Thriving through the Embrace of Life:
Learning to Open through the Pain
By Lauren Helm, M.A.
In the first segment of our blog on learning how to thrive, we explored the role that suffering may have in preventing or blocking our ability to live a valued, full life. Part two continues our discussion of thriving versus suffering, and introduces an alternative approach to responding to emotional or physical pain or discomfort.
“Human beings, we have dark sides; we have dark issues in our lives. To progress anywhere in life, you have to face your demons.” – John Noble
It can be said, in a sense, that in running away from our pain, we are metaphorically running away from our demons. These demons appear large, menacing, and powerful. They wave their limbs in frightening gestures, and offer deafening roars or shrieks when we move close to them. Our instinct is to flee – to run and escape these frightening beings – for fear that irreparable harm will come our way. However, our constant attempts to hide away from painful events leads to the cycle of suffering that prevents a thriving, full life. Thriving is not happiness without pain. To thrive is to experience the full range of what it means to be human, and to consciously move forward on a path that is in alignment with who you want to be, and with what is important to you. Life is made up of the “good” and the “bad,” or the “pleasurable” and the “painful,” but focusing on removing the bad or the painful is likely to also prevent you from experiencing the beautiful , the awe-inspiring, and the heart-warming types of life experiences.
Sometimes it just takes a little willingness to open up to all that life has to offer, even when there is pain involved. This may take a certain degree of faith or bravery, because actively taking steps forward into valued territories often entails some degree of risk. There is risk in opening up to vulnerable but deep love, there is risk in pursuing an education or career path that inspires you but has no guarantees, and there is risk in boldly moving forward when there will likely be a certain level of pain (and growth) in doing so. Openness to the fullness of life on some level requires an acceptance of all that comes with it – the ups and the downs. In fact, an embracing of the twists and turns of life may very well be what leads to the transformation and growth that fosters thriving and well-being. Remember, pain in and of itself is not the problem. Suffering-caused by efforts to avoid pain- leads to the seemingly inescapable vortex of pain, and is a beast that feeds itself through escalating distress and avoidance. It requires extensive time and energy to maintain, and yet convinces us of its necessity. However, paradoxically, the way out of suffering is in “embracing the demons.” The alternative to suffering is thriving, an embracing of life.
Metaphorically, this cycle is like feeding a hungry tiger. Dr. Russell Harris, an ACT practitioner, explains how this works: “You discover a baby tiger in your house, and it’s cute and cuddly, so you play with it. Then it gets hungry, and restless, and irritable, so you feed it – and it settles down. But over time, the more you feed that tiger, the bigger it grows - and the more food it needs, and the more aggressive it gets when it’s hungry. Now it’s not cute anymore; it’s scary. And you spend more and more time feeding it, because you’re terrified that if you don’t, it’ll eat you! But the more you feed it, the bigger it gets” (Harris, 2007).
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an empirically supported treatment that teaches clients to reduce suffering and truly thrive. ACT is an experiential therapy and so relies on the use of metaphors and experiential exercises to facilitate learning in an experienced way. Metaphors can help us to really connect with concepts and ideas so that we can begin to apply these concepts; so that we can begin to more openly experience difficult life events, instead of automatically avoiding them. So that we can thrive. Another commonly used metaphor in ACT that illustrates this point is the Chinese Finger Trap Metaphor. The more that you struggle with, and try to escape the finger trap by trying to pull your fingers out of the trap, the tighter the trap becomes. The struggle to control the situation and escape makes it worse. Instead, the way out of the trap is to yield, and bring both fingers closer together within the finger trap. And then it loosens, and you are set free. Similarly, in the ACT Quicksand Metaphor, the cycle of suffering is represented by the experience of being in quicksand. If you struggle and try to fight your way out of quicksand, you sink more quickly. The way out of quicksand is to make as much contact with the sand as possible, lying on your back, and in doing so, you rise to the surface.
It is through the willingness to make full contact with life, the embracing of the many possible experiences that make us human, that we thrive. There is richness and fullness of life to be found when we creatively choose to embody meaningful living. We can start this process by letting go of trying to control the pain, and committing to act in ways that allow us to thrive.
Clinicians who wish to incorporate metaphors and experiential exercises into their therapy practice can check out Dr. Jill Stoddard’s The Big Book of ACT Metaphors here.
If you'd like to speak with Dr. Stoddard or another professional at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management for help learning about how to “embrace your demons,” please click here.
Harris, R. (2006). Embracing your demons: an overview of acceptance and commitment therapy. Psychotherapy in Australia, 12(4), 70.
Harris, R. (2007). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) ADVANCED Workshop Handout. Retrieved from: http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/2007_-_advanced_act_workshop_handout.pdf
Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger Publications.
Tags: anxiety, anxiety therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, ACT, stress and anxiety in san diego, Center for Stress and Anxiety Management, mental health, emotion regulation,anxiety disorders, fulfillment, suffering, thriving, pain, personal values