Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life CHAPTER 1 Human Suffering CHAPTER 2 Why Language Leads to Suffering CHAPTER 3 The Pull of Avoidance

Human Suffering

You’ve probably opened this book for this reason: You are hurting and you’re not sure what to do about it.
Perhaps you’ve been suffering from a chronic depression or an anxiety disorder. Perhaps a struggle with drug abuse or alcohol has been costing you your life in your futile attempt to numb your pain. Perhaps a relationship is stumbling, or you are wondering whether life itself matters. It may be that you’ve been in and out of therapy trying to cope with your inner turmoil. Or perhaps, you’re one of the millions who just feels stuck—not vital and engaged in life, but distant, deadened, numbed, or overwhelmed.

If you’ve been struggling for some time, you’ve probably plagued yourself with different forms of the “why?” question: “Why can’t I just get over it?” “Why can’t I feel better?” “Why is life so hard?” “Why hasn’t therapy worked?” “Why can’t I be a normal person?” “Why can’t I be happy?” You may feel victimized somehow by questions that seem not to have any ready answers. Cornered by your own emotional pain and your struggle with it, you may feel as if your life is narrowing in around you.

If you’ve been fighting a war inside your head, what would it be like if instead of trying to win that war, you knew a way to step out of it? This doesn’t mean that the war would stop; it may continue.

Rather, it means that you would no longer try to live inside a war zone, with your psychological survival seemingly dependent on the outcome of the war. What if that were possible?

This book invites you to examine your perspective not only on what psychological pain is and how it operates, but on the very nature of your consciousness, even your identity, that is, who you take yourself to be. No issue is too “basic” if it seems necessary to address it. The concepts and methods you will find here may shake you up a bit. Initially, some may be hard to swallow and may even fly in the so unless you learn and use the concepts and methods before you try to evaluate their actual impact on
your life.

The second request is to ask for unrelenting honesty from you. We don’t ask you to believe what we’ve written here; we do ask you to look directly at your experience without blinking. Use this book as an opportunity to explore what is really true for you. For the moment put aside what others expect, what  the world around you demands, what you’ve long been told is true, or even what your own mind tells you—if it contradicts what your direct experience suggests.

Since we can’t actually be there as you try out these methods, you will need to rely on your own experience to know whether the approach described here is helpful to you in the long run. There is a growing base of empirical support for the basic concepts discussed here, and some of the methods have been evaluated in laboratory studies (see appendix) presented outside of a therapeutic relationship, using written or oral presentations of these ideas and exercises, much as you might encounter them in this book. Today, there is enough scientific evidence that we believe this is the time to introduce these ideas and methods to the public. But your experience is the actual bottom line.

Our third request concerns your intention: we ask that you intend this book to make a difference in your life. You don’t have to believe that it will. Rather, we ask you to remain open to that possibility by answering yes to this next question: While you are learning and trying out these methods, if you see in your actual experience the possibility of using them to transform your life for the better, will you be willing to move forward in that direction? If your answer is yes, we are ready to begin. If it is not (remember: be honest), it would be worthwhile to know how deep your resistance to change may be, and it would be worth considering whether such resistance is in your best interest.

Before we begin, we think that a bit of consumer education may be in order. ACT is part of a school of clinical psychology that is committed to delivering treatment methods based in science. If you have a significant area of difficulty, and you haven’t undergone a well-planned course of therapy with a behavioral therapist, cognitive behavioral therapist, or other professional who used methods supported by scientific research, you should seek that out. In that instance, this book can be used as an adjunct to a course of therapy with a therapist who understands this approach. (See the appendix for suggestions about finding such a therapist.) A growing base of scientific evidence supports the use of these methods
in a psychotherapy context.

Often many people we meet in our daily lives seem to have it all. They seem happy. They look satisfied with their lives. You’ve probably had the experience of walking down the street when you’re having a particularly bad day, and you’ve looked around and thought, “Why can’t I just be happy like everyone around me? They don’t suffer from chronic panic (or depression, or a substance abuse problem). They don’t feel as if a dark cloud is always looming over their heads. They don’t suffer the way I suffer. Why can’t I be like them?”

Here’s the secret: They do and you are. We all have pain. All human beings, if they live long enough, have felt or will feel the devastation of losing someone they love. Every single person has felt or will feel physical pain. Everybody has felt sadness, shame, anxiety, fear, and loss. We all have memories that are embarrassing, humiliating, or shameful. We all carry painful hidden secrets. We tend to put on shiny, happy faces, pretending that everything is okay, and that life is “all good.” But it isn’t and it can’t be. To be human is to feel pain in ways that are orders of magnitude more pervasive than what the other creatures on planet Earth feel.

If you kick a dog, it will yelp and run away. If you kick it regularly, any sign of your arrival eventually will produce fear and avoidance behavior in the dog by means of the process called “conditioning.”

But so long as you are out of the picture and are not likely to arrive, the dog is unlikely to feel or show significant anxiety. People are quite different. As young as sixteen months or even earlier, human infants learn that if an object has a name, the name refers to the object (Lipkens, Hayes, and Hayes 1993). Relations that verbal humans learn in one direction, they derive in two directions.

Over the past twenty-five years, researchers have tried to demonstrate the same behavior in other animal species, with very limited
and questionable success so far (Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, and Roche 2001). This makes a huge difference
in the lives people live as compared to animals.

The capacity for language puts human beings in a special position. Simply saying a word invokes the object that is named. Try it out: “Umbrella.” What did you think of when you read that word?

Alright, that one’s pretty harmless. But consider what this means if the named object was fearful: anything that reminded the person of its name would evoke fear. It would be as if all the dog needs to feel fear is not an actual kick, but the thought of being kicked.

That is exactly the situation you are in. That is exactly the situation all humans are in with language.
Here is an example: Take a moment now to think of the most shameful thing you have ever done.

Take a moment to actually do this.
What did you just feel? It’s very likely that as soon as you read the sentence, you felt some sense of either fear or resistance. You may have tried to dismiss the request and quickly read on. However, if you paused and actually tried to do what we asked, you probably began to feel a sense of shame while you remembered a scene from your past and your actions in it.

Yet all that happened here was that you were looking at patterns of ink on paper. Nothing else is in front of you but that. Because relations that verbal humans learn in one direction, they derive in two, they have the capacity to treat anything as a symbol for something else.

The etymology of “symbol” means “to throw back as the same,” and because you are reacting to the ink on this paper symbolically, the words you just read evoked a reaction from you; perhaps they even reminded you of a shameful event from your past.

Where could you go so that this kind of relation could not take place? The dog knows how to avoid pain: avoid you and your foot. But how can a person avoid pain if anytime, anywhere, pain can be brought to mind by anything related to that pain?

The situation is actually worse than that. Not only can we not avoid pain by avoiding painful situations (the dog’s method), pleasurable situations also might evoke pain. Suppose someone very dear to you recently died, and today you see one of the most beautiful sunsets you have ever seen. What will you think?

For human beings, avoiding situational cues for psychological pain is unlikely to succeed in eliminating difficult feelings because all that is needed to bring them to mind is an arbitrary cue that evokes the right verbal relations. This example of a sunset demonstrates the process. A sunset can evoke a verbal history. It is “beautiful” and beautiful things are things you want to share with others. You cannot share this sunset with your dear friend, and there you are, feeling sad at the very moment you see
something beautiful.

The problem is that the cues that evoke verbal relations can be almost anything: the ink on paper that made up the word “shame,” or a sunset that reminded you of your recent loss. In desperation, humans try to take a very logical action: they start trying to avoid pain itself.

Unfortunately, as we will discuss in some detail throughout the rest of this book, some methods of avoiding pain are pathological in and of themselves. For example, dissociation or illegal drug use may temporarily reduce pain, but it will come back stronger than ever and further damage will be caused. Denial and learned numbness will reduce pain, but they will soon cause far more pain than they take away.

The constant possibility of psychological pain is a challenging burden that we all need to face. It is like the elephant in the living room that no one ever mentions.

This doesn’t mean that you must resign yourself to trudging through your life suffering. Pain and suffering are very different. We believe that there is a way to change your relationship to pain and to then live a good life, perhaps a great life, even though you are a human being whose memory and verbal skills keep the possibility of pain just an instant away.

