What is important to you? And I mean really important. What dreams, values, and goals are you striving for?
And why have you not reached that, yet?
My guess is that, while moving toward your goals and dreams, you’ve encountered your personal beasts.
The guardians of the gate to of perceived self-actualisation can come in many shapes: anxiety, feeling like a fraud, resistance, and much more. They show up with certainty whenever we attempt to move toward anything that is important to us.
Life, then, becomes a journey of overcoming what is difficult. With the prize at the end of each challenge being self-confidence, meaning, and a sliver of happiness — at least for a little while.
How Do We Get There?
You’ll find that behaviour in general is motivated in two ways: Either you want to move toward what is pleasant, or you want to move away from what is unpleasant.
Consequently, in order to get what you want, you need to make sure that you are moving toward what matters to you — and not just away from what is uncomfortable.
Because avoidance won’t get you a meaningful life.
This difference in motivated behaviour is what many people get wrong and why they end up not getting what they want.
People no longer aim at realising their goals, dreams, and potential guided by their values. Instead they try everything to combat and avoid feelings of anxiety, impostor syndrome, sadness, and envy that inevitably show up.
The ACT Matrix
In order to understand the difference between moving away from and moving toward something, Kevin Polk, Jerold Hambright, and Mark Webster designed a psychotherapy tool called the “ACT Matrix”.
This tool is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or short ACT (pronounced like the word act), developed by the psychologist and researcher Steven C. Hayes.
In its essence, ACT strives to enhance psychological flexibility by combining behavioural elements with acceptance and mindfulness. It has proven its effectiveness to combat depression, anxiety disorders, and more in multiple studies.
The ACT Matrix wants to remind people of what values truly matter to them and imagine how the person that embodies those values would behave.
How to Apply the ACT Matrix to Your Own Life
That matrix is made out of two dimensions that open up four quadrants as you can see from the photo below.
The first dimension on the horizontal line is the direction of movement: toward or away from something.
The second dimension on the vertical line is the locus of experience: internal in the mind or external with all senses.
Keeping the two dimensions in mind, we start filling in each of the four quadrants.
1. What is important to you?
In this first quadrant you take time to reflect on what is important to you. It’s about writing down your innermost dreams, goals, values, that matter to you.
If you’re one of those people who struggle to identify what matters to them, you may start with the question “Who is important to you?”. That can be a person currently in your life, a person from your past, or also a pet.
For some what’s truly important is their family and being a good spouse or parent, for others it’s making a difference with their work, or feeling fully alive on wild adventures.
It’s best to go through the matrix one important thing at a time. Slowly working through the individual pieces that would make up your dream life.
2. What unpleasant inner “stuff” shows up?
The second quadrant represents what I’d call your inner beast. The question here is: What internal “stuff” comes up when you start moving toward something that’s important to you?
It’s all the internal things that you’d rather move away from, avoid, not feel or experience.
That could be anxiety, resistance, anger, fear, or sadness. Choose your beast.
3. What behaviours of moving away do you show in response?
In the third quadrant we move from your inner world into observable external behaviour.
The leading question to answer is: What do you do once your inner beasts show up? What could other people observe you doing to move away from these uncomfortable experiences?
That could be procrastinating with Netflix, avoiding social situations, saying yes even though you want to say no, not starting a conversation with the interesting stranger, or not asking for a raise.
4. What behaviours of moving toward could you engage in?
You have to realise that engaging in the behaviour you described in the previous quadrant won’t get you any closer to your ideals, goals, and dreams.
So, what would a person who really embodies those values do? What behaviour could you engage in that will move you toward the kind of life you desire?
That might be doing the dishes for your spouse, calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, going for a run, cleaning up your room, or putting your CV together to apply for the new job.
Note that it’s about concrete, small actions that align with your values. Taken together over the long-run this is what will make the difference.
What to Take Away From the ACT Matrix
On your way toward a meaningful life, obstacles are an unavoidable part of the journey. Uncomfortable feelings and anxious thoughts will show up on your doorstep.
However, spending all your energy to avoid anxiety, dodge sadness, suppress anger, ignoring grief, won’t result in a fulfilling, rich life.
Instead you have to act in a way that moves you toward what matters. With anxiety, sadness, frustration, and an impostor syndrome that keeps on nagging as your companions.
Because the real question is:
Will you try to just not suffer — or will you try to thrive?
Remark: When I talk about anxiety, anger, or sadness, I talk about the normal emotions that are part of all our lives. I’m not talking about disorders that require professional help.
Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F. O. (2016). The Essential Guide to the ACT Matrix: A Step-by-Step Approach to Using the ACT Matrix Model in Clinical Practice. Context Press.