80th Birthday Exercise: Identifying Your Underlying Values: ACT Therapy
A common feeling among people who present to therapy is that there’s “something missing” or that they’ve “lost direction.” These feelings indicate a general malaise (feeling uncomfortable or “off”) and may feel/seem difficult to attend to because there’s no identifiable problem. From the perspective of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) a feeling of malaise is a sign that we are not living authentically—not living in accord with our values.
Values are the things that we find most important in life. You may think, for example, “I value my children, and so by centering my life around my children, I will be content.” That may be true to a degree—after all, the biological drive to nurture our young is powerful. However, We may also feel burnt out, tired, and have a diminished sense of personal identity.
To identify the broader value underlying this sentiment, ask yourself why it is that you value your children. You may think something along the lines of “because I love them and I want the best for them!” With some exploration of this thought, we can identify the underlying concepts of love, altruism, connection, and investment in the next generation (“generativity,” according to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson). Knowing that you value love, connection, and altruism can empower you to seek these values elsewhere. For example, spirituality and community organizing both seek to operate around love, connection, and altruism. Building a community at a house of worship or through a mutual aid collective may both be good ways to make life changes that align with your values.
Sometimes values conflict. The tension between conflicting values can also contribute to psychological and emotional unease. You may value financial success and find that the career you chose as a result of that value? is contributing to your internal suffering, perhaps because it detracts from other meaningful areas in your life. Consider why you value financial success (you may find a downward arrow exercise helpful here). If it’s because financial success means stability and peace of mind, it may be that the true underlying values here are security and safety. Once you have clarified this, you are better positioned to explore other ways you can fulfill these values.
Here’s an ACT exercise that makes identifying underlying values simple. It’s called the 80th birthday exercise (or, for the morbid amongst us, the Headstone exercise). It goes as follows:
Imagine your 80th birthday. Your friends and family have gathered from near and far to celebrate your life and accomplishments. Visualize the guests at the party. Who is present? Visualize the venue and location of the party. Where is it?
Someone clinks a glass to signify that it’s time for a toast, preceded by a short speech. This person is someone who knows you well—well enough to speak as an authority on who you are, what you stand for, and what you have achieved in life. Who is this person? Who would you want to speak about you on this momentous day? If all went ideally in your life and you reach your 80’s with minimal regrets, what would this person say about the life you’ve lived, the things you’ve stood for, the choices you’ve made? It’s okay if this person is someone who will realistically be long gone by the time your 80th birthday comes around—we’re working with concepts here.
As the first speech comes to an end and the guests applaud, a second person rises to make a toast. In your heart of hearts, who do you want this second person to be? What would you really, truly like to hear them say about you? What sentiments would you want them to express about your life, your relationships, your work, and the impression you’ve made on them?
A third person stands to speak. Who is this person? How do they know you? In this ideal world in which you’ve lived fully and authentically and have few regrets, what do they share about what you meant to them, their memories of you, the life you’ve led and the things you stand for?
Take a moment to reflect on this hypothetical celebration of your life. What were the themes that kept coming up? How did it feel to hear your loved ones say these things about you?
Now, think about your life and your relationships as they stand today. If you were to continue on your present path without intervention, would your real 80th birthday be the one you want for yourself? Would it be close? If not, what are the areas in which you need to make changes in order to live according to your values?
Identifying your underlying values is an important step in committing to living authentically. If you are interested in further clarifying your values or in learning more about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, call to schedule an appointment with one of our ACT therapists at 215-922-5683 x 100. We have offices in Philadelphia PA, Ocean City NJ, Mechanicsville VA, and Santa Fe NM.