Dr. Matt Hersh, founder of The Thriving Therapist

Dr. Hersh is a psychotherapist, Certified Energy Psychologist, mindfulness teacher, & founder of The Thriving Therapist, a site devoted to helping the helpers. Learn more about us and check out our free resources, online courses, and workshops on self-care, work-life balance, burnout prevention, your thriving practice, & much more.

We can get lost in life. We could all use a bit of direction.

When it comes to helping our clients identify and clarify what really matters to them and live life in accordance with those values, we can sometimes become directionally challenged.

This post attempts to address the core question: “how do we engage our clients in meaningful discussion (and, of course, action) around what matters most to them in their lives?” We will explore this through clarifying client values using the “True North” ACT-based exercise.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) & Values Work

ACT has lot to say about values and walking in meaningful directions in life. In fact, ACT is one of the few comprehensive therapies out there that actually focuses on values as a core process for behavioral change.

Without identification and clarification of values and committed action to move (or act) in valued directions, we can sometimes aimlessly wander about. We may throw enormous energy into changing our emotions, thoughts, behaviors, or situations without a deeper understanding of the directionality of change.

On the flip side, we can set concrete goals for ourselves (like losing 15 lbs before summer) without a deeper knowing of what is driving us toward this end. We may not truly know why it is so meaningful to achieve this goal.

Without values driving this goal, we might become overly self-critical, lax, or inflexible in our pursuits.

As I was recently getting “lost” in productive thought about ACT-inspired exercises, I conjured up this very quick and very easy-to- implement exercise.

This exercise may already exist inside the vast and freely shared ACT toolbox. I do not claim ownership or innovation in any way. It just popped into my head recently, it’s been very effective, and I wanted to share it with fellow therapists.

Clarifying Client Values Using The “True North” Exercise

  • This exercise involves a few basic steps, has minimal instruction and set-up, and relies mainly on visual cues drawn by the client him or herself.
  • It can also be used as an indicator of progress over time (using the original drawing again at regular intervals over time).
  • The True North exercise can be done within a range of circumstances and contexts. You may do the exercise during your first session with a new client or to revitalize a seemingly stale or stagnant therapy.
  • You may have never discussed values before. Or perhaps you have had many deep discussions of what your client truly finds meaningful in life. This exercise can be effective at different stages of therapy. It can flex and conform to a given stage of therapy and what is needed at a particular point in time.

Download the True North Exercise (Life-Direction-Arrow-Exercise)

Step 1: Physical Materials & Transition

Hand your client a pen and some paper and tell her that you want to do something different for a moment. Or if you are already engaged in values work, just add this to the mix.

Step 2:  Drawing the “True North” arrow

  • Ask your client to draw an arrow straight up from the middle to the top of the page.
  • Tell her that this arrow represents what she really wants from life in the domain of________________ (domain that you have been discussing, like family, career, self-care, relationships, parenting, etc.).
  • Mention how this is her “True North”, the direction that, if followed, would likely lead to greater fulfillment and satisfaction in life (although not necessarily less challenge or pain).
  • You can also mention that when she is heading in this direction, many of the positive qualities that she desires to express would be realized. (This warrants further discussion though, and is probably more in the domain of Positive Psychology strengths-based work.)
  • You can ask your client to briefly articulate what this direction in life would entail. What would life look like on a daily or consistent basis? Would the client’s desired qualities manifest with greater ease? How others would begin to perceive the client?
  • Your client can also reflect on how it feels to be contemplating their “True North”, how this sought after direction in life motivates and inspires or perhaps scares and intimidates them or might reveal emotional barriers that can then be discussed and processed (as shown in Step 4).

Step 3: Drawing the Current Direction arrow

  • Next have your client draw a line (solid or dashed) that indicates the direction she feels she is actually heading currently. This new line should begin where the True North line began but is drawn at whatever angle away from the True North your client feels appropriately depicts her current status (see Life Direction Arrow Exercise).
  • You can ask your client to reflect on how it feels to be articulating her current direction in life. Does this cause a sadness, a longing, a hopelessness, or even a hopefulness in relation to the “True North”.

*For clients whose True North and current direction arrows are well over 45 degrees apart, it is important to watch out for a depressed outlook, pessimism, hopelessness, self-judgment, or self-doubt. Clients in these situations may feel like their True North is unattainable and that their current direction is inevitable or that they have resigned themselves to this position.

Doing some acceptance work in those moments and then some “re-direction” of psychic energy is important. Continuing to the 4th step (below) at this time can be very useful in order for clients to more readily identify what is actually getting in the way of moving toward more valued living.

Step 4: Clarifying the Space Between

  • Finally, you can mention that the space in between the arrows consists of the client’s barriers, blocks, fears, excuses, habits, and hidden possibilities.
  • It is important to note that barriers, fears, and habits may very well be “fused” with your client’s identity. Thus, your client may not even be able to envision himself moving toward what he desires.
  • When barriers are seen as just barriers, however, then moving in desired directions in life can feel much more workable.

Supplemental exercise (Overcoming True North Barriers). You may ask your client to flip their paper over and draw two columns: the left is for the barriers to moving toward valued living, and the right is for how the client will start to overcome, move through, address, acknowledge, accept, or take with them all their barriers, blocks, and fears. The right column is all about motivation and/or preparation for committed action.

Putting It Together, Opening Up, and Moving Forward

After Step 4, you can explore, investigate, open, deepen, broaden, or otherwise more fully address what the arrows really mean to the client and how to behaviorally move toward what the client ultimately desires.

Given that ACT-based model is really behavior therapy, you ultimately want clients to be taking different actions in their daily lives that comport with their values – what truly matters to them.

So translating the “True North” exercise into a behavioral plan of some sort is key to forward movement. A potentially helpful question might then be: “So what does this exercise tell you about what you might do tonight (or this week, or by next session) to move yourself in the direction you really want to go?”

Ideally, our job in this exercise is to spark some creative hopelessness, some motivation to look more honestly at how our clients are living their lives, and to provoke a sense of healthy unrest so that our clients end up pushing themselves toward that which will ultimately bring them a more fulfilling and uplifting life.

Please drop a comment below  – I’d love to hear how this exercise works for you and your clients.

Be well,


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