The approach we will explore in this book is suggested by the word “suffering.” The primary root of suffer is the Latin ferre, which means “to bear or carry” (the English word “ferry” comes from the same root). The prefix “suf” is a version of “sub” and, in this usage, means “from below, up (hence) away.” In other words, suffering doesn’t just involve having something to carry; it also involves moving away.

The word “suffer” connotes the idea that there is a burden you are unwilling or unable to carry, perhaps because it seems “too heavy,” “too unfair,” or it just seems “beyond you.” That connotation refers to more than pain alone; in fact, it provides a different way to address the problem of pain.

EXERCISE: Your Suffering Inventory
We would like you to write down a list of all of the issues that are currently psychologically difficult foryou. Use the left-hand side of the space provided below. Do not write about purely external or situational events, independent of your reactions to them. In this book we will focus on how you react. Some of your psychological issues will be clearly related to specific situations; others may not be.

For example, “my boss”would not be a good example of a difficult issue you experience; but “getting frustrated with my boss” or “feeling put down by my boss” might be. The left-hand column can include any of your thoughts, feelings, memories, urges, bodily sensations, habits, or behavioral predispositions that may distress you, either alone or in combination with external events. Don’t overthink it. Just write down what plagues you and causesyou pain.

Be honest and thorough and create your “suffering inventory” in the space below.
After you’ve completed your list, go back and think about how long these issues have been a problem for you. Write that down as well.
Painful and difficult issues I experience How long this has been the case
________________________________________________________________ ___________________
________________________________________________________________ ___________________
________________________________________________________________ ___________________
________________________________________________________________ ___________________
________________________________________________________________ ___________________
________________________________________________________________ ___________________
________________________________________________________________ ___________________
________________________________________________________________ ___________________

Now we would like to ask you to organize this list. First, go back and rank these items in terms of the impact that they have on your life. Then, in the space provided below, write down the same items,but rank them in order. The order should range from those items that cause you the most pain and difficulty in your life to those that cause you the least trouble. You will use this list as a guide throughout the remainder of this book. We’ll ask you to refer back to this list as your touchstone for the events and issues that cause you pain.

Finally, in the area to the right of this list, draw arrows between every item on the list that is related to another item. You will know that two items are related if changes in one might alter another.

For example, suppose one of your items is “self-criticism” and another is “depression.” If you think the two are related (that is, the more self-critical you are, the more likely you are to feel depressed, or vice versa), draw a two-headed arrow between self-criticism and depression. You may find that this area becomes cluttered with arrows. That’s fine. There is no right or wrong way to do this. If everything is related, it’s important to know that. If some items relate to only a few others, that is useful information too.

The higher on your list the items are and the more other items they connect to, the more important they become. This may suggest a reranking of your problems and you may find that you now want to combine some items or to divide them into smaller units. If that is so, you can create your final working list below, ranked from highest to lowest in order of impact on your life.

This is your personal suffering list. For you, it is what this book is about.

Psychological pain hurts, by definition. But it does more than that. Often pain holds you back from living the kind of life you want to live. There is no question that a person with a panic disorder would rather not experience the feeling of extreme fear, because it is so unpleasant. But that discomfort is compounded by the fact that the panic seemingly gets in the way of living itself.

If you have a panic disorder, you may have begun feeling too afraid to engage in the activities you normally would because of your fear that you might panic. It may be that you no longer go to the supermarket because you are afraid you might have a panic attack there. Perhaps you are uncomfortable in social situations, because you don’t want anyone to see you panic. You cultivate friends with whom you feel safe, but then you are dependent on their schedules and availability. You start to live your life in ways to accommodate your problem, and, as a result, your life becomes narrower and narrower, less and less flexible.

It is worth noting how much of the pain we feel is a focus of attention because it seems to interfere with other activities. One way to get at this core issue is to imagine how your life would be different if your pain went away. Imagine that someone has waved a magic wand over you, and your pain has vanished.

Imagine that you wake up one morning and suddenly, for no reason at all, the chronic depression you’ve suffered from all these years (or the anxiety, or worry, or whatever your core struggles may be) is gone. The cloud has lifted and the pain is over. What would you do? This question isn’t a rhetorical one, we mean it literally: What would you do? What would you want your life to be about? How has your current psychological struggle interfered with your goals and aspirations? Let’s explore that in the exercise below.

EXERCISE: The Pain is Gone, Now What?

If ________________________________________________ weren’t such a problem for me, I would
If I didn’t have _______________________________________________________________, I would

We would like you to fill in the blank lines above in the sentences you’ve just read, but first let us describe how to do that. Take an item from your suffering inventory. It could be any item, but it might be best to start with an item high on your list and connected to other items. This is probably an issue that greatly inhibits your life. Go ahead and fill in your problem, but don’t fill in what you would do if it were gone.

Now, think about what you would do if that pain were suddenly lifted. The point of this exercise is not to think about what you might like to do on a given day if your problems weren’t plaguing you. The idea isn’t to celebrate by saying, “My depression is gone, I’m going to Disneyland!”

The point is to think more broadly about how your life course would change if your constant struggle with emotional pain was no longer an issue. Don’t worry if you think that you don’t have a good grip on this yet. We will do a whole lot more work on these issues later in the book. Just go with your gut instinct. Somewhere within yourself you have some idea about the things that really matter to you. Concentrate on those.

Here are three examples to give you an idea of what we mean:
If anger weren’t such a problem for me, I would have more intimate relationships.
If I didn’t have so much stress, I would work harder at my career, and I would try to find the job I always dreamed of having.

If I wasn’t so anxious, I would travel and participate more fully in life.
Now, go back and fill in the blank lines about what you would do if your pain disappeared. Be honest with yourself and think about what you really want. Think about what has value to you. Think about what gives your life meaning.

Now, let’s do that again but this time, let’s use a different area of suffering (although it certainly wouldn’t hurt to do this exercise with all of the items on your Suffering Inventory). This time, choose an item that appears to affect a different area of your life than the first one you chose. (Although after thinking about them you may find that they are not as different as they seem to be.)

If ________________________________________________ weren’t such a problem for me, I would
If I didn’t have _______________________________________________________________, I would


You’ve just discovered that all of your problems provide you with two sources of pain. It is not just your anxiety or depression or worry that creates pain. Your pain is also holding you back from living the life you want to lead. There are activities you would be engaged in if it weren’t for your pain and the role it has played in your life.

The problem you wrote down in the exercises above refers to the pain of presence (issues that are present that you would prefer to go away). Social anxiety might be an example of the pain of presence.

The anxiety you feel on social occasions is real and present in the moment you feel it. You may wish it would go away. Nonetheless, it persists in the face of your best efforts to defeat it. This is the pain of presence.

Those activities you would engage in if matters changed, represent a different kind of pain: they are called the pain of absence. As an example, consider the same socially phobic person above. Perhaps this person truly values engaging with other people but their fear keeps them from doing so in ways that are meaningful. The connection with others that is so yearned for is not there. This is the pain of absence.

You have pain on top of pain, suffering on top of suffering. Not only must you deal with the immediate pain of your thoughts, feelings, and physical ailments, you also must deal with the pain caused by the fact that your pain prevents you from living the kind of life you want to live.

Now see if this next sentence is true for you: Generally, the more you live your life trying to ward off the pain of presence, the more pain you get, particularly in the form of the pain of absence.

Remember, we asked for honesty and openness about your own experience. Even if it doesn’t seem logical that this should be so, look and see if it isn’t true.

While you’ve focused more on getting rid of the pain of presence, you’ve been feeling more of the pain of absence. If that’s what’s been happening for you, it may feel as though life is closing in around you. It may feel as though you’re in some kind of trap.

If you’ve been experiencing those kinds of feelings, then this book is about finding a way out. There’s an alternative to living as though you’ve been trapped.


Often, we attach ourselves to our pain, and we start to judge our lives based on how we feel and not on what we do. In a way, we become our pain. The answers you’ve filled in as your responses to the four sentences in the two exercises above contain the seeds of another kind of life: a life in which what you do is connected not to your pain, or to the avoidance of your pain, but to the kind of life you truly want to live.

