Magic ACT: Transforming Pain into Purpose

Author:  Lou Lasprugato, MFT, Peer-Reviewed ACT Trainer

What if in the midst of our emotional pain, whether it be sadness, fear, anger, or even shame, we approached it in a way that not only allowed us to transcend any suffering that could arise from that pain, but actually transformed it into something valuable, like a precious gift?

In his poignant Ted Talk entitled Psychological Flexibility: How Love Turns Pain into Purpose, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) originator and co-founder, Steven C. Hayes, PhD, demonstrates this process through a personal story.  Accenting with symbolic postures, he shares about the suffering that ensued in turning away from his own pain, and conversely, how tenderly and courageously turning toward that experience unearthed an unexpected source of meaning and purpose. Hayes asserts that this pivot reveals pain and purpose as two sides of the same coin, 

“Because we hurt where we care, and we care where we hurt.”  

In other words, by opening up to pain and sitting with it in a context of loving-kindness, we may come into contact with something that matters to us.

In some parts of the world, the coconut tree is known as “the tree of life.”  From housing materials and novelty items, to oil and food production, its functional versatility is remarkable.  The heart, or flesh, of the coconut contains energy-enhancing fatty acids, hydrating water, and a sweet nutrient-rich nectar that is life-sustaining. However, this heart is not easily accessible due to the hard, exterior shell that encases it. The tough, scratchy and dense surface can be intimidating to approach and difficult to work with, as is the case with our unpleasant emotions, where our inclination is often to avoid them due to the inherent discomfort in moving towards them.  

Just as the coconut shell develops to protect the flesh from potential threats, our exterior can harden and thicken over the years due to shielding our own flesh (and heart) from both real and imagined threats. And yet, it’s in the heart of our emotions where we find a nourishing nectar that can enrich our lives by providing a glimpse into our deepest yearnings and a means of connecting with others through common humanity. So, special tools are often needed to skillfully and safely access this precious heart.  

I’m reminded of a scene from one of my wife’s favorite movies, Cast Away, where Tom Hanks, who’s stranded on an island, realizes that instead of throwing coconuts against a wall or pounding them with a large rock, he needs to skillfully chisel away at them with precision to access their life-sustaining nutrients.

Such tools of precision, scope, and depth can be found in the philosophy of functional contextualism and the behavioral account of human language and cognition known as relational frame theory (RFT), both of which underlie ACT.  

ACT provides a skillset to flexibly experiment with various ways of relating to our here-and-now experience, including pain.  ACT’s open and curious stance provides a context in which meaningful stimuli can be evoked in the presence of painful private events through relationally framed interventions. 

See also: Discovering New Opportunities in the Present Moment

And then, given the derived relational responding that naturally occurs in humans, the stimulus functions (i.e effects) of painful private events, which are often aversive, may be transformed through the acquisition of more appetitive functions from the meaningful stimuli.

Let’s take an inside look at how this plays out.  If willing, take a moment to make contact with a difficult or unpleasant feeling, perhaps related to a currently challenging situation in your life.  Notice any urges to pull away from the feeling, as your mind naturally attempts to protect you from the pain, and instead, see if you can bring forth a sense of curiosity and openness to your experience.  Then, once you’re softly holding the feeling in your awareness, consider the following questions:

  1. What might this (insert painful feeling) be revealing that you care about here?  In other words, what would you have to not care about to not experience this (insert painful feeling)?
  2. How could you use this (insert painful feeling) in the service of something greater, to enrich your life in some way?  In other words, ten years from now, you’re looking back, what do you want your life to have stood for in the presence of this (insert painful feeling)?

Reflecting upon your responses to these questions, you may notice deep yearnings or freely chosen values emerging in the process.  These interventions utilized particular types of relational frames (coordination, distinctive, hierarchical, and deictic as respectively denoted by italics) designed to evoke a transformation of function in the painful stimuli.  Said another way, by establishing a bidirectional (i.e. mutually entailed) relationship between the painful feeling and meaningful stimuli, the feeling now becomes part of a relational network that includes values, meaning, yearnings, or the like.  Guilt may be viewed as a natural consequence of acting incongruently with a particular value; anxiety or shame as signaling a threat to one’s sense of belongingness; and sadness as reflecting a gap between the reality we have and the reality we want. Thus, going forward, such painful feelings can serve as contextual cues, prompting us to move toward what matters in our lives.

From this perspective (or frame), emotional pain is not something to be avoided, but rather appreciated for the data (or sweet nectar) it provides us in informing values-based actions, hence transforming its function; what was previously viewed as without utility, or possibly threatening, becomes a renewable source of meaning and purpose.

I invite you to download this free resource: RFT Interventions for Transforming Pain into Purpose: relationally framed questions designed to transform the function of painful private events through the addition or augmentation of meaning and purpose. 

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