Words lose meaning with repetition

Your mind doesn’t always mean what it says. If it tells you you’re stupid or a loser, try repeating those words and soon they will lose their meaning.

Words lose meaning with repetition
Ed Ruscha, Mysteries, 1987, oil on canvas, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the estate of Isabel B. Wilson. © Ed Ruscha

A classic ACT defusion technique is the “milk, milk, milk” exercise, first used by Titchener (1916). It consists of an exploration of all of the properties of a single word. For example “milk” is white, creamy, and so on. This word is then said out loud by the therapist and client rapidly for about a minute. In the context of rapid repetition, it quickly loses all meaning and becomes just a sound. Often the exercise is repeated with a single word variant of a core clinical concern or troublesome thought the specific client may have (e.g., mean, stupid, weak, etc.). The experiential point is that thoughts do not mean what they say they mean, and while it may not be possible or healthy to experience their referents, it is always possible to experience them as an ongoing process if the context in which they are occurring is changed.’

Steven C. Hayes. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Relational Frame Theory, and the Third Wave of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies in Behavior Therapy (2004).

Myths and metaphors reveal all

Metaphors, like myths, stimulate feelings and thoughts that the mind can comprehend, clarifying concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.

Metaphors, like myths, stimulate feelings and thoughts that the mind can comprehend, clarifying concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand.
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‘To grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world—all things and beings—are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.

The apprehension of the source of this undifferentiated yet everywhere particularized substratum of being is rendered frustrate by the very organs through which the apprehension must be accomplished. The forms of sensibility and the categories of human thought, which are themselves manifestations of this power, so confine the mind that it is normally impossible not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle. The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump—by analogy. Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Metaphors make abstract concepts concrete by providing a rich verbal context that evokes thoughts, feelings, and behaviors similar to those evoked by the client’s actual situation.

The story-like quality of metaphors has the advantage of providing instructive lessons that are rich in emotional and perceptual detail, mimicking direct contact with the environment and making the experience more memorable. Metaphors create a verbal world where clients can explore new behaviors and discover the contingencies for themselves, circumventing the potential traps of learning by rules. Metaphors also draw attention to salient features of a situation that may go unnoticed in clients’ real-world environment, thus liberating them from the cage built by language.

Matthieu Villatte, Jennifer L. Villatte and Jean-Louis Monestès, in The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy. (Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari (eds.).


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Where psychology meets mythology

Symbols, metaphors and myths help us understand complex ideas, and psychologists can use them to help us heal or unravel their meaning when there is confusion.

Where psychology meets mythology
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‘Mythology is psychology misread as biography, history, and cosmology. The modern psychologist can translate it back to its proper denotations and thus rescue for the contemporary world a rich and eloquent document of the profoundest depths of human character. Exhibited here, as in a fluoroscope, stand revealed the hidden processes of the enigma Homo sapiens—Occidental and Oriental, primitive and civilized, contemporary and archaic. The entire spectacle is before us. We have only to read it, study its constant patterns, analyze its variations, and therewith come to an understanding of the deep forces that have shaped man’s destiny and must continue to determine both our private and our public lives.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

As this tribal species called human beings learned to use symbols, the capacity for reason, problem solving, and imagination grew. We added new cognitive relations. Cultural development began with a vengeance.

The accelerator in that process was metaphor. Through metaphor, we could take an existing network of knowledge, the vehicle, and bring it to bear on a new domain, the target. If the vehicle contained relations and functions that were missing in the target, and if the link between the two was apt, entire networks of knowledge could be transferred to new areas in the length of time it took to tell a story or draw an analogy.

With that new process in hand, we had the cognitive tool we needed to transform human life. We could construct subtle differences, or extend similar forms.

The importance of this process to human knowledge and human development is revealed in the ubiquity of frozen metaphors, such as those I have just described. But it is also revealed in how extensively we use stories and metaphors within education and in psychotherapy.

Good psychotherapists are good storytellers. They know how to open clients up to what is truly new by using knowledge that is old. They know how to create experiences that inform and heal.

Jill A. Stoddard and Niloofar Afari. The Big Book of ACT Metaphors. A Practitioner’s Guide to Experiential Exercises & Metaphors in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Going back home

Some heroes are reluctant to go back to their old world after a dramatic life experience, while such a return can benefit both them and their society.

going back home
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‘The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss”? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock-dwelling, close the door, and make it fast. But if some spiritual obstetrician has meanwhile drawn the shimenawa across the retreat, then the work of representing eternity in time, and perceiving in time eternity, cannot be avoided.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

People who have survived dangerous environments have sometimes reported that they are hyperaware of everything around them. This acute sensitivity to the environment may have served a useful function at some time. For example, combat veterans may have been very sensitive to small sounds in order to stay alert for danger. But now they might use this sort of vigilance in everyday, noncombat situations … This can be an interesting sort of paradox in that many combat veterans we have talked with report that they never felt more alive than they did while in country. We want you to look at how that hyperawareness functions now in your life.

This acute awareness of everything is not what we mean by being mindful. In fact this is a kind of hyperarousal that happens in extreme stress and can be very hard on you, both psychologically and physically … For instance, if you interpret every small creak your house makes at night as a sign of danger, you’re not likely to get much sleep … Physically, we know that staying in a state of extreme stress and arousal can cause all types of health problems over time, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and other stress-related illness.

Victoria M. Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems.


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Overcome the pressure to conform

Even great mythical heroes could feel forced to conform to society’s wishes. Under this kind of pressure, it’s important to stick to your own values and do what you feel is right.

