So Max is now 7 months old (see picture to the left where Max indicates that his favourite team is Man United. In my opinion, it’s a good choice). He is the absolute light of my life. And, at the same time, being a Father is the hardest thing that I have ever done, with sleepless nights and the constant state of vulnerability being the major problems! It is so interesting how the things that mean the most to us are also the things that are most difficult.
In a previous blog I wrote a review of “The Mindful Employee” by Flaxman, Bond and Livheim. At the end of the blog I detailed that I would be able to review how the protocol described in that book actually works in practice, given that I had agreed to provide ACT-based resilience training to teaching personnel. It turned out that providing the training, just like my experience of being Max’s Father, was stressful and hugely rewarding all at the same time. Suffice it to say that the protocol, in the real world and with real people, is elegant, accessible and powerful. However, fully describing my experience is beyond the scope of any blog (in fact, I learned so much from delivering the training that I am in the process of writing the protocol into a book). Having said that, I would like to tell you about one event worthy of description, which profoundly affected my understanding of values.
In running the course we broadly wanted to make the connection between mindfulness and values using the two skills diagram (see right). Doing this naturally meant asking the participants to clarify their values and then to record actions that would move them in the direction of their value. Each week then, we asked participants to complete those actions for homework. However, the problem with doing this is that teachers already have lots of goals to achieve within their working week, and our homework exercises simply added a few more bullet-points to their list of things to do.
Given this added pressure, one session a participant reported that he did not complete his homework goals. Our hearts sank, as we thought that avoidance had won the day. In other words, we assumed that the participant had picked goals that he had previously avoided and continued to avoid them despite developing mindfulness and values clarification skills. But then he reported something else; that although he hadn’t completed his homework due to time constraints, he did notice his values had “trickled” into everyday situations and guided his behaviour.
In that moment I realized, for the first time with such clarity, that values could be useful in at least two ways. The first is the way that values are predominately presented in the ACT world; the person in question avoids value consistent behaviour in order to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings. Consequently, the person is trained to use their mindfulness skills to relate to their unwanted thoughts and feelings in such a way that they have less of an influence over behaviour. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, because we want people to pursue avoided but value consistent activities. However, selling values in this way, in this context, actually meant adding to the teacher’s list of things to do.
The second way that values may be useful is that they can guide our behaviour in every situation we happen to find ourselves in, every day of our lives. Let me give you an example to illustrate the difference between this and the way values were described in the previous paragraph. Imagine that you are a teacher and that you had been putting off a conversation with an awkward parent for a while. In this very obvious avoidance situation, you could use values to guide your behaviour such that you no longer avoid i.e. in moving towards a value of integrity you could speak to the parent even though you really didn’t want to. Now think of a different situation, in the middle of your working day, out of the blue, you are called in to meet with the head teacher and that same parent. In that context, where there was little opportunity for behavioural avoidance, you could still use values to guide your behaviour by asking yourself this question before entering the room; ‘What kind of qualities do I want to bring to this meeting? Integrity? Patience? Compassion? Persistence? Kindness?’
“What do my values tell me here, right now?” It is an incredibly powerful question. On Monday of this week my beautiful dog Henry Hooper (see left) had to be euthanized after contracting a disease called leishmaniasis. It broke my heart. After returning home from the vets that evening, Amy sat me in front of Max to look after him while he ate. It was the last thing that I wanted to do, not because being in front of him brought me unwanted thoughts and feelings that I wanted to avoid, but because I felt sad. I would feel sad wherever I was in the house, and I was happy to sit with the sadness, but there is no doubt that my sad feelings were affecting the quality of the interaction that I was having with my child. Then the trickle happened. ‘What do my values tell me here, right now?” Asking myself that question resulted in me staying with Max, physically and psychologically, I made him laugh and I fed him his food enthusiastically. Imagine that, and I am sure that others have had this epiphany, but for the first time I saw just how important values are. Why? Because instead of only using values to guide my behaviour in contexts where I am obviously avoiding, I use them, all day, every day, in each situation I happen to find myself in.