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Values vs Rules

In ACT, values guide activity and behaviour. Values do not set rules, and action is not taken according to rules.

For example, a rule that we all know is that we don’t drive through red lights. This is a useful rule, and in fact ‘works’ for almost all of us almost all of the time. But there may be times when we might need to break this rule. For example, the rule exists because we all value human life, but there may be a case when we have to drive through a red light in the service of that same value – if we are driving late at night, the roads are almost empty and a passenger is very sick, or an ambulance flashing its lights is directly behind us. 

If I can view the intersection and, having ascertained there are no vehicles coming the other way keeping the safety of human lives in mind, I can then proceed through the intersection and allow the ambulance to pass. I would be breaking the rule but I would be acting according to my value.

In ACT we want to explore and understand the value that underpins the rule. In the example above that value is respect for human life. The same value suggests we don’t hurt or kill each other – but if a person is invading our home and threatening the lives of our children we are likely to break the rule relating to harming others. 

It is useful, in a therapeutic context, to explore with clients the values that underpin the rules they apply. We may hold a value that is important but then apply a rule instead.

Brian had health issues and joined a gym to increase his fitness and ultimately improve his health and wellbeing. He committed to going to the gym four mornings a week, and for a few weeks stuck to this routine. But then his son started early-morning swimming training, and the family’s routine required him to take his son at least twice a week. Brian labelled himself ‘lazy’. We looked at Brian’s values, which included family harmony and his children’s health and happiness as well as his own. We found other ways for him to be active and improve his health – to swim at the same centre as his son, to go to the gym on other days and to take the dog for walks and ride his bike at weekends. Brian was satisfied that he was working towards his health value, but not at the expense of other values, and without the pressure of following his own self-imposed rule.

Rules can have some value, however. A client’s rules can provide you with a good starting place to explore values. A client may say he ‘has’ to be home at a certain time to read a book to his child, but is finding this increasingly difficult due to a promotion that is taking him interstate at least once a week. If exploration of the client’s values (with the values wheel or values cards) reveals that the value is actually ‘spending more quality time with my child’, you may find less rigid paths to achieving this value. 

When uncovering the values that underpin rules, we can explore, in a gentle way, how successful we are in living them and any options that may support a more meaningful life.


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