Demystifying ACT: A Practical Guide for Therapists

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The Journey of Life: A Metaphor for Values in ACT

By DJ Moran, PhD

This presentation is an excerpt from the online course “Demystifying ACT: A Practical Guide for Therapists“.


  • The work of clarifying values encourages the client to leverage the power of language to help behavioral change.
  • Values are often considered chosen life directions and the ACT therapist will open discussions about what is meaningful and vital to the client. 
  • The “going west” metaphor is a traditional ACT intervention.



Values clarification work is crucial to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. An ACT therapist will engage the client in discussing the vital and personally meaningful aspects of their own life. This is a part of the model where the therapist is not trying to undermine unhelpful language processes but rather leverage the power of language to help behavioral change in the direction of purpose to have a life well lived.

These discussions can start with simple questions such as: What do you want your life to be about? What is important to you? Since you are going to live on this planet for a finite period of time, how would you choose to make your life unfold? You can’t choose everything that happens to you and you can choose how you will act in different situations. If you look at life as a journey, in what direction would you choose to go on this journey?

Values are often considered chosen life directions and the journey of life metaphor can be helpful with clients to start to clarify their own values. The clinician might bring up the topic of values by saying, I know you are struggling with the motivation to change some of the problematic behaviors that you came to see me about and I want to talk to you about your values. You see, I’d like us to discuss the important aspects of your life. What motivates you? What’s important? And there’s a good reason for the therapist and the client to talk about this.

You see, as long as you’re alive, you have to behave. And if you’re going to behave, you have to make choices. And if you’re going to make choices, the question is: What are you going to make those choices based upon? The ACT therapist is drawing the client into a discussion about values with these statements and questions.
And they continue talking.

The ACT therapist says, I believe you’ve been making the choices in your life based on feeling good in the short run. Your clinically relevant behaviors that you want treatment for actually have short-term rewards. When you engage in these problematic behaviors, you get to escape pain in the short run or feel good in the here and now but just for a few moments. In the long run, what is actually happening? Most clients would admit that their problematic behaviors such as taking a drink of scotch if they’re alcoholic or avoiding people if they are socially phobic or yelling at their spouse if they are struggling with anger management issues, they’ll admit that it might feel good in the short haul but in the long haul, it is adding up to lead to greater suffering.

And then the therapist can ask: What is it that you want your life to be about? Short-term feel good instances? Or do you want something bigger, better, more meaningful in your life? My question to you is: How do you want your life’s journey to unfold? Because if you care about having a vital life, you need to start to articulate what is important to you during your one precious life.

For instance, let’s imagine you’re on a journey, life’s journey. And every journey requires that you move forward step by step, moment by moment. And the cool thing is you get to choose a direction for each step, north, south, east, west. There isn’t a right step to take, just a chosen step. And this is entirely up to you. Now, let’s say you and I discuss all the ways to direct your behavior and you end up saying, I want to go west with my life. I’ll shake your hand and congratulate you on making a choice. And then we’ll start to talk about goals. At this point, the ACT therapist is bringing up the helpful plan of having treatment goals for therapy and they’re weaving in the idea that these goals should be personally meaningful if it’s going to be helpful to them. The therapist may continue, since you’ve chosen going west with your life, we’re going to develop some goals that are in the direction of west. Leaving from here and since our office is in Chicago, we have to come up with a goal to show that you’re moving west.
Client, what would be a good goal to show that you are moving west? The client might pick Helena, Montana because that is a westerly goal. Fine, says the therapist. Go ahead and take your journey.

Maybe you might start walking and driving in a westerly direction of values-based direction and you keep going in the direction of west and you’re going to know that you’ve been moving in a value-based direction as you’re heading towards Helena, Montana. And when you get to Helena, Montana, are you at west? No. The answer is no. They aren’t at west. They’re more west than they began but just because you reached a goal does not mean you’ve actually accomplished your value. There’s still more west to go.

So maybe we’ll have to work on another goal. So the client might choose to go to Seattle, Washington because that is another westerly goal. And then they’re going to walk or drive to continue to go west which is valued to them but they’re going to have an aim to reach the goal of Seattle, Washington.
When they arrive, have they arrived at west? No. West is a direction. It’s not something you can arrive at. You never achieve your values. There are always more opportunities to act in a value direction since you care about that value. But you can choose goals to help direct your behavior in the service of your chosen value. Now, the person has arrived at Seattle, Washington. So they met their goal and they’re going to come up with another goal.

So they decide to choose Moscow. And this point, Moscow is in a westerly direction but they can’t do what they’ve done before. They can’t walk and drive from Seattle to Moscow. They have to do something different. They have to be psychologically flexible. They have to change their behavior in the service of chosen values. You see, to get from Chicago to Helena and Helena to Seattle, they had to persist in their behaviors of walking and driving. But now, that has to change. We have to be psychologically flexible with the client and say, what new behaviors are you going to do in order to head in a valued direction? And a new behavior might have to be developed. The client has to get a swimsuit or a row boat or a kayak or a submarine. I would suggest getting a plane ticket and go from Seattle and fly to Moscow. That would be a change in behavior.
But do you see that the value would still be directing the person’s behavior?

What we’re doing with this metaphor of heading west is trying to establish a way of thinking about a life well lived. We need to ask our clients to start to author for themselves, clarify to themselves what are the things that are important in your life, choosing things like reducing suffering and improving quality of living for people or making the world a more beautiful place or rearing my children to have a full, abundant, flexible, healthy life or being trustworthy, loyal, helpful and friendly. There are lots of different values people can have. There aren’t correct values but they are chosen by people.

Suppose a college student in psychotherapy is doing a values exercise and chooses to articulate, my value is to reduce suffering and improve quality of living for people. And I imagine that is a value of many people watching this video. So you can potentially relate to this journey. The therapist might ask, so if we’re going to continue with the going west metaphor where you had to go from Chicago to Helena to demonstrate that you’re headed in a valued direction of west, what would be a good goal that heads you in the direction of reducing suffering for people? The client might say that they need to finish college and get into graduate school. That might be a workable westerly goal. And what this values exercise does is help the client to see each step west, each night of studying, each class of waking up early in the morning to go attend. Each step can be perceived as valuable, as moving west, as moving towards something personally meaningful because the person cares about reducing suffering and improving quality of living for people. Each action for this client that is rooted in these values can be contacted in the present moment and it would act as a meaningful endeavor, a reinforcing endeavor to continue to have that person work on what’s important to them.
And then once they graduate from college and get into graduate school, then they have to finish graduate school. That would be their Seattle. And then after that, they still need another westerly goal or another goal to show that they are interested in reducing suffering and improving quality of living. So that is getting a license in their profession. And then another goal after that is they get a job working as a therapist. They continue to go west. They continue to follow through on their values. They set up goals along the way to help direct their behavior so that they know they are moving in their chosen direction.

There are 3 key points in this video.
One, although much of ACT tries to undermine unhelpful language processes with acceptance, defusion and mindfulness exercises, the crucial work of clarifying values in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy actually encourages the client to leverage the power of language to help behavioral change in order to address clinically relevant concerns.

Two, values are often considered chosen life directions and the ACT therapist will open discussions in session about what is meaningful and vital to the client. These conversations can be rich and deep about the purpose of one’s life.

And three, the going west metaphor is a traditional ACT intervention to help the client and the therapist create a context of mutual understanding about how to discuss values and goals.

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