This book is not about solving your problems in a traditional way so much as it is about changing the direction of your life, so that your life is more about what you value. Moreover,  the unnecessary amplification of pain stops. When that happens, the issues you’ve been struggling with will begin to diminish. Your life will begin to open up and become more wide-ranging, more flexible, and more meaningful.

We ask you to allow the possibility of living a life you value to be your guide as you read these pages and work with the exercises. We aren’t asking you to go out and lead a different life right this minute. There is a lot of work to do first. None of this will be easy because the traps our minds set for us will continue to be laid.

In our work on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we’ve developed a set of processes that appear to empower the people who work with these processes to improve their lives and to dismantle troublesome traps and dead ends. Gradually, step by step, we will walk you through those processes in the service of living a vital, valued, meaningful life.
If you are willing, let’s begin.

Why Language Leads to Suffering

What is the human mind? Why are we different than the birds flying outside our windows? And why do we suffer so? These kinds of questions have puzzled humankind for eons. We think we have some answers, and we think those answers may inform the process you will go through while you work with this book.

As we noted in the introduction, ACT is based on Relational Frame Theory (RFT; Hayes, BarnesHolmes, and Roche 2001). The basic premise of RFT is that human behavior is governed largely through networks of mutual relations called relational frames. These relations form the core of human language
and cognition, and allow us to learn without requiring direct experience.

For example, a cat won’t touch a hot stove twice, but it needs to touch it at least once to get the hint. A human child need never touch a hot stove to be taught verbally that it can burn. In the outside world, this ability is a tool beyond compare.

But in terms of our inner lives, verbal rules can restrict our lives in fundamental ways.

We set out twenty years ago to try to discover the core features of human thinking. Today, we think that we’ve isolated some of the key components. Perhaps it’s risky to say it so boldly, but we think we’ve found what is at the core of the human mind itself. Humans think relationally; nonhumans apparently do not.

Exactly what this means will become evident in this chapter but, in broad terms, humans are able to arbitrarily relate objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings, behavioral predispositions, actions (basically anything) to other objects in our environment, thoughts, feelings (basically anything else) in virtually any possible way (e.g., same as, similar to, better than, opposite of, part of, cause of, and so on).

This characteristic is essential to the way the human mind functions because it is our key evolutionary asset and has permitted the human species a dominant role in the animal kingdom. The ability to think relationally allows us to consciously analyze our environment, develop tools, build fires, create art,  make computers, and even do our taxes. This same ability creates suffering.

The Idea Isn’t Entirely New
Often, the words about language were once metaphors, and their etymology focuses on that relational core. One word mentioned in the last chapter, the word “symbol,” comes from an ancient Greek root, “bol,” which means “to throw.” Combined with “sym” (which means “the same”), a symbol literally means “thrown as the same.” When our minds throw words at us, those words appear to be much the same as the things to which they “refer.” The etymology of “refer” completes the picture. Do you remember we discussed the root of “fer” in chapter 1, when we explored the word “suffering”? “Fer” means “to carry” (hence the word “ferry”), and “re” means “again.” So, “to refer” to something involves carrying
something again.

This early common sense understanding corresponds to our research findings about the nature of human thinking. When we think, we arbitrarily relate events. Symbols “carry back” objects and eventsbecause they are related to these events as being “the same.” These symbols enter into a vast relational
network that our mind generates and expands on over the course of our lives. What follows is a brief list of relational frames. This is not at all comprehensive. Such a list could fill pages and isn’t important to understand the parts of RFT that are necessary for the work we are about to do.

Relational Frames
! Frames of Coordination (such as “same as,” “similar,” or “like”)
! Temporal and Causal frames (these include “before and after,” “if/then,” “cause of,” “parent of,” and so on)
! Comparative and Evaluative frames (a whole family of relations such as “better than,” “bigger than,” “faster than,” “prettier than,” and so on)
! Deictic frames (these are frames with reference to the perspective of a speaker, such as “I/you” or “here/there”)
! Spatial frames (such as “near/far”)

It is this repertoire—this set of learned relations that can be applied at your whim to anything at all—that we mean when we refer to the human “mind.”

EXERCISE: Relate Anything to Anything Else
You can test the idea that you develop arbitrary relationships all the time quite easily. To do so, try the following:

Write down a concrete noun here (any type of object or animal will do): ____________

Now write another concrete noun here: _____________________

Now answer this question: How is the first noun like the second one? When you have a good answer, go on to this next question: How is the first noun better than the second one? When you have a good answer, go on to this question: How is the first one the parent of the second one? Finding an answer to this final question may not be straightforward. Stick with it. It will come.

That last question may have been the hardest, but if you do stick with it, you will always find an answer. And note that the good answers somehow seem to be “real” in the sense that the relation you see seems to be actually in or justified by the related objects (that is, they often seem to be not arbitrary at all).

This exercise demonstrates that the mind can relate anything to anything in any possible way. In technical terms it suggests that relational responding is “arbitrarily applicable.” This fact is hidden from view because the mind justifies these relations by features it abstracts from the related facts. As you can see from this silly exercise, that cannot be wholly true. It cannot be that, in fact, everything actually can be “the parent of” everything else. Yet your mind can always find a justification for that relation or any other (we will apply this insight to the “story of your life” in chapter 7).

Even Human Babies Can Do It
Even very young human babies use these relational sets quite naturally, but nonhumans arguably do not. In this area, even the so-called “language-trained” chimpanzees fail the tests a human infant would easily pass (Dugdale and Lowe 2000). For example, suppose a baby learned that a particular imaginary animal had a name, and that this animal made a sound.

We might show the baby a drawing of our imaginary creature and say, “This is a gub-gub. Can you say ‘gub-gub’?” After the baby learns this, we might show the same picture to her and say, “This goes ‘wooo.’ Can you go ‘wooo’?”

In this example, we have three pieces of a relational network: the picture, the name of the animal the picture represents (gub-gub), and the sound that animal
makes (“wooo”). The relationships between the fictional creature, its sound, and the picture could be mapped inside a triangle (see figure 2.1). At this point in the lesson, we have only trained two relationships: the one


Figure 2.1: The gub-gub and its directly trained name and sound. between the picture and the name of the creature and
the one between the picture and the sound the creature makes.

Any complex organism—including human babies and chimpanzees alike—can learn this. But this is the
point where humans start to differ from other animals.

At age fourteen to sixteen months (perhaps even earlier; scientists are still trying to pinpoint exactly when this ability is activated), humans will reverse the direction of
what they learned.

When presented with an assortment of pictures of imaginary creatures and asked, “Which one is the gub-gub?” they will point to the picture they were trained to call a gub-gub and not to another imaginary creature they also learned to name. Human children do this without training. They realize not only that the picture refers to the word “gub-gub,” but that the word “gub-gub” also refers to the picture.

This seems so obvious that it may seem unimportant. But research suggests this process is at the very core not only of how humans think, but why they suffer. (We will expand on this shortly.) This ability to reverse relationships holds true for the references between the picture and the sound the creature makes as well. If you ask a child of this age, “Which one goes ‘wooo’?” the child will again point to the picture of the gub-gub and not to a drawing of another creature.

At this point, we have developed four relationships from two trained relations. Following the example above, these are as follows: the picture to the word “gub-gub,” the word “gub-gub” to the picture, the picture to the sound “wooo,” and the sound “wooo” to the picture (see figure 2.2).

Then, from around twenty-two to twenty-seven months (Lipkens, Hayes, and Hayes 1993), human children will combine all these reversible relations. When asked, “What does the gub-gub say?” the child will say “wooo.” When asked, “Who says ‘wooo’?” the response will be “gub-gub.” Note that the child not only retains the previous four relationships we’ve explored, she creates two new relationships in our triangle that she had no prior training in whatsoever.

She has seen a picture that we have taught her is a gub-gub, and she has been taught that the picture this fictional creature represents makes the sound “wooo.” She has never been distinctly trained in any relationship between the word “gub-gub” and the sound “wooo.” Nonetheless, she can derive the connections between these various parts of this relational network. Now the triangle is completely filled in.

