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River of Discomfort Metaphor

The ‘river of discomfort’ metaphor is useful in introducing discomfort and applying values we cherish to our discomfort. What would life look like if we lived by our values, compared to if we set them aside because of discomfort and pain? 

We start with the metaphor of a fast-flowing river that is narrow at the top and widens as it gets to the mouth. The current is faster at the narrow section but slower and more manageable at the wider section. The river represents the many uncomfortable and painful things we will experience during our lives.

We begin to explore what our values are – values such as connection with family and friends, honesty, generosity and adventure. When we go to apply these values we need to cross the river at the fastest and most intense point of the river. We want to explore, at this point, what life would look like if we crossed the river, while experiencing discomfort. It is likely our lives would be rich, meaningful, satisfying, challenging, purposeful. However, in order to achieve this state, we would need to experience discomfort – perhaps in the form of anxiety, effort or reluctance to change.  

ACT recognises that when discomfort does appear in our lives, we have the tendency to avoid it. So we move down the river to where the river is wider and is easier to cross. In doing so we are not achieving the values that are important to us, and instead experience a life that is not what we wanted or intended. It is likely to lead to a life that is less than we want for ourselves, maybe dull, colourless or lonely, disconnected and meaningless, and possibly sad – the opposite of what we wanted. When we avoid all discomfort we ultimately end up experiencing dissatisfaction. 

The only thing that stays the same in this metaphor is the river of discomfort. In every scenario we have to ‘cross the river’; there will always be some level of discomfort in our lives. We can explore with our clients what life would look like if we lived according to our values or acted to achieve these values – while experiencing discomfort – compared with what life looks like if we delay or shun these things through fear of discomfort.


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