The Magic Wand: An ACT Approach to Values Work


Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University Portland Psychotherapy

Key Points

  1. In ACT, values are the qualities of behaviors that make life worth living and help orient clients towards a meaningful life.
  2. The magic wand exercise helps clients to articulate their values so they can begin living their lives now, rather than waiting for emotions to improve.
  3. Values-based living is a key concept of ACT, emphasizing the addition of meaningful behaviors, rather than controlling or removing emotions.
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The Value of Values

There is no particular protocol or order for ACT processes to be introduced. Having said that, after developing an agreed way of conceptualizing Charles’ problems and working on willingness, it’s good then to focus on values. Values tend to come up somewhere toward the beginning with ACT because we want to know what the destination is; as defined by the client, not the therapist.

The concept of values in ACT refers to the meaning and purpose of life, or the things in life that make it worth living, the things we care about the most. Often, when clients come to us, they’re coming for help with anxiety or depression, or some other difficult emotion. And it’s usually the case that the struggle with those thoughts and feelings has taken them out of their desired lives, further away from values-based lives.

The Magic Wand

We want to know what kind of life Charles would ideally like to have, what is important to him. One means of exploring this is known as the magic wand exercise. This might be given as homework, then discussed with the client during session. The first question in this exercise is: if we had a magic wand, and could wave it and get rid of all your anxiety, shame, and insecurity, what would you be doing with your life, or how would your life be different?

Clients often have trouble answering that question. They may not be in touch with their values. The magic wand gives them an opportunity to clarify what matters to them. Charles might say, well, if I didn’t have anxiety and shame, I’d feel a lot better about socializing. I’d feel more content or at peace. He can then be asked, okay, so if you were more content and didn’t have any problems with socializing, what would be different? The idea is to steer Charles towards a behavioral answer, because values are, from an ACT perspective, qualities within behavior.

Clients often say that their values are something like peace or calmness, but from an ACT perspective those aren’t as helpful. We would never say something’s not a great value, of course, but if a client says they would feel calm or peaceful, it can be harder to understand what they would do with their life as a result. Curiosity, adventure, or compassion are more active qualities, so what actions could they lead to?

There Is No Magic Wand

The punch line to the magic wand exercise, which is often not a surprise to clients, is that there is no magic wand. There is no way to get rid of anxiety or shame, or whatever the problem or emotion might be. So what would it be like to start living the life you could without them now, anyway? Maybe we don’t need to wait for these things to improve? They’ve waited and tried for long enough. What would it be like to start moving in that direction right now?

So as we work on helping clients manage emotions, we’re also not putting their lives on hold any longer. That’s a big piece of the ACT model. It differs from other treatment approaches in being about adding things rather than just taking them away or controlling them.

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The Magic Wand: An ACT Approach to Values Work

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