Overcome the pressure to conform
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The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him. For the bliss of the deep abode is not lightly abandoned in favor of the self-scattering of the wakened state. “Who having cast off the world,” we read, “would desire to return again? He would be only there.” And yet, in so far as one is alive, life will call. Society is jealous of those who remain away from it, and will come knocking at the door.’
Joseph Campbell
. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘Morals are social conventions about what is good; values are personal choices about desirable ends. To be maximally effective, the ACT therapist must be able to work sincerely with the client. Some clients enter therapy with histories or current problems that are morally repugnant to the therapist, such as battering, addiction, repetitious suicidal behavior, and so on. Values clarification work often exposes these areas, yet the ACT therapist cannot be drawn into the role of “moral detective,” using the social influence of therapy to openly or implicitly coerce the client into conforming to broadly held social values. The therapist makes the same move the client is asked to make, namely, to see valuing as essentially a personal exercise.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Interpreting symbolism

Myths are full of symbols to help convey the story’s message. They shouldn’t be interpreted literally as that often only clouds our understanding.

Interpreting symbolism
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Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Hence the personality or personalities of God—whether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or Unitarian terms, in polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheistic terms, pictorially or verbally, as documented fact or as apocalyptic vision—no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing. The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent, so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey. “For then alone do we know God truly,” writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, “when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.” And in the Kena Upanishad, in the same spirit: “To know is not to know; not to know is to know.” Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘Some spiritual and religious traditions are among the best-documented sources of physical and psychological health, particularly the more experiential, accepting, and mystical practices such as meditation and prayer. This is not surprising, because these cultural traditions were among the first to emerge after human language really began to evolve into the elaborate symbolic system we have today. Yet psychotherapists often attack spiritual and religious traditions as if they were inherently toxic to an individual’s autonomy and psychological health.

The reasons for this skepticism are understandable. It is known that rigid and punitive religious systems are toxic to human health. There are dramatic examples of harmful social control and dogma in religion (e.g., cult suicide, ethnic cleansing). Often, clients who seek out psychotherapy are likely to be among those who have been harmed. But we need to be less arrogant and more open to aspects of human culture that are helpful.

In this larger context, ACT is one small effort to solve the psychological problems language has created. That is “the work” we have before us, and it is perhaps the most important psychological task we face as a species. If we as psychotherapists take on this burden, we need to look again at the many honorable traditions (religious, spiritual, mystical, therapeutic) that have attempted to address human suffering and try to filter out what works from what does not.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Ordinary heroes

Myths often tell of miraculous feats or spectacular failures, but their true power comes from showing the successes of ordinary mortals.

Ordinary heroes
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The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and hundreds of analogous tales throughout the world, suggest, as does this ancient legend of the farthest East, that in spite of the failure recorded, a possibility exists of a return of the lover with his lost love from beyond the terrible threshold. It is always some little fault, some slight yet critical symptom of human frailty, that makes impossible the open interrelationship between the worlds; so that one is tempted to believe, almost, that if the small, marring accident could be avoided, all would be well. In the Polynesian versions of the romance, however, where the fleeing couple usually escape, and in the Greek satyr-play of Alcestis, where we also have a happy return, the effect is not reassuring, but only superhuman. The myths of failure touch us with the tragedy of life, but those of success only with their own incredibility. And yet, if the monomyth is to fulfill its promise, not human failure or superhuman success but human success is what we shall have to be shown.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘You have only so much time on this earth, and you don’t know how much. The question “Are you going to live, knowing you will die?” is not fundamentally different than these questions: “Are you going to love, knowing you will be hurt?” Or, “Are you going to commit to living a valued life knowing you will sometimes not meet your commitments?” Or, “Will you reach for success knowing you will sometimes fail?” The potential for pain and the sense of vitality you gain from these experiences go together. If your life is truly going to be about something, it helps to look at it from the perspective of what you would want the path your life leaves behind to mean.’

Steven C. Hayes and Spencer Smith. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Personal growth through art

We can use art, literature and mythology as tools for personal growth as we share the emotions and tribulations of our fictional heroes.

Personal growth through art
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The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘We thrill in watching a superb performance, whether athletic or artistic, because it allows us to participate in the magic of true mastery, to be uplifted, if only briefly, and perhaps to share in the intention that each of us, in our own way, might touch such moments of grace and harmony in the living of our own lives.’

Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.


* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Give yourself the gift of forgiveness

You can learn to live well, says Maya Angelou (born this day 1928) by enjoying life’s little gifts. And forgiveness is the one gift you can give and get every day.

Wouldn't Take Nothing For My Journey Now by Maya AngelouLiving well is an art that can be developed: a love of life and ability to take great pleasure from small offerings and assurance that the world owes you nothing and that every gift is exactly that, a gift.‘

Maya Angelou. Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now

‘Your mind may have a lot to say about forgiveness. It may say that you aren’t strong enough to forgive, that you shouldn’t forgive, or that everything will be better once you forgive. In our experience, strong emotions come up when people think about forgiveness. You may feel anxious, sad, tense, relieved, or content. The key to dealing with these reactions is practicing loving-kindness toward your experiences. They are not your enemy—nor is forgiveness. See if you can imagine giving yourself the gift of forgiveness. You may have to give yourself this gift many, many times. Sharing a cup of coffee with a friend is a gift to yourself; drinking, using, or bingeing and purging is not. Saying no and refusing to be taken advantage of is a gift to yourself. Smiling at the cashier and sharing a joke with a coworker is a gift to yourself; spending hours ruminating on the unfairness of it all isn’t. Reading this book and allowing yourself to soak it in is a gift to yourself. Life will ask you every day, sometimes many times during that day, whether you choose to let yourself off the hook or not. Isn’t that wonderful? Who knew you could be empowered to give yourself a precious gift every day?’

Victoria Follette and Jacqueline Pistorello. Finding Life Beyond Trauma: Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Heal from Post-Traumatic Stress and Trauma-Related Problems