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Pain and Pleasure Principle

One of our goals in the core process of experiential acceptance is helping our clients allow feelings to come and go – even and particularly the painful ones. Many clients find it difficult to hold pain and try to avoid it. Learning how pain and pleasure work together, and expecting this, can assist in promoting acceptance. 

The human experience contains both pain and pleasure. Discomfort is unavoidable. In working with clients, we focus on individual preferences and the pain associated with these preferences. If we have two types of an item, we may prefer one to the other based on how it makes us feel – chocolate ice-cream makes us feel more pleasure than vanilla, for example. Pain is sometimes experienced when we do not achieve or receive our preferred choice, or if our favourite is not available. In this sense pain and pleasure are comparable.

As human beings we tend to respond to events in the moment rather than the future. Consequently there is a tendency to avoid intense pain in the moment and make assessments based on present experience. For example, we ‘delay’ going to a gym session because it’s more pleasurable right now to watch TV or meet friends at the pub. However, there will be pain later – the pain of guilt or regret. There will be pain or discomfort of some kind, whether we postpone it or experience it and deal with it now. 

By dealing with pain now, we gain the pleasure that will follow. And by repeating the process, the short-term pain passes on each occasion but there is a build-up of the pleasant experiences, becoming ‘satisfaction’ that flows over into other areas of life.

If we choose pleasure, or avoidance, we experience pleasure in the here and now but in the long run the mild pain or discomfort accumulates and is experienced as moderate discomfort. Moderate discomfort begins to have wider effects on mood and emotion. 

If we are working towards a goal – such as increasing fitness or passing an exam – selecting the more painful option (going to the gym or studying at the library) now, and then repeatedly, provides satisfaction in progress towards the goal and eventually leads to accomplishment – a source of great pleasure. By staying home and not going to the gym or the library, no progress has been made, and guilty or regretful feelings will build, increasing the discomfort in the short and long-term.

Discomfort is unavoidable in life. We can help our clients understand how to hold discomfort in the aim of living a richer and more enjoyable life. 


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