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Act on Your Values, Not Your Thoughts

Posted Aug 05 2010 6:09am

This week’s blog post is a guest post by Ann Burrish, one of Abigail’s Mind-Body Coach trainees.        


womansneakers We mind/body folks know what slippery characters our thoughts can be. If we repeatedly experience the same self-defeating thoughts and feelings as we seek healing for physical pain, anxiety, weight, or other mind/body disconnect, a way to change our beliefs and emotions that is sometimes overlooked is to step aside from them for a moment and focus on action. We are not denying or suppressing their existence; we are kindly and gently saying to them and ourselves, “Yes…and…”, providing evidence to disprove these beliefs and the opportunity to experience different feelings by doing. Action can also provide evidence to support a new thought that you want to believe but don’t quite believe yet.

The scientific and philosophical grounding for this strategy comes from several directions. The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy model is Action->Motivation->More Action. In other words, the more you do, the more you feel like doing. I also rephrase it as, “The more I get into something, the more I “get into it”. In A.C.T. (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) the meaning of the acronym is A=Accept your Thoughts and Feelings. C=Connect with your values. T=Take effective Action. Eastern and indigenous spiritual and mindfulness traditions like yoga, meditation, Tao and Buddhism all encourage noticing our thoughts and then moving on. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam also emphasize good works (actions.)

How can this be useful in real life?

Following are a strategy and examples that I use in my own life and in coaching:

1) Notice a thought, belief system, or feeling state that is not serving you. (For example: I can’t date, go to the beach with my kids, get off the sofa while I am in pain; I cannot control my eating; I am not worth it, my mind will go blank and I will have nothing to say; I feel terrified; or other thoughts and feelings gone wild.)

2) Focus on your values – desired, ongoing, overarching practices and actions that form the framework for the rest of your life. (Note that values differ from goals, which can be achieved and crossed off a list. Values are also not feelings.  As Russ Harris points out in his terrific book, The Happiness Trap, “Values are about what you want to do, not about how you want to feel.  You need to ask yourself, “If I did feel this way – if I did feel happy or admired, then what would I do differently?  How would I act differently?  How would I behave differently towards others and towards myself?  What would I do more of or less of?”  This is a philosophy shared by 12 Step Program adages: fake it ‘til you make it, act as if, if you move a muscle you can change a thought.

3) Choose a small, easy action that supports your values and can provide evidence against the most painful thought or feeling in Step 1. (If a core value is health, maybe put on your walking shoes and walk around the block, decide to wait fifteen minutes before that second dessert. If a core value is relationships, play a game with your kids, go on a date, go to the beach – even if you are not pain-free. The value of worth may be reinforced by making a dentist appointment or delivering Meals on Wheels. If a core value is finding your voice and connecting, participate in a conference call or ask a question at a meeting.) Notice if you are having scary thoughts or feelings.  Tell them, “Your opinion is noted.”  Then…

4) Just Do It!, to rephrase the old Nike ad.

5) If you think you can’t (and you know that’s just a thought, right? J), take a deep breath or several, imagine yourself practicing a smaller, easier, doable version of the action in Step 3, and go for it. Repeat as needed until you have acted. Don’t beat yourself up.  View it all as information and continue the practice (A practice is an action, regularly done.)

6) Pat yourself on the back. Several times. This is evidence and habit building.

7) Notice that connecting with and acting on your values provides a sense of satisfaction in this moment. You don’t have to wait until you are pain-free, weigh 125 pounds, become a poster person for self-esteem or a cool-as-a-cucumber speaker to access the feeling state you seek.  A happy side-effect is that as you continue to act in alignment with your values – noticing, acknowledging, and not falling into your thoughts and feelings – they may just lighten up – and so will you!

Because your small values-driven actions will likely segue into practices and goals (which can be good things), I’d like to share a final action thought (or is that an oxymoron?) I love this tool and title, “Don’t Set a Dead Person’s Goal”, partly because humor reduces pain of all kinds, and it speaks to the perfectionism and self-judgment which cause many of us to suffer.  Also from The Happiness Trap:

“Never set as your goal something that a dead person can do better than you.  For example, to stop eating chocolate – that’s something a dead person can do better than you because, no matter what, they’ll definitely never, ever eat chocolate again.  Or to stop feeling depressed – that’s something a dead person can do better than you, because they’ll never feel depressed again.  Any goal that is about not doing something or stopping doing something is a dead person’s goal.  To convert it to a live person’s goal (i.e. something that a live person can do better than a dead one) you need to ask yourself, ‘If I was no longer doing this activity (or feeling this way or thinking like this), what would I be doing with my time, how would I be acting differently?)”

Live well! Thanks for reading.


annb Ann Burrish is a Certified Martha Beck Life Coach and Brooke Castillo Self-Coaching 101 Coach.  She is completing certification as a Mind/Body Coach with Abigail Steidley and as a Brooke Castillo Weight Coach. Ann loves mysteries of all kinds and coaching because it is a way to help clients be the detectives solving the puzzles of their own painful stories.  Her favorite question is, “Why?” Her website is currently under reconstruction. In the meantime, she can be reached at with questions, comments, or recommendations for mystery novels, especially those with humor.

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