Out of two trained relationships we have developed six (see figure 2.3).

Furthermore, if one of these events becomes associated either with something frightening, or pleasing, all other related events are likely to be scary or pleasant.

For example, if the baby is accidentally stuck with a diaper pin while you say “wooo,” the baby might cry whenever you mention a gub-gub or the gub-gub’s picture is
seen. On the other hand, if the baby is given a sweet when you first say “wooo,” the baby might expect a goodie whenever the sound of “wooo” is heard.

Figure 2.2: The relational network expands.



Figure 2.3: Gub-gubs go “wooo”: the relational network is completed.

So far, we’ve been considering relations of sameness and, after twenty-five years of research, there is still disagreement about whether, with enough training, nonhumans may be able to develop relations of sameness that can be applied to anything (Hayes and Barnes-Holmes 2004).

As humans mature, they learn other relations that show the many other kinds of relational frames mentioned earlier in the chapter, such as comparison, causality, and so forth. How humans create these relational frameworks has been the focus of a great deal of RFT research, and we now know enough to be able to teach these sets of relations to children who have not yet acquired them (Barnes-Holmes, Barnes-Holmes, and Smeets 2004).

However, for our present purposes, the fact that human beings do this kind of relational thinking naturally is our main point. It fundamentally changes the world that human beings live in.

Each learned relation is like the triangle shown in figure 2.2, but the specific relation and thus the specific network is different.

For example, a child who can recognize opposites and has learned that “frio” is the opposite of “hot,” and “frio” is also the opposite of “caliente,” will know the reverse relations
without needing further training (e.g., caliente is the opposite of cold) and the combined terms (caliente and hot are the same, not opposites). If this child burned himself with “hot” water, he might begin to avoid “caliente” water and not avoid “cold” water.

This is one reason that even beautiful sunsets may not be safe for human beings in pain, as mentioned in chapter 1. If “happy” is the opposite of “sad,” then happiness can remind human beings of being sad. The two are related. This is probably part of the reason that relaxation can induce panic (Schwartz and Schwartz 1995). Dogs do not know how to do this. People do.

The Advantage of Our Abilities with Language
As best we can tell, the ability to derive relations like this is probably only about 75,000 to 100,000 years old, and in highly elaborated forms it is much younger than that. Written language marks a real transition in the ability to relate events in this way and it is only five- to ten-thousand-years old, depending on what you count as written symbols. By animal standards, humans are frail, slow-moving creatures.

We do not have the strength of gorillas, the teeth of tigers, the speed of cheetahs, or the venom of snakes. Nevertheless, over the last 10,000 years we have taken over the planet. Why is that? We believe that the answer lies in these relational frames.

Now, let’s try an interesting exercise that will help to illustrate this point.

EXERCISE: A Screw, a Toothbrush, and a Lighter
Consider this simple problem. Watch carefully what your mind does with it.
Suppose you have a slotted screw in a board and you want to get it out. You can use only a normal toothbrush and a cigarette lighter to do so. What will you do? Take a moment to think about it and write down your thoughts, even if they are fragmentary:

If nothing comes to mind yet, remember that the toothbrush is plastic (watch carefully what your mind does now, and write down your thoughts, even if fragmentary):
If nothing comes to mind yet, remember that plastic is made from oil. Now write down any thoughts, even
if fragmentary:
If nothing comes to mind that would work yet, remember that plastic can melt (watch carefully what your
mind does now):
If nothing comes to mind yet, remember that when melted, plastic is pliable. Now write down any
thoughts this fact evokes:
If nothing comes to mind yet, remember that pliable plastic can form a shape (watch carefully what your
mind does now):
If nothing comes to mind yet, remember that melted plastic hardens when cooled. Write down your ideas
for removing the screw using only a toothbrush and lighter:

How Helpful Skills Cause You to Suffer
Hopefully, by now, you should be able to remove the screw, if it’s not screwed in too tightly and the melted plastic holds. (Presumably the plastic was melted by heating the end of the toothbrush with the lighter and inserting it into the screw while it was still pliable. Then waiting for the plastic to cool.) Now look at what you thought and wrote down.

Notice whether your thoughts had these qualities: you named objects and noted their properties; you described temporal (time-oriented) and contingent relations (if I did this, then. . . .); and you evaluated or compared anticipated outcomes. See if it’s true that sometimes you literally “pictured” your ideas.

That is, you saw the toothbrush, or pictured melting its handle at the end.
By doing this exercise, you’ve just demonstrated the main reason why humans, for good or for ill, have become the dominant species on the planet. These following relations are necessary for any verbal problem solving:

! events and their attributes;
! time and/or contingency;
! and evaluation.

With these three sets of simple verbal relations we can think about the future, make plans, and evaluate and compare outcomes.

Unfortunately, with just these three sets (and not the scores of additional relations that language contains) you also have the capability to cause mental distress. Simply by having names for events and their attributes you can do a better job of remembering and thinking about them. You can, for example, remember and describe a past trauma and start sobbing as a result. You can be afraid of knives because you know they can cut and injure you (even if you’ve never seen that happen or had it happen to you).

With an if . . . then, or a temporal relation, you can predict bad events that may not happen, you can be afraid that pain or depression will return in the future, or you can know that you will die and you can worry about that imagined future. As a result of these symbolic temporal relations, most people tend to live more in the verbally remembered past and the verbally imagined future than in the present moment.

With comparative and evaluative relations we can compare ourselves to an ideal and find ourselves wanting, even though we are actually doing quite well. We can think we are much worse than others, or (perhaps just as bad) that we are much better than others. We can be afraid of negative evaluations from others, even if we haven’t ever experienced them, and we can become socially inhibited as a result.

These processes are quite primitive. Consider what a six-year-old child is like and then read this sad news story:

Dania, Fla. June 16 (AP)—A six-year-old girl was killed today when she stepped in front of a train, [after] telling siblings that she “wanted to be with her mother.” The authorities said that her mother had a terminal illness. (New York Times 1993)

Suicide is unknown among two-year-olds, but just a few years later, when we are able to think about the future and evaluate what we imagine, we have the tools to imagine we would be better off dead. If a six-year-old can step in front of a train to be with her mommy in heaven, a person as complex as you are has all of the cognitive tools needed to be tormented.his is our point: humans suffer, in part, because they are verbal creatures. If this is so, then here is the problem: the verbal skills that create misery are too useful and central to human functioning to ever stop operating. That means suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition, at least until we know how to better manage the skills language itself has given us.

In normal problem-solving situations, when there is something we don’t like, we figure out how to get rid of it and we take actions to do that. If we don’t like dirt on the floor, we get out the vacuum cleaner. If we don’t like a leaky roof, we fix it. The human approach to solving problems can be stated as, “If you don’t like something, figure out how get rid of it, and then get rid of it.” That’s exactly why the linguistic and cognitive processes we’ve just described are useful. But when we apply this strategy to our own inner suffering, it often backfires.

Suppressing Your Thoughts
Suppose you have a thought you don’t like. You’ll apply your verbal problem-solving strategies to it.

For example, when the thought comes up, you may try to stop thinking it. There is extensive literature on what is likely to happen as a result. Harvard psychologist Dan Wegner (1994) has shown that the frequency of the thought that you try not to think may go down for a short while, but it soon appears more often than ever. The thought becomes even more central to your thinking, and it is even more likely to evoke a response. Thought suppression only makes the situation worse.

EXERCISE: A Yellow Jeep
Let’s try an experiment and see whether suppressing a thought can work.

1. Get a clear picture in your mind of a bright yellow Jeep. How many times during the last few days have you thought of a bright yellow Jeep? Write down your answer in the space
provided: _____________________________

2. Now get your watch out and spend a few minutes (five would be ideal) trying as hard as you can not to think even one single thought of a bright yellow Jeep. Really try hard.
Return to this page when you are finished.

3. Write down how many times you had a thought about a bright yellow Jeep, however fleetingly, during the last few minutes while you were trying so hard not to think of it.
4. Now get your watch out and spend a few minutes (five would be ideal) allowing yourself to think whatever thoughts come to your mind. Return here when you are finished.

