“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
- Annie Dillard
The quotation above is both hopeful and daunting: how you live, today, right now, IS your life. The sensation that there will be a time in the future where “it all comes together” is, arguably, illusory. After all, your life is happening now. This can be a bit scary to realize, but it can also be liberating. You have the power to live each day as though it represents the life you really want to live. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), this is called committed action.
Picture yourself driving down a road. There are all sorts of signs on the road and many opportunities to turn off the road or to turn around. There may also be some irritating backseat drivers in your car who keep telling you to change your speed, make a U-turn, or stop to read yet another sign. However, you know where this road leads and it’s somewhere you really want to go. Even though your passengers can be convincing and some of the turn-offs look tempting, you keep your foot on the gas and continue driving toward your destination.
This road metaphor can help us understand two ACT concepts: committed action and values. We’ll review values first. Essentially, your values dictate the direction you’re driving and motivate you to, when necessary, ignore the signs and passengers urging you in other directions. No one, not our families, partners, or culture, is responsible for telling us what direction we should drive in. Freely chosen values are motivative statements that we build ourselves in response to what feels meaningful in our lives. Some common examples are: I value loving my partner and children; I value engaging with my life with curiosity; I value working to reduce pain and suffering in the world; I value having close, intimate connections with other people; I value actively healing my past trauma. It takes time, effort, and reflection to figure out which direction you want to drive in. When we don’t engage in this work, we end up driving on all sorts of roads we never wanted to turn onto in the first place! If you feel like you don’t know which direction you’re driving in, read this post before continuing on to committed action.
As you can see from the examples above, values aren’t very concrete. You can’t “achieve” loving your partner and children or working to reduce suffering in the world. They’re more like a compass, helping you stay on the road you really want to be on. Committed action is the actual act of pressing the gas, turning the steering wheel, ignoring irrelevant signs, and politely telling your misguided passengers to “be quiet!” Let’s make this more concrete using an example from your life, and a pretend “Alice” example from last week’s post. Write down a value you feel relatively confident in in the space below. It should be a positive statement that moves you toward something, rather than away from something you don’t like. For example, “be less depressed” is not a value, but “actively engage in healing my depression” could be.
Alice: I value loving another person with my whole heart, and letting myself be loved in the same way.
Your value: _________________________________________________________.
Great job! In Alice’s case, loving and being loved is the direction she would like to drive in. As you may recall from the last post, panic attacks, alcohol use, and feeling insecure about her relationship status were experiences Alice sees as keeping her separate from this value. In our road metaphor, they are the signs, turn-offs, and passengers that might try to convince her to turn off the road. For Alice, these are barriers to committed action. They make it hard for her to keep the steering wheel steady and her foot on the gas! Fill in some of your own misleading signs and passengers below:
Alice’s Barriers to Committed Action
Shame about being single
My Barriers to Committed Action
Fantastic. It’s important to get to know these barriers and to learn how to work with them. In ACT, we do this by being willing to experience feelings we don’t like, understanding that our thoughts are just thoughts, staying in contact with what’s happening right now, transcending our small sense of self, and connecting with what we value. We’re going to stay focused on committed action today, but you can learn more about all of these strategies using the links above.
Now that we have a sense of what the barriers are, we need to know what “keeping the car on the road” actually means in your life. Consider the following conversation between Alice and her therapist.
Therapist: Okay, loving someone else with your whole heart and letting them love you that way too feels like a really important value for you, right?
Alice: Yes, but living that kind of life feels so far away to me right now. I’m still single, I panic all the time...I just…
Therapist: It doesn’t feel clear how to really live that value, especially given all the barriers that seem to disconnect you from it. Is that right?
Alice: Yes, but I also know that staying focused on fixing the barriers doesn’t get me anywhere. It just keeps making me turn down random roads!
Therapist: Right! So, let’s start thinking about what staying on the road actually looks like. For a moment, let’s pretend all the barriers are gone. I’m curious about how you would know whether you were moving toward loving and being loved?
Alice: Well, I guess I’d still be single but I wouldn’t be feeling so ashamed of it, because that was a barrier...Hm...You’re looking for something I could check-off, right?
Therapist: Yup. Something you could do today, even.
Alice: Okay. Well, being here is one thing. I come to therapy and I let myself be really vulnerable even though it’s scary. So I’m kind of practicing letting myself be cared for and close to someone else.
Therapist: That’s a great one! Keep going.
Alice: Thanks! I also think this value extends beyond romantic relationships, right? One thing I would do is to call my mom more often and actually tell her how much her support has meant to me. That would be scary because I could feel anxious, but it would feel really meaningful to do that.
Therapist: Got it - being honest with your mom regularly about how much you love her would be a way to live into this value. You’re doing wonderfully, Alice! Can you think of one more?
Alice: Yes - dating. I get so scared people will reject me because of my anxiety. If I was less concerned with that and more with just staying on the road toward this value, I would try online dating again. I’d push myself to treat people I might be attracted to like I want them to treat me...like, I’d want to ask them about what they struggle with, let them know it’s okay, and tell them I struggle sometimes, too.
Therapist: Wow, Alice. That’s a brave one. Putting yourself out there, being honest about your struggles, and letting others be honest about there’s. Beautiful!
This vignette shows Alice identifying new patterns of behavior. That’s what committed action is all about: building concrete, continuous ways to redirect our behavior toward what we value. Eventually, these become flexible, consistent habits, which in turn become a meaningful life.
Ready to give it a try yourself? Using the value you identified above, brainstorm three concrete actions that would be consistent with this value. They should not be actions you could do “at some point in the future when everything is better,” but instead behaviors you could execute today.
Alice’s Committed Actions
- Go to therapy. Practice being honest and vulnerable there, even though it’s scary.
- Express my love for my mom to her directly.
- Engage in dating. Be honest with others about my struggles and ask them about theirs.
My Committed Actions
Wonderful. Remember, the life you want to live doesn’t start once all your problems go away. It is already happening. Identifying your values and the committed actions that go with them is a fantastic way to start living the life you most deeply want to live, today. That said, many of us have spent years living for “tomorrow” and it can be incredibly difficult to change your perspective all on your own. If this tip resonated with you and you’d like help working towards the life you want, reach out to one of our therapists and schedule an appointment by clicking here or calling 215-922-LOVE x100.