In Part 1 of this article, we explored how mindfulness transforms pain. No matter how painful our thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, and memories, when we respond to them mindfully, with an attitude of openness and curiosity, we transform them. They will still be painful, but they will have much less impact and influence over us; but when we truly accept them – when we drop the struggle and make room for them – they no longer function as barriers that hold us back, or threats that scare us off, or burdens that pin us down.
However, we can also transform painful thoughts and feelings through linking our pain to our values. For example, sometimes when I go to the gym, I fuse with thoughts such as ‘This is such a pain. I hate doing this stuff. Why do I have to do this? I can’t wait until this session is over!’ And guess what happens? That’s right; the session turns into a life-draining ordeal; an endurance test; an unpleasant experience to get through as fast as possible. But something very interesting happens when I unhook myself from those thoughts, and reconnect with my values, and take a moment to reflect: ‘I am choosing to be here, because I value taking care of my body, and looking after myself. And this will give me more energy to invest in other important activities, like connecting with and taking care of my loved ones.’ At that point, the pain transforms. It is still unpleasant; I am still hot, and sweaty, and tired, and short of breath, with screaming muscles; but it becomes a purposeful, meaningful, consciously chosen experience, instead of a tedious ordeal. I have made this pain meaningful: it means I am taking care of myself.
For yet another example, in my training workshops for health professionals, I always do live demonstrations of therapy. This brings up a huge amount of anxiety for me – in case I screw it up badly in front of a large audience of peers and colleagues – and typically my hands are literally dripping with sweat. But I remind myself that people generally find these demonstrations helpful; and I say to myself, ‘I am willing to have this anxiety in order to help others’. Instantly, this transforms the anxiety, linking it to my value of helping, and my goal of running a good workshop. And as a lovely bonus, that makes the anxiety much easier to accept.
For one last example, suppose we lose a loved one. Obviously we are going to experience all sorts of incredibly painful feelings. But what happens if we consciously acknowledge that this intense pain is linked to our values of being loving and caring? I ask my grieving clients to feel their pain and their love simultaneously; to acknowledge their sadness, fear, and loss and at the same time, get in touch with their love for the person who is dead or dying, and experience how the two are intimately connected. I ask them to make room for both the love and the pain; they always go together.
And at a later stage, I often ask this question, ‘Suppose I could give you a choice. Choice One: this terrible pain will instantly disappear and you’ll never feel anything like it ever again – but you will lose the capacity to love and care; you will no longer care about anyone or anything, ever again. Choice Two: you really get to love and to care; you have the opportunity and ability to build all sorts of rich, meaningful, loving relationships throughout your life – but that means that when you lose someone you love, you will feel pain like this. Which would you choose?’
When people choose option two, as they always do, there is an instant change: immediately the pain has become meaningful; it is pain in the service of loving and caring. It’s still extremely painful, but it’s no longer meaningless; it’s now linked to important values.
Thus, in the ACT model, we would never ask someone to accept pain purely for the sake of it; what would be the point? We would only ask someone to accept pain if it were in the service of values-based living; e.g. if it would help them to take better care of themselves, or engage more in life, or take life-enhancing courses of action, or pursue meaningful goals, or build richer relationships, etc.
If you are a therapist, coach or other health professional, it is essential to remember this; when working with ACT, we must always explicitly link acceptance of pain to values and values-guided goals. There are many ways to do this. For example, we might ask our client, ‘Are you willing to make room for these painful thoughts and feelings, in order to do the things you want to do (e.g. to be a loving mother, or to take better care of your body, or to attend that important event)?’ Or we might ask ‘In making room for this pain, what are you standing for (e.g. courage, self-compassion, love, self-care, being available to loved ones)?’ Or we might ask, ‘If you weren’t struggling with/running from/fighting with/ this pain, what would you do differently with your life?’ – and then, whatever the answer is to that question, we would use it as the motivation to drop the struggle with the pain. (Note: one of the most common reasons why clients resist accepting painful emotions is because the coach or therapist has not explicitly linked it to values and/or values-congruent goals!)
Similarly, if our client is in the midst of some acceptance exercise, i.e. actively opening up and making room for a painful emotion, we might remind her of the values and goals linked to this acceptance; for example, ‘And as you breathe into and make room for that anxiety, take a moment to reflect on why you’re doing this – e.g. so you can fly on airplanes/start public speaking/socialise more/go out on dates/really be there for the kids when they need you.’ Or we might say things like, ‘Are you willing to make room for that tightness in your chest, those sweaty hands, that racing heart, those knots in your stomach, if this is what you need to make room for in order to pursue that career change/go to the places you want to go/be authentic, open and intimate in your relationships etc.’
And of course, we don’t have to wait until a coach or therapist asks us these questions; we can ask them of ourselves! Why not try it? Next time you’re in pain, try to complete one of these sentences: ‘I am willing to have this pain in order to ….’, ‘In making room for this pain, I am standing for …’, or ‘Allowing this pain, instead of fighting or running from it, will enable me to ….’ There are never any guarantees with ACT, but please do try it; I hope and trust it will be helpful.
Thanks to Dr. Russ Harris for this post. (scroll down for part 1) Russ trained me as an ACT Therapist which in turn, not only enriched my own life but also countless others. ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) is a combination of latest Western Psychology and Ancient Eastern Mindfulness. Very simple… very powerful! Love & Laughter Always! – John