5. Write down how many times you had a thought about a bright yellow Jeep, however fleetingly, during the last few minutes while you were allowing yourself to think of anything.

If you are like most people, the number of times you thought about a bright yellow Jeep went up over time. You might have been able to keep the thought of a yellow Jeep out of your mind while directly suppressing it, but sometimes even that breaks down, and the number of times such thoughts occur soars. Even if you were able to suppress the thought for a short period of time, at some point, you will no longer be able to do so. When this happens, the occurrence of the thought tends to go up dramatically.

That is not simply because you were reminded of a yellow Jeep. In controlled research studies, when participants are told about the Jeep but are not instructed to suppress thinking about it, the number of thoughts does not increase.

When you try not to think of something, you do that by creating this verbal rule: “Don’t think of x.” That rule contains x, so it will tend to evoke x, just as the sounds “gub-gub” can evoke a picture of an imaginary animal.

Thus, when we suppress our thoughts, we not only must think of something else, we have to hold ourselves back from thinking about why we are doing that. If we check to see whether our efforts are working, we will remember what we are trying not to think and we will think it.

The worrisome thought thus tends to grow.
If you have obsessive thoughts or worries, this pattern is probably familiar to you. Research has shown that the vast majority of people without obsessions have odd intrusive thoughts from time to time, just as people with obsessions do (Purdon and Clark 1993).

What is the difference? Part of the answer to that question may be that those with severe obsessive thinking problems spend more effort on trying not to think these thoughts (Marcks and Woods 2005). If normal people are asked to not think certain thoughts, they too will begin to feel more distressed about their negative thoughts (Marcks and Woods 2005).

Now, let’s try this exercise again using one of the thoughts that contributes to your suffering.

EXERCISE: Don’t Think About Your Thoughts
Psychological problems of any kind become entangled with our thoughts, and as a result, if you are struggling psychologically, you probably also have recurring thoughts that cause you pain. For example, if you are depressed, you may have the thought, “I’m worthless and no one loves me” or even just “When will this depression go away?” If you are suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, you may have the thought, “Vigilance is the only way to be safe.

” Now, try to isolate a single thought that contributes to your current suffering. You can use the examples above as models. If you can, deconstruct your thought until you have
it in the form of a short sentence or simple phrase. When you have this sentence or phrase in mind, complete the exercise.

1. Write down a thought that contributes to your suffering in the space below.

2. How many times have you had this thought in the last week? (If you don’t know exactly
how many times, make an approximation.)
3. Now, get out your watch again, and try as hard as you can not to think that thought for
the next few minutes (again, five minutes would be ideal). Return here when you are

4. Write down the number of times you had your thought, however fleetingly, while you
were trying not to think about it. ____________________________

5. Now, take another five minutes, and again allow yourself to think anything you want. Come back here when you are finished.

6. How many times did you think your thought when you allowed yourself to think about
anything at all?

Go ahead and write down your answer here: ______________________

As you began to try to suppress your thought, what was your experience? Did it become less heavy, less central, and less evocative? Or did it become more entangling, more important, and even more frequent? If your experience was more like the second description than the first, this exercise illustrated an important point. That is, it can be useless or even actively unhelpful to try to get rid of those thoughts you don’t like.

In controlled research, this doesn’t always work the way it does with arbitrary thoughts like those about bright yellow Jeeps. That may be because personally relevant negative thoughts are often already the target of chronic thought-suppression and those thoughts are already quite high in frequency.

This same process applies to emotions. If you try not to feel a bad feeling, such as pain, not only do you tend to feel it more intensely, but previously neutral events also become irritating (Cioffi and Holloway 1993). Any parent knows this. If the kids are irritating you by making too much noise and you are trying to ignore it, the noise just becomes more and more irritating and, eventually, even little annoyances can cause you to explode.

Emotions link to thoughts in the same way. Research has shown that when you suppress thoughts in the presence of an emotion, eventually the emotion evokes the thought, and the suppression strategies evoke both the thought and the emotion (Wenzlaff and Wegner 2000).

For example, suppose you are feeling sad and you are trying not to think of a recent loss, such as the death of a friend. Perhaps you’ll listen to your favorite music to try to keep your mind off the friend who will no longer be in your life. What would be the result? Eventually, when you feel sad, you’ll be more likely to think of your loss, and your favorite music will tend to sadden you and remind you of your dead friend. In a sense you will have amplified your pain in your attempt to avoid feeling it.

Behavioral Predispositions and the Thought Trap
Finally, the same results apply to behavioral predispositions, behaviors that are programmed to the degree that the mere thought of them sets off a chain of bodily and psychological events that predispose us to behave in the programmed way.

In an almost nightmarish effect known to every weekend golfer trying to make a pressure putt, researchers have asked subjects to hold a plumber’s pendulum (a weight on a string) over a spot on the floor and not to let it move at all, but especially not forward and back. The effect? It tends to move forward and back, not side to side, simply because thinking about not having it move forward and back activates the very muscles that move it that way (Wegner, Ansfield, and Pilloff 1998). The effect is especially strong under pressure situations, precisely when you would most wish it were not there.

If you have a fear of heights, this effect may be quite familiar to you. When you look over a ledge from a great height, you almost feel a pull as if some invisible force were causing you to be unsteady precisely when you wish that would not happen. If we can generalize from the literature on suppression, this effect is probably not just in your mind: your fear activates some of the muscles that move you toward the ledge, as well as those that move you away from it. As a result, you feel unsteady.

It’s likely you’ve been using a verbally guided “fix-it” mentality to find a solution for the causes of your suffering. If you’ve opened this book, it’s also likely that your attempts haven’t been entirely successful. (Otherwise, why did you open it?) The coping techniques you’ve developed to fix or counteract the pain you struggle with belong to the same class of language-based, problem-solving behaviors described in the exercises above.

Let’s look at this a little more carefully. What kinds of actions do you take to suppress or otherwise reduce, diminish, control, or counteract your painful thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations? Consider all the rituals you engage in as a means to keep yourself from feeling pain.

These might be as extreme as incessant hand washing if you are suffering with OCD, or as simple as turning on the tube at night to numb yourself from the aftereffects of the irritation you felt on your way home from work. Your coping behaviors might include purely psychological behaviors like thought-suppression or rationalization.

Or perhaps you engage in physical activities like obsessive exercise, habitual smoking, or even intentional self-harm, like cutting, to ameliorate your pain. Whatever you do (and we all do some of these things to a greater or lesser degree), you can explore them in the exercise below.

EXERCISE: The Coping Strategies Worksheet
Please glance at the Coping Strategies Worksheet below, and then return here for directions on how to work with it. In the column on the left, first write down a painful thought or feeling. (This can be taken from the Suffering Inventory you generated in chapter 1 if you wish. It can also be something entirely different if you have a more pressing thought or feeling that you would like to address right now.)

Then, in the second column, write down one strategy you’ve used to cope with this painful thought or feeling. Once you’ve done this, please rank your coping strategy for two sets of outcomes. The first asks you to rate how effective your coping strategy has been in the short-term. That is, how much immediate relief do you get from the behavior? For the second ranking, rate your strategy for how effective it’s been in the long-term.

Think about how much of your total pain is caused by your painful thought or feeling. Has your coping behavior reduced your pain over time? Rate each short- and long-term strategy on a scale from 1 to 5 where 1 is not effective at all and 5 is incredibly effective. For the time being, simply note your rankings. We will look at what they mean in greater detail later in this chapter.

For example, suppose someone writes a thought like this: “I’m not sure life is worth living” in the “Painful thought or feeling” column. The coping technique the person uses may be to have a beer, watch sports, and try not to think about it. While watching TV, the short-term effectiveness of the strategy may be ranked a 4; but later, the thoughts may be stronger than ever and the long-term effectiveness may be ranked a 1.

Coping Strategies Worksheet
Painful thought or feeling Coping technique Short-term effectiveness
Long-term effectiveness

Coping Strategies Diary
If you find that you aren’t sure what you’ve been doing to cope, it may be best to collect this information first in diary form. You can copy the form below and use it to record what happens in your life when you experience something psychologically painful. Note the situation (what happened that evoked a difficult private experience); what your specific internal reactions were (particular thoughts, feelings, memories, or physical sensations); and the specific coping strategy you used then (e.g., distracting yourself, trying to argue your way out of your reactions, leaving the situation).

