Is it just me or does it seem like wherever we turn, there’s another story of tragedy or loss? Whether it’s news of accidents, children being mistreated or animals being abused, my mind seems to be having a battle between finding gratitude and allowing gut-wrenching sadness.
Unfortunately, no matter how positive you may try to be, pain is just part of the human experience. There are going to be breakups, endings and losses no matter how hard you try to bubble-wrap yourself and your family.
As part of my ongoing work with The Life Coach School, I was introduced to the concept of “Clean Pain vs Dirty Pain”. The understanding of this concept has had a profound effect on how I now handle life’s ups and downs, helping me to manage my life in a much more balanced, and less confusing way.
There’s no longer a need to judge myself and others for how we feel, but instead to allow space for compassion and understanding. It’s incredibly helpful to delineate between what’s necessary or not, and what’s helpful or not, especially when it comes to pain.
By understanding the difference between clean pain and dirty pain, you will no longer be at the mercy of the natural ebb and flow of your life. Marriages end, jobs are eliminated and good people die; being able to distinguish between clean pain and dirty pain will help you navigate those storms.
This week I’m going to discuss what clean pain is, what dirty pain is, and how to deal with both.
No matter how hard you might try to avoid it, life is going to naturally be 50/50 when it comes to positive and negative emotions. From the minute you were born, you began experiencing physical pain and eventually emotional pain.
As you grew up and experienced more of life, you also experienced more painful “firsts”. For example, the first time someone said they didn’t want to be your friend, your first punishment, the first time you had a relationship breakup or the first time someone or something in your life died.
Whether you were disappointed when something you were looking forward to didn’t happen, or you were horrified when you read about a child who was neglected and abused, you will experience mental and emotional pain in many different forms throughout your life. Negative emotions are inevitable.
Therefore, clean pain is the negative emotions you feel by virtue of being human. We all experience emotions like anger, sadness and disappointment, because those feelings are just a part of life.
The reason that clean pain is described as “clean” is because it’s a cleansing experience; like when you have a “good cry”. It’s allowing what’s true for you, and experiencing whatever negative emotion is real in the moment.
For example, if your college-aged daughter starts behaving promiscuously, spending time with people you are concerned about, you might feel afraid for her. Clean pain is allowing yourself to feel afraid, and to acknowledge that she may not be living the life you had envisioned for her.
As a mother, your brain is going to offer you thoughts that create the feeling of fear, especially when it comes to your children. Allowing the clean pain of fear, instead of resisting it, can be exactly what you need in order to be true to how you feel right now.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling clean pain. It’s the pain you want to feel, and can choose to feel, because it makes sense to you.
For example, when someone you love dies, you want to feel grief. The clean pain of grief is often in direct proportion to how much you experienced love for that person and is cleansing to process.
In reaction to what’s happening in your life, you may want to feel loss, grief, sadness or disappointment, depending on the situation. Clean pain is the pain you choose to allow, without self-judgment, and often comes in waves, lessening over time.
It’s important to understand that there’s nothing wrong with experiencing clean pain because it can actually be helpful. The issue is when you resist it; that is when it can feel worse than the initial pain.
As the buddhist saying explains, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”. Experiencing clean pain is an inevitable and necessary part of a well-lived life.
While clean pain is inevitable and can be helpful, dirty pain is optional and unnecessary. It’s the suffering you create when you believe that something is wrong, bad or shouldn’t be the way it is.
Author Byron Katie says, “When you argue with reality, you lose. But only 100% of the time.” Dirty pain is arguing with reality, and experiencing the resistance of what is.
Pain becomes dirty when we believe things like “This shouldn’t be happening”, “It’s not fair” or “This isn’t how things were supposed to go”. Dirty pain doesn’t feel better on the other side, but instead leaves you stuck in victimhood.
Dirty pain is described as “dirty” because it feels murky and dismal. It’s the suffering your mind creates in reaction to clean pain and feels heavy, overwhelming and exhausting.
The following will help show the difference between clean and dirty pain:
- I feel so sad that my mother passed away and I miss her (clean pain)
- My mother died too soon and I don’t understand why this happened; it’s not fair (dirty pain)
- I’m feeling hurt and upset that I’m getting a divorce (clean pain)
- I will never find love and I can’t imagine being happy again (dirty pain)
- I’m worried about how I’m going to pay my bills since I lost my job (clean pain)
- I shouldn’t have lost my job and I have no hope for my future (dirty pain)
While clean pain comes in waves but still makes it possible for you to function in your life, dirty pain is the opposite. It’s created by a negative thought loop that makes it difficult to function, to find solutions and will drain you mentally, emotionally and physically.
Most of us experience more dirty pain than we realize, and have normalized it because we’ve never been taught otherwise. The issue is that when you layer dirty pain on top of clean pain, you belabor the uncomfortability and weight of the situation.
Since life is always going to be 50/50 and pain is inevitable, it’s important to understand when you are allowing clean pain or when you are creating dirty pain. One is manageable and useful, the other is unnecessary and depleting.
How to deal with both
Since your female accountant brain interprets uncertainty and unpredictability as a threat to your survival, you will normally thrive on things being the same and controllable. Unfortunately, most things in life are not within your control, and some of those things will cause you emotional pain.
The greatest lesson I learned in my work with The Life Coach School was that feelings are harmless, and that I won’t die from having a feeling. No matter how bad it feels, emotions are just sensations in our bodies, triggered by a thought in our brain.
The interesting thing is that it only takes 90 seconds for an emotion to be processed by your body. According to Harvard-trained brain specialist, Jