Using Values to Avoid the Trap of Meaninglessness

If you have used defusion in your therapy sessions, or any other technique aimed at helping clients create distance between themselves and the stories they tell themselves, you may recognize this common pitfall: If our thoughts are not absolute truths, then it may seem that there is no absolute meaning, no right or wrong, or no absolute point of reference.

According to John Blackledge, PhD, ACT researcher and author of Cognitive Defusion: A Clinician’s Guide to Assessing, Observing and Supporting Change in Your Client, this potential meaninglessness and amorality trap can be counterbalanced by elaborating on the clients’ direct experience of what matters most to them—on their own deeply held personal values.

“Ask your clients to get clear about specific ways of living, treating others, and engaging with various domains of their lives that give them an increased sense of vitality, meaning, and purpose,” says Blackledge.

“Inevitably,” he adds, “these values are at least a partial product of experiences they have had firsthand, whether they have been on the giving or receiving end of the values they endorse. These direct experiences are then used to trump thoughts that doubt whether they really value those ways of living or whether their values really matter.”

So a client might say something like, “I want to be kind to other people—I want to treat them fairly and compassionately, to connect with them as human beings.” Subsequently, in therapy, the client might start to doubt whether this value really matters to him and might even doubt whether treating others this way ultimately even matters. After all, the values statement is simply made up of words, and words do not appear to capture absolute truth.

See also: Infusing Mindfulness-Based Treatments with Defusion Techniques

The lessons defusion teaches can logically result in a thought like, “Words cannot capture reality,” but that, too, is just a thought. We ultimately do not know if that thought is true. But defusion also teaches that we do not have to change that thought to get on with our lives, that we may trust our direct experiences about what matters to us and can move in those directions. Any thoughts, held lightly, can be carried on that journey.

In such a case, the therapist can evoke a different kind of knowing: the kind of direct, experiential knowing that we have when doing something a particular way simply feels right and vital, and matters greatly at a personal level.

The same holds true for thoughts about how ethical behavior does not matter because there is no fixed, immutable ethical code sewn into the fabric of the universe.

“While I have never had an ACT client who genuinely, after careful reflection, endorsed an antisocial or amoral value, the possibility exists that some clients might use defusion to justify antisocial or destructively amoral behavior,” says Blackledge.  

“Drilling down to key client experiences about what it felt like to help and connect with others, in contrast to what it felt like to engage in various amoral or antisocial behaviors, can be instrumental in helping clients realize that specific prosocial, constructive ways of living really do matter to them, regardless of an apparent lack of explicit endorsement by the universe,” Blackledge adds.

Existentialists have grappled with this aspect of humanity for centuries, and the fundamental issue focused on has likely been around almost as long as humans have used language. In the face of a vast and virtually incomprehensible universe, human beings are confronted with the thought that nothing matters in and of itself, that the universe does not come with an a priori declaration of what matters and what is worth striving for, and that we must make our own meanings and forge our own ethical codes. Once you realize that your mind is not your most trustworthy friend, you must ultimately rely on your experiences to tell you what matters, what is meaningful and important to you. Words can be helpful or unhelpful in assisting those realizations, but they should not be allowed to negate them.

For more on defusion, check out Cognitive Defusion in Practice: A Clinician’s Guide to Assessing, Observing and Supporting Change in Your Client.