After making entries like these in diary form for a period of one week, you should have a better understanding of what coping strategies
you have been using and how effective they are.

Coping Strategies Diary Entries
Difficult private reactions:(e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations)
Distress/disturbance level: (when it first happened)
Not distressing/ Extremely distressing/ disturbing disturbing
Coping strategy: (my response to my private reactions)
Short-term effects: Not at all effective Incredibly effective
Long-term effects: Not at all effective Incredibly effective

There is another important reason that figuring out how to get rid of troublesome thoughts or feelings  often backfires when your verbal skills are applied to your internal processes: it reminds you of bad consequences. Suppose you are feeling anxious while doing something challenging (say, giving a speech), and you think, “I’d better not feel anxious or I will completely fail at this.” Thoughts of failure can elicit anxiety for the same reason that a baby might be afraid of a gub-gub if it had been pricked with a diaper pin while hearing the word “wooo”: the negative consequence and current event are arbitrarily related.

Anxiety is a normal response to poor performance, or humiliation. The problem is that we can bring these consequences into the current situation at any moment through verbal relations. People with panic disorder, for example, tend to think about losing their minds, losing control, humiliating themselves, or dying of a heart attack in association with the anxiety they feel. These thoughts create more anxiety partly because they relate the present to an imagined future in which there is the possibility of these dire results happening. If you have an anxiety condition, then you know that this can become a
vicious circle.

The Shark Tank Polygraph
Suppose you were sitting over a dunk tank full of sharks while you were wired up to the world’s best tuned polygraph. You have a very simple task: don’t get anxious at all. If you do,
the seat will flip you over, and into the tank you’ll go.

What do you think would happen? It seems extremely likely you would be anxious. This is exactly what happens during a panic attack: First you feel a twinge of anxiety, then you
imagine the horrors that can arrive, you react to those, and, in a matter of seconds, boom.

You’re in the shark tank.

Language creates suffering in part because it leads to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is the process of trying to avoid your own experiences (thoughts, feelings, memories, bodily sensations, behavioral predispositions) even when doing so causes long-term behavioral difficulties (like not going to a party because you’re a social phobic, or not exercising because you feel too depressed to get out of bed). Of all the psychological processes known to science, experiential avoidance is one of the worst (Hayes, Masuda,
et al. 2004).

Experiential avoidance tends to artificially amplify the “pain of presence” discussed in chapter 1, and it is the single biggest source of the “pain of absence,” since it is avoidance that most undermines positive actions. Unfortunately, this strategy is built into human language for two reasons: language naturally targets our reactions, not just our situations (a point we will explain later in chapter 5), and it makes it impossible to control pain by controlling situations, since any situation can be arbitrarily related to pain and thus evoke it (see the sunset example in the last chapter).

Outside the body, the rule may indeed be, “If you don’t like it, figure out how to get rid of it, and then get rid of it.” Inside the body, the rule appears to be very different. It’s more like, “If you aren’t willing to have it, you will.” In practical terms, this means for example, that if you aren’t willing to feel anxiety as a feeling, you will feel far more anxiety, plus you will begin to live a narrower and more constricted life.

Go back now and review your Coping Strategies Worksheet. If you are like most people, the majority of your coping strategies are focused on your internal processes. Usually, these coping strategies help to regulate your internal processes a little in the short run, but in the long run, they often fail or even make matters worse.

Now, consider the possibility that this is so because each of the coping strategies you’ve developed is a way to avoid your experiences. You develop specific means by which you try to stop feeling the feelings you are feeling or thinking the thoughts you are thinking. You try to avoid the experience of painful thoughts or feelings by burying yourself in distracting activities, combating your thoughts with rationalizations, or trying to quash your feelings through the use of controlled substances. If you are suffering, you may spend a lot of time performing these distracting coping techniques. Meanwhile, your life is not being lived.

Rankings for the Coping Strategies Worksheet
In your review of your worksheet, you may have found that your scores in the “Short-term effectiveness” column are relatively high, while your scores in the “Long-term effectiveness” column are relatively low. This is a dangerous trap because short-term effects are far more reinforcing than long-term effects, and these problem-solving strategies do work in most areas of life for a short time. The coping techniques you’ve developed to combat your anger, anxiety, or depression probably do cause these feelings to go away for a short while; otherwise, you wouldn’t engage in them. But how powerful is the long-term effect?

How much do your coping strategies really change your condition in the long run?
If you’re reading this book, we’re guessing that the long-term impact your strategies have had on your suffering is fairly minimal or even negative. What you are left with are behaviors that have become deeply embedded in your day-to-day life due to their short-term effectiveness; but for long-term relief they are sadly lacking.

It’s like the diagram shown in figure 2.4. Human beings have a core of pain because life inherently contains difficulties, such as disease, want, and loss, but language keeps us amplifying these difficulties into larger patterns of human suffering. Like the rings around the black center in figure 2.4, we build out that core of pain by our patterns of cognitive entanglement and avoidance.

More pain
More pain
More avoidance
More pain
More avoidance
More avoidance

Figure 2.4: More avoidance, more pain.
When we try to run away from a painful thought, feeling, or bodily sensation, it becomes more important and tends to occur more intensely or frequently. Because running away also means that we are taking our fearful thoughts literally, they become more believable and entangling. As a result, the “pain of presence” grows. Meanwhile life is put on hold while we struggle with our internal processes. As a result, the “pain of absence” grows as well. The black spot in the middle grows bigger and bigger.

Unfortunately, these processes are not easy to control because they are so tightly linked to our normal use of language. People tend to “live in their minds,” that is, to engage with the world on the basis of these verbal processes. Living in your mind can be likened to riding a train. A train has its own tracks and it goes where they lead. That’s fine when the tracks are going where you want to go. But if you were traveling in the direction you want to be going, you probably would never have stopped to read this book. If the life you want to live is “off the tracks,” then you have only one option: you must learn how to get off the train … at least sometimes.

Riding your mind-train has become an automatic process. You believe the thoughts that your mind presents to you. Getting the train going in the first place happened innocently enough: you learned language; you learned how to speak, reason, and solve problems. Once you did that, your mind-train became a permanent presence in your life. Now, there is no way that you will stop thinking and generating thoughts—your mind-train will keep on running, in part, because language is so useful in so many areas. But just because the train keeps running all the time doesn’t mean you have to stay on it every moment.

On a real train, you’re allowed to ride as long as you follow the rules. You play an active part on the trip. You’ve got to cooperate with the rules by showing your ticket when you’re asked for it, sitting in your assigned seat and staying seated, and not raising a ruckus when you miss your stop or you find out the train’s taking you in a direction you don’t want to go.

The rules and conditions our minds lay down for us are simple but powerful: act on the basis of belief and disbelief. They say that you must react to your mind either by agreeing with it or arguing with it. Unfortunately, both reactions are based on taking your thoughts literally. Rather than seeing your thoughts merely as an ongoing process of relating, they are reacted to based on what they relate to. They are “factually” correct or incorrect.

When you take your thoughts literally, you are “riding the mind-train.” That is, you are responding to the thoughts your mind presents to you purely in terms of the facts they are about. Agreeing and disagreeing are both within the rules, so neither response gets you off the train. However, if you break the rules, you will find yourself off the mind-train—and isn’t this one train you’d like to get off of now and then?

To know what an experience is really like, you’ve got to experience it for yourself, not just think  about it. To see what it’s like to jump off the mind-train, you have to actually do it. You do that by breaking some of the rules and conditions your mind sets for you. And how do you jump off that train?

Well, that is precisely what this book is about.

At this point, all we can say is that once you are off of the train with your feet on the ground, you will see whether you are in a better position to choose a direction
and live according to your values rather than simply riding the rails of your verbal conditioning. It will take a while to learn how to do this. But that’s the direction in which we are headed.

The Pull of Avoidance

The situation you are in now may feel like being in a tug-of-war with a big, ugly monster (whether you are dealing with depression, anxiety, physical pain, sorrowful memories, or some other negative situation). It seems as though you can’t win. The harder you pull, the harder the monster pulls back.

