Psychological Flexibility and Focusing on Values


Over 40 years ago Steven Hayes developed ACT Therapy (pronounced as the word "act") which incorporates practices of psychological flexibility and a focus on values. For Work/Life's recent email series, A Month of Values Based Living, Triangle area therapists shared introductions to the six components of ACT Therapy and related exercises to try. Below I've compiled those six components and relevant exercises. You can find the bio and website of each contributor by clicking their photo.

Please note this is intended to be used for informational purposes only and not a therapeutic intervention. 


Abigail Mook, LPA - Avance Care


ACT defines “acceptance” as a willingness to embrace all of your psychological experiences fully.

We often try to change or get rid of negative thoughts or feelings. It is common to judge ourselves for feeling a certain way. For example, if we feel anxious before a presentation we may tell ourselves: “I shouldn’t be feeling anxious right now, the anxiety will make me forget what I’m going to say!”. In this example we are fighting and struggling against the negative feeling of anxiety. This attempt at controlling our anxiety creates more psychological distress, leading to more anxiety.

Another technique we often use is avoidance. In other words, we may try to suppress or push down a thought or feeling. Let’s try an exercise to illustrate this. Try to spend 10 seconds NOT thinking about a pink elephant………

How did you do?
…did you think about the pink elephant? It is very likely that you did!

A similar issue occurs with our thoughts and emotions; the more we try to avoid or suppress them, the more they can come back at us. Acceptance offers us a solution. Acceptance (willingness) allows us to let go of the struggle and the cycle of avoidance. It’s the idea that we can not only co-exist with our thoughts and emotions but also embrace them. Willingness to feel difficult emotions helps us to lessen the impact of negative thoughts and emotions.

One exercise to try:

ACT uses a lot of metaphors. For this exercise let's try applying the beach ball in a pool metaphor to your own experience:

Take a moment to think about something that has been stressing you or worrying you lately. Now picture all of these thoughts and emotions inside of a beach ball.
Imagine that you are standing in a swimming pool. Your task is to take the beach ball and hold it under the water with one hand. Keep it there.

Likely the ball keeps popping up and creates a big splash. Keeping the beach ball under the water limits your movement around the pool. It is also hard to concentrate on other things and people around you.

In order to enjoy the pool atmosphere let go of the beach ball and let it come to the surface. Release the ball so it is free to float. Eventually it will float away from you. Sometimes it will come back closer to you. You are now able to swim around the pool, interact with others with ease. You get to decide where you go in the pool without worrying about keeping the beach ball under water.

As you go throughout your day think about if there is any moment where you can let go of your “beach ball”.


Luke Hirst, LCSWA - Luke Hirst Therapy


"Self-as-context" is the technical ACT term for the experience of having an "observing self" that is different from our "thinking self." The idea is that our mind is constantly producing thoughts, and the part of us producing those thoughts is the "thinking self." Often in mindfulness practices, we take time to notice what those thoughts are. We might imagine watching them go by like clouds in the sky. When we are doing that, who is doing the noticing? Who is it that is watching the clouds? That part of us is the "observing self." By practicing moving into the "observing self" space more often, we can create some helpful space from our thoughts, from which we are better able to choose how to respond.

One exercise to try:

Take a comfortable seat and invite your attention to follow your inhale and your exhale as you breathe.

At some point, you might start to notice some thoughts arising in your mind. Maybe you're thinking about what you had for breakfast or you're worried about an upcoming deadline. Notice what form those thoughts take; for example, are they images, words, or sounds? Are they racing or are they moving slowly?

Now notice that you are noticing. Allow yourself to become aware that there is a part of you that is doing the noticing and therefore your thoughts are not all of who you are.

Now you are probably having more thoughts! Maybe they are reacting to this whole idea and trying to figure it out!

But there you are, still also noticing. The thoughts change from moment to moment, but you do not.


Jennifer Glassmire-Policari, Psy.D., LP, HSP-P - Evolve Psychological Services, PLLC

Flexible Attention to the Current Moment

Flexibility in the current moment, also known as contact with the current moment in ACT literature, is the ability to focus on the here and nowHere and now is the only place that behavior, choice, or action occurs. Before here and now, we have then (planning for, etc.), and after here and now we have there (remembering, problem solving). In fact, research has shown that we spend nearly half of our life in the then and there instead of here and now.

