ACT For the Public: Needless Suffering or Going to 11

Photo credit to  Leo Reynolds

Photo credit to Leo Reynolds

TL;DR: What if this glorious product of the human brain, the ability to communicate via symbols, is a double edged sword? What if language is a wonderful servant and a horrible master? Is there anything that language is not good for? Are there places where language gets in the way of fully engaging with the present moment, choosing effective action, and living the life we want?

About the “ACT For the Public” series:

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an evidence-based intervention to address common human struggles such as anxiety, overwhelm, and needless suffering. ACT (pronounced “act”, the thing you do to make your life better) aims to teach and strengthen the skills of openness, presence, and engagement. The founders of ACT argue that these skills help us:

  • navigate the inevitable pain and joy of this journey

  • create a life that reflects our deepest values

  • and fill our minutes with the way we want to show up in the world.

With the goal of sharing the fruits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with you, this is one in a series of essays inspired by the foundational texts of ACT. I am intentionally focusing on the aspect of these writings which I think are relevant and digestible to people without advanced training in behaviorism or psychology.

This writing benefited from regular discussions with Dr. Robyn Walser and the wisdom of “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change” by Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson (2nd edition, 2012). All mistakes are mine.

Last time we talked about the assumption of healthy normality, that normal is happy and happy is healthy. This assumption has a beguiling corollary: that thoughts, feelings, memories, or physical sensations that aren’t *happy* are just symptoms of sickness or problems to be fixed.

Today we’re going to talk about pain. And humans’ capacity to squeeze out extra suffering, or as I like to say, “going to 11.”


We all experience pain, just like animals. But humans also have the capacity to take on needless pain, extra suffering beyond the requisite experience.

1.      When my cat and I are locked out of the house in a thunder storm, we are both miserable with wet and cold. And after we’re let in, only I continue to bitch and moan.

2.      My cat and I both enjoy a thick slab of fresh salted butter melting over bread, but only I “compare and despair”, evaluating the saltiness, grumbling about the stale bread or complaining about the calories spent, hoping the next meal will be better.

3.      And moving beyond inconsequential examples, when walking through the field behind my house the bird and I both startle as a gunshot goes off a few feet away. And when the noise is gone she will return to her work. And I will hold it and repeat it, caressing details and expanding on them, feeling fear, anger, and powerlessness next time I’m in that field, maybe spreading my suffering to avoiding outdoors, the back porch, checking windows and locks, and other ways of responding to a threat that no longer exists.

Why do humans suffer more than other animals? How do we go to 11?

What is it about humans that allows us to extend and expand normal experiences to an extra dose of stress, anxiety, annoyance, and frustrating? What is it about humans that allows us to be miserable and lonely long after we are let in from the thunderstorm?

Language, or communication via symbols, likely evolved to allow us to share knowledge and organize into groups for both protection and propagation (Jablonka & Lamb, 2005; Wilson & Wilson, 2007). This extraordinary skill, to communicate via symbols with our kind across time and space, is described by Carl Sagan as “perhaps the greatest of human inventions.” And with time, human language has proliferated. In 1828, Noah Webster include 70,000 words in his American Dictionary of the English Language. In 1993, Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged included 470,000 words.

What if this glorious product of the human brain, the ability to communicate via symbols, is a double edged sword? What if language is a wonderful servant and a horrible master?

Let’s examine the examples from above:

1. When my cat and I are let in from the thunderstorm, she feels the dry and warmth of the house. She inhales the smells of home, flips her tail in response to a friendly scratch behind the ears. She is fully embedded in this new moment.

If I’m working at it, I may similarly (if briefly) tune into the warm dry air. And soon my brain will begin, grumbling about how a few minutes ago didn’t go as I expected. I’ll probably start talking to my partner about it too. “What were you doing, how couldn’t you hear us? I was banging on the door, why did you even lock the door, we were going to be out there for just a minute. I feel like you always do this, you just get focused on what you’re doing and don’t keep in mind….” And on and on.

2. When my cat and I enjoy buttered bread, she is tasting, smelling, sensing. And maybe a piece of me is as well. My brain is also narrating, “This is ok. I wonder if this is the whole wheat. That butter is a lot paler than the bread I had at Tartine. That was amazing, and the butter was really salty and deep yellow. I bet it was from a farm. I wonder if we should by buying local butter. Is that a thing? Could I get local butter? But that’s probably a lot of fat too. And we really should be eating more vegetables. I need to do better with that… ugh when am I am going to grow up.” And on and on. In my head I went to San Francisco, farm-made butter, and my unhealthy eating habits. And all the time, my cat was savoring the bread and butter.

3. A bird and I are both exposed to a close range gun shot. I, as a human primate, have the capacity of generalizing my learning to other times and settings, feeling fear and threat tomorrow in the field behind my house or next week on a hike miles away. I may take this further, changing my behavior to avoid more gun shots. Again, given my gift of language, I can also communicate my experience to others so we can both relive it. Via language, two humans can be sitting in a Starbucks, far from mortal danger, and both be experiencing the cortisol flood, narrowed pupils, goose bumps, and increased heart rate of immediate threat. And my friend may leave Starbucks and look out at her own backyard with increased wariness.

Language is a powerful tool. It provides a mean of communicating learning, allowing people to build on the insights of their peers and forbearers. It organizes large groups with exceptional efficacy and facilitates cooperation between humans of widely varying dispositions and experiences.

And what if language can sometimes get in the way of living fully, effectively, purposefully?

 “The core of the ACT approach is built upon the idea that human language gives rise to both human achievement and human misery…To ask individual human beings to challenge the nature and role of language in their own lives is tantamount to asking a carpenter to question the utility of a hammer…Hammers are not good for everything and language is not good for everything either. We must to learn to use language without being consumed by it.” (p16)

I know, this is getting a little trippy. Before we go any further, let’s pause and consider this wild idea. Is there anything that language is not good for? Are there places where language gets in the way?

Grateful for your readership,