Sometimes it even may feel as if there’s a bottomless pit between you and the monster and, if you lose, you’ll be pulled into the pit and be completely destroyed. So, you pull and pull. You try harder and harder. You look for different ways to pull, better ways to pull, stronger ways to pull. You try digging in your heels for more leverageor you try strengthening your muscles. You keep hoping that something will work. Suppose, however, that you have a completely different job to do. Perhaps it’s not your job to win this tug-of-war. Perhaps it’s your job to find a way to drop the rope.

When unhappy people really look at their behavior, it’s usually easy to see that that their experiential avoidance isn’t working. Think about what you discovered when you completed your Coping Strategies
Worksheet in chapter 2.

By now, it should be clear to you that the behaviors you’ve developed to avoid your pain have not been particularly effective in the long run. If they had worked, you wouldn’t be where you are now. The problem is that it’s devilishly difficult to see that experiential avoidance behaviors can’t be effective. There are at least five reasons why it is so difficult to see this truth.

1. Controlling works so well in other areas of your life (the world outside your body) that you assume it will work for your thoughts and feelings as well.
This point is easy to understand. For example, in the space provided below, list some examples of successful occasions when controlling by conscious problem-solving worked
for you in the external world: _______________________________________________

It’s very likely you were able to generate some relatively noncontroversial examples of times when being able to control events in the external world worked for you.

2. You were taught that you should be able to control your thoughts and feelings. For example, when you were little, you may have been told, “Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about,” or, “Big boys don’t cry,” or, “Don’t be afraid, only sissies are afraid.”

Now, think of yourself when you were a child. See whether you can remember any messages given to you by others that suggested you should easily be able to control your emotions or thoughts. If you remember any, list them here: ___________________________

3. When you were very young, the giants around you called “grown-ups” seemed able to control their thoughts and feelings. For example, you might have felt scared a lot, but it
seemed as though Daddy wasn’t ever scared; you might have cried a lot, but the grownups around you hardly ever cried. This fact, when combined with point 2 above, may
have caused you to internalize this message: You should be able to control your scary or sad feelings because others are successful at exercising that kind of control.

This doesn’t mean you actually learned to control your feelings, but it might mean that you learned to keep quiet about how you really felt so others wouldn’t be disturbed by your emotions.

If your experience was something like this description, in the space below, try to list examples of how other people seemed more confident, calmer, or happier, and more able
to control their internal emotional states than you were: __________________________

Sometime later in life, we learn that the idea that other “grown-ups” can control their feelings is an illusion. For example, when we grow up, we might learn that Daddy
wasn’t really so “calm.” He may have had an alcohol problem you didn’t fully appreciate as a child, or perhaps he was taking tranquilizers to cope. Or, when you’re an adult, you
might learn that the kids at school who looked so together on the outside were struggling on the inside in some of the same ways that you were struggling.

Now, see if you can remember when you first realized that the people who looked so together to you when you were very young were actually struggling. List those occasions
here: ___________________________________________________________________

4. While you were growing up, you received a constant stream of messages that good health and great happiness depended on the absence of difficult private experiences. For example, think of all the commercials you’ve seen in your lifetime for products like beer, cigarettes, psychiatric drugs, vacations, sexy cars, fashionable clothes, and so on. Isn’t it true that many of these commercials convey this message: “Happiness equals the ultimateabsence of painful thoughts or feelings—and, if you buy this product, you will feel better
and be that much closer to happiness”?

See if you can remember some media messages like that, and write down the message or commercial. Then answer this question: What do you think the underlying experiential
avoidance message was? ____________________________________________________
5. Sometimes, it appears that controlling our unwanted thoughts and feelings actually does
work in the short-term. For example, you might have had a recurring thought that you
are worthless, and to compensate for this thought you became a workaholic.

This may seem to have solved the problem of feeling worthless, but, generally, working so much just pushes the feeling deeper. This process is explored, in part, in chapter 2 where we discussed thought-suppression. If you have dark feelings and deliberately cover them up, whatever you do to compensate for feeling bad about yourself may begin to remind you
that “Deep down there is something wrong with me.”

If you’ve tried to use your accomplishments to cover up your difficult feelings, you probably know what happens when you act like a workaholic. When you are applauded
for your accomplishments, you may feel as though you are fooling others because you know what is really going on for you beneath your calm appearance.

You might be thinking, “If they only knew.” Even positive feedback (although it feels good for a while) can have a hollow ring. This is sometimes called the “imposter syndrome.” Fooling others doesn’t work partly because who can be buoyed up by the opinions of fools?

If this is your experience, list examples of those times when you did things just to get the approval of others that in the long run felt false to you: ___________________________


Two main factors keep people stuck in the system of experiential avoidance. The first factor is that the rule “If you don’t like something, get rid of it” works very well in the outside world. The second factor is that the short-term effects of experiential avoidance, that is, the application of that rule to our private experience, often can be positive.

The linchpin that holds together the system of experiential avoidance is that the utility of human language in dealing with the world outside is based on the rule “If you don’t like
something, get rid of it,” and the short-term effects of experiential avoidance, the application of that rule to our private experience, often can be positive.

For example, think of someone who has a snake phobia. His friends are all planning to visit the zoo, and this person is afraid to go with them. He is terrified they’ll want to go to the snake exhibit and that he won’t be able to handle being there.

Although he wants to spend time with his friends and he would love to see the other animals at the zoo, ultimately, he finds an excuse not to go. Now, try to imagine what it’s
like to be this person and answer the following questions by circling one of the answers on the right.

! What does he probably feel immediately after finding an excuse not to go with his friends? Relieved or Anxious
! Will avoiding the zoo (experiential avoidance) be more or less likely the next time? More or Less
! Will his phobia become stronger or weaker? Stronger or Weaker

Isn’t it clear what the answers are? How could they be otherwise?

Your own situation is analogous to this person’s experience. Every time you engage in a behavior specifically designed to avoid some negative personal pain, you start the same set of reactions outlined in the questions above. You are likely to feel an immediate sense of relief from not having to deal with the painful thought, feeling, or bodily sensation. The sense of relief you gain reinforces your desire to use the same strategy the next time you are faced with the possibility of having to cope with your pain. Yet, each time you do this, you actually give the painful content, that is, your painful thought, feeling, or bodily sensation, more power.

The Metaphor of the Hungry Tiger
Imagine you wake up one morning and just outside your front door you find an adorable tiger kitten mewing. Of course you bring the cuddly little guy inside to keep as a pet. After playing with him for a while, you notice he is still mewing, nonstop, and you realize he must be hungry. You feed him a bit of bloody, red ground beef knowing that’s what tigers like to eat.

You do this every day, and every day your pet tiger grows a little bigger. Over the course of two years, your tiger’s daily meals change from hamburger scraps, to prime rib, to entire sides of beef. Soon your little pet no longer mews when hungry. Instead, he growls ferociously at you

Consider the possibility, as unlikely as it may seem, that it’s not just that these avoidance strategies haven’t worked—it’s that they can’t work. Avoidance only strengthens the importance and the role of whatever you are avoiding—in other words, when you avoid dealing with your problem, it only grows.

The Chinese Finger Trap
The situation is something like the Chinese finger traps you might have played with as a kid (see figure 3.1). The trap is a tube of woven straw about as big as your index finger. You push both index fingers

in, one at each end, and as you pull them back out, the straw catches and tightens. The harder you pull, the smaller the tube becomes, and the stronger it holds your fingers. If the trap is built strongly enough, you’d have to pull your fingers out of their sockets to get them out of the tube by pulling, once they’ve been caught. Conversely, if you push into it, your finger will still be in the tube, but at least you’ll have enough room to move around and live your life.

Now, suppose that life itself is like a Chinese finger trap. So, it’s not a question of getting free of the tube, it’s a question of how much “wiggle room” you want to have in your life. The more you struggle, the more constricted your movements will be. If you let go of the struggle, the more freedom you have to make new choices.

First, give yourself a break. Given all of the reasons discussed earlier, it’s no surprise that you’ve been focusing on experiential avoidance strategies. You’re doing exactly what logical, reasonable people are taught to do: to take care of themselves. It’s a rigged game but you didn’t know it was rigged, and it’s certainly not your fault that it isn’t working. If you were gambling at a rigged roulette wheel, you’d be sure to lose your money. You’re in a similar situation with your pain. So now, put a check mark next to the ways that you would be willing to try to give yourself a break.

The Pull of Avoidance 37

Figure 3.1: The Chinese finger trap.

whenever he thinks it’s mealtime. Your cute little pet has turned into an uncontrollable, savage beast that will tear you apart if he doesn’t get what he wants.
Your struggle with your pain can be compared to this imaginary pet tiger. Every time you empower your pain by feeding it the red meat of experiential avoidance, you help your
pain-tiger grow a little bit larger and a little bit stronger.

Feeding it in this manner seems like the prudent thing to do. The pain-tiger growls ferociously telling you to feed it whatever it wants or it will eat you. Yet, every time you feed it, you help the pain to become stronger, more intimidating, and more controlling of your life.

” I could face the possibility that my avoidance strategies will never work.
” I could have compassion for myself for how hard I’ve tried to deal with my pain.
” I could stop blaming myself for not being able to make my avoidance strategies work.

Now, list any other ideas you might have for how to give yourself a break:
Responsibility and Response-ability

Second, accept response-ability. There is a slight but important difference between accepting “responsibility” and accepting “response-ability.” Accepting “responsibility” often carries the implication of blame.

Blame is what we do when we try to motivate people to change a behavior or do the right thing. But does accepting the thought “I’m at fault” really motivate anyone to change?

EXERCISE: The Blame Game
In the space provided below, write down some examples of blaming yourself or others for any negative events that you’ve experienced. Then, on a scale of 1 to 10, rate how well your examples worked to motivate and empower you to live your life in a more vital, fulfilling, and liberated way. (In this scale, 1 means not empowered at all and 10 means empowered to the max.)

Blaming Examples Vitality

How many times did you score high in terms of feeling vital and empowered when you were blaming yourself or someone else for negative events in your life? We are betting you didn’t feel particularly empowered when playing the blame game. If you scored low consistently, it could mean blaming isn’t
working for you. If blame isn’t working, clearly, you need something else.

As an alternative, accepting response-ability means to acknowledge the possibility that you are able to respond. This ability has nothing to do with blame. For the most part, your pain isn’t anyone’s fault; pain automatically accompanies the verbal system all normal humans acquire. Even in extreme situations (like rape or incest) when another person is actually at fault for perpetrating an evil act on you in a purposeful and deliberate manner, you still have the ability to respond to the pain it causes you.

It is as if there are two radio dials that control your suffering. One is labeled Pain. You’ve been trying very hard to turn that dial down to a lower level, but it doesn’t seem to be working. The other dial is in the back of the radio and you didn’t know it was there. Its settings control how much you struggle with pain and how much effort you expend trying to control your pain. We are guessing that you thought you needed to learn to control the Discomfort dial when you began reading this book. But what does your actual experience tell you about who sets that dial? Do you set the dial? Can you just “dial down” the level of pain you experience to a level you would prefer?

If your answer is no, perhaps you are not response-able for that dial. But now ask yourself this: Who sets the dial in the back of the radio? Who determines what you do with pain when it shows up? Being response-able means acknowledging that there is, in fact, some response you can make—you are able to respond. Later in this book, we will explore those areas where you can always respond.

Third, begin to consider the possibility that there is a real alternative to your struggle. Up until now, it’s likely that you’ve rarely experienced thoughts or feelings you didn’t want without trying to control them in some way. One of our goals is to show you what happens when you let go of your efforts to control your unwanted thoughts or feelings.

This is not easy, because controlling is what the human mind is programmed to do. At this point, we ask only that you begin to really examine what your experience is telling you. To do this, for the next two weeks fill out the following form. You may want to make a photocopy of this form so that you’ll have a clean copy to fill out each day, or you can date each line and enter each day’s observations on this copy. At the end of each day, rate the following three items:

1. How much psychological pain you experienced this day. (If your pain is due to a specific problem, such as anxiety or depression, use that more precise label instead of the word
“pain.”) When you do your rating for the day, use a scale where 1 means no pain and 100 means extreme pain.

2. After you have rated your pain for the day, then rate how much effort and struggle you needed to exert to control the pain you felt this day. Use the same scale, where 1 means
no effort and 100 means an extreme level of effort and struggle.

3. The final step is to rate how workable the day was. That is, if every day were like today, how much overall vitality and aliveness would characterize your life? Again, use the same
1 to 100 scale.

EXERCISE: Judging Your Own Experience:

Examining What Works
Day Pain Struggle Overall Success
____________________ ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
Any notes about painful events felt today? _________________________________________________
Day Pain Struggle Overall Success
____________________ ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
Any notes about painful events felt today? _________________________________________________
Day Pain Struggle Overall Success
____________________ ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
Any notes about painful events felt today? _________________________________________________
Day Pain Struggle Overall Success
____________________ ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
Any notes about painful events felt today? _________________________________________________
Day Pain Struggle Overall Success
____________________ ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
Any notes about painful events felt today? _________________________________________________
Day Pain Struggle Overall Success
____________________ ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
Any notes about painful events felt today? _________________________________________________
Day Pain Struggle Overall Success
____________________ ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
Any notes about painful events felt today? _________________________________________________

Fourth, make room for the possibility that the alternative to control is frustratingly subtle. If you found in the last exercise that you are spending a lot of energy struggling with your pain, but not getting much out of the struggle in terms of empowerment (creating a sense that your life is expanding), then this is another clue that your attempts to control your pain may not be working as well as they logically should.

Yet, years of conditioning have convinced you that this is the only correct option open to you.

Letting go of control does not require a lot of effort. But letting go of control (where control does not belong) is tricky. It is confusing. It can be frustrating. This is not something the “word machine” that is your mind is accustomed to doing.

That’s why it’s necessary for you to go through each of the exercises in this book slowly and carefully. The alternative to useless efforts aimed at exerting control over your thoughts and feelings offered here will require diligence, honesty, skepticism, confusion, and compassion from you. It isn’t an easy path to follow. Your most important ally in taking this new path is your own pain.

Only when you consider all the time and energy you’ve already spent fruitlessly trying to control your pain and avoid negative experiences, and then weighing the painful results, will you discover that the effort to do something radically different is worth it.

Before you can move on with your life, you need to look directly at where you presently are. The exercises in the previous chapters were designed to help you begin doing just that. You need to be aware of the types of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that have been plaguing you. And, just as important, you need to be aware of the habitual coping strategies you’ve been using to manage those thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

At this point it wouldn’t be wise to do anything differently. In fact, we suggest that you shouldn’t try to change anything yet. Just try to become more mindful of what it is you’ve been doing, and more mindful of how this has really been working.

EXERCISE: What Are You Feeling and Thinking Now?
We’ve found that when people start looking more carefully at their own experiences, without running away or covering up, that, occasionally, experiences that were below their threshold of awareness percolate up to their conscious mind. So, to end this chapter, in the space provided below, list any thoughts and feelings you’re having right now about the difficulties that motivated you to pick up this book. If you begin to see some issues that have been buried below the surface, take this opportunity to describe them; put
them out on the table where they can be seen in the light of day.

In the chapters that follow, we will begin to explore how to take different approaches of relating to the pain with which you’ve been struggling. Don’t expect yourself to master these new skills overnight. It will take time. The measure of success is one thing and one thing only: Your own experience. We aren’t asking you to “buy a pig in a poke.” We aren’t asking you to believe in our alternative approach. We ask only that you be willing to try the new suggestions that we will put on thetable, and that you allow your own direct experience to be the judge.

julio tafforelli

Psicanalista junguiano com especialização em compulsão alimentar, dietas para reversão de diabetes, dieta cetogênica (low-carb ) para tratamento da obesidade. Praticante da dieta cetogênica há mais de dois anos com experiencia em alimentos brasileiros orgânicos apropriados. Praticante de meditação, técnicas de controle de estresse, tango de salão e ginastica hiit para longevidade

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