Although there is much benefit to being then and there, we don’t always want to be somewhere we are not - as in when we are on a nice date enjoying the company of another or having fun with a young child playing hide-and-seek. Therefore, practicing the muscle of mindful, or intentional, attention will build our awareness of noticing when we are having thoughts that are there and then and eventually allow for us to choose whether we want to be in the there or then or in the here and now

One exercise to try:

In a standing or sitting position, plant your feet firmly on the floor.

Push your feet into the floor.

Feel the muscles of your legs and feet activate.

Feel gravity also anchoring your feet to the floor.

Allow yourself to feel anchored for a moment.

Breathe deeply.

Look around you. What are a few things you notice visible in your space?

Notice the sounds you can hear. What are the sounds?

Identify for yourself where you are. (i.e., I am in my home office on this Tuesday morning).



Heather Ingram, LCMHCA, CRC - Triangle Wellness and Recovery


Defusion means responding flexibly to your thoughts so they can influence but NOT dominate your behavior.

When you are in state of fusion, you "get hooked" on thoughts and they can dominate your actions, your attention, or both.

In a state of fusion a thought can seem like:

• The absolute truth
• a command you have to obey or rule to follow
• a threat you need to get rid of as soon as possible
• something that requires all of your attention
• something you won't let go of, even if it worsens your life

In a state of defusion you recognize that a thought:

• may or may not be true
• is definitely not a command you have to obey or rule you must follow
• is definitey not a threat to you
• may or may not be important - you have a choice how much you pay attention to it
• can be allowed to come and go - without need to push it away or hold onto it

One exercise to try:

There is power in noticing and naming thoughts. Identify a common negative self-judgment you may have such as "I am a loser" and fuse with that thought for a few seconds.

Silently replay the thought with these words in front of it: I am having the thought that . . . I am a loser.

You can even add: I notice, I am having the thought, that I am a loser.

What happened? Did you notice a sense of distance from the thought? Did it lose some of its power?

You can use the "I am having" or "I am noticing" technique with thoughts, feelings (I'm having a feeling of anxiety), urges (I'm having the urge to smoke), sensations (I'm noticing my palms are sweating), and memories (I'm noticing a bad memory) to help you create space and decide how you need to respond.


Demah S Payne III, PhD, LCMHC - Step Into Your Greatness, PLLC


The common metaphor for values is that they are a direction, whereas goals are the stops you make on the way while heading in that direction. Imagine you are heading west from Boston, going west is your value, your goals are stopping in New York City, Cleveland, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix, and San Diego.

Values are not things, but ways of being and doing. For example, values are “being loving,” “being reliable,” “having integrity,” and ”showing respect.”

One exercise to try:

Use the Values Worksheet and begin to explore your values and learn about ways you might better express these values in your daily life.


Heather Ingram, LCMHCA, CRC - Triangle Wellness and Recovery

Committed Action

Committed action means taking effective action that is guided and motivated by values. Committed action implies flexible action - readily adapting to the challenge of a situation and persisting or changing behavior as required.

One exercise to try:

The Challenge Formula
No matter how difficult the situation, there are always at least 3 options

1. Leave
2. Stay and live by your values: change what you can to improve the situation and make room for any pain that goes with it
3. Stay and give up acting effectively: do things that make no difference or make it worse

Think about a difficult situation you are facing today. Using the challenge formula, determine which step is best for the given situation.

If you can't leave a situation or don't see that as the best option available, that leaves 2 or 3. Option 3 typically comes naturally to most of us where we get "hooked" on difficult thoughts and feelings and get pulled into actions that keep us stuck or make things harder, so the path to a better life lies in Option 2.

What small moves can you make to improve your challenging situation? How do you want to show up for yourself or others in the situation? What pain or uncomfortable feelings do you need to make room for in order to make those moves and improve your situation?
We can't always change our circumstances, but we can change how we show up and respond (versus react) to improve the situation!



About Author

Katie Seavey Pegoraro

Sr Associate Work Life Program Manager

Katie Seavey Pegoraro supports employees with issues of stress and balance, providing tools and resources to cope when life feels overwhelming. Katie is a contact for those who may be coping with issues of mental health, substance use, or grief and loss. A young professional herself, Katie is a unique support to employees who are navigating the many life transitions that occur in your 20's and 30's.

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