may be far more serious dilemmas a person may face as well. A mother may wonder “do I stay in this marriage for the sake of my children or leave to find a more fulfilling and loving partner? Can I be the mother I so want to be when I feel so unhappy and unfulfilled in my marital relationship?” Tough choice!
How does a person work out what really matters deep in his or her heart? One popular ACT exercise is to imagine you are attending your 80th birthday party (could be 40th or 50th if that seems too far away). Imagine the people who know you well each saying a few words about the kind of person you are and what you have stood for in her life so far. As best you can, imagine what you would really want them to say about you rather than let your critical mind do all the talking!! (Although that version can be helpful too as a comparison to avoid – e.g., “If I continue along the path I am on what would I fear that people might say about my life when I am old?”). Jot down a few words that describe your best self. For example a few qualities that really matter to me personally are being loving, connecting with others, showing compassion to myself and others and being a caring, supportive wife, mother and step-mother.
Once we know what matters we can set clear actions that fit with our hearts’ desires. For example, switching off mobile phones and the TV to really listen to a young child recount the details of their school day or phoning a close friend who is going through a difficult time. Or it might be planning a date night with your partner or choosing to attentively listen for a few minutes when your partner comes in from work. The latter one can be super helpful if your partner often comes home stressed and you feel a need to solve all their problems when perhaps they just want a caring person to listen!
And then comes the chatter. “I’m not a good mother”, “I’m too judgmental at times”, “I don’t have time to sit and read stories to my children”. Plus there are the inevitable yucky feelings that we might rather not have, the anxiety about all the other tasks we need to achieve that day or the strong sense of shame and fear we might feel as we genuinely connect with those that matter to us.
Fortunately ACT is all about knowing what matters AND learning skills to better handle the inevitable thoughts and feelings that show up when we set our mind to achieving important goals. We can learn ways to not take our mind so seriously, to just see the chatter and not buy into it so much. And we can learn mindfulness skills to learn to handle anxiety and other difficult feelings more effectively.
As for the juggle…….accepting that we can’t do everything all of the time is a struggle for some if not all of us. Holding our plans lightly (rather than too tightly or inflexibly) may help here. We may not always have a spare weekend to spend with a particular friend in need but we can choose to send a caring message or call them to say we are thinking of them. We can choose to make amends when we raise our voices in anger. And there will always be tough choices to make in life that we can hopefully be compassionate about. Sometimes change is confronting so we might stay in a bad relationship a year or two too long or we might raise our voices at those we most love. There is always the choice to get back on track and keep in mind what our best self would say or do in this situation.
Ahhh the joys and challenges of being a living, breathing human!
By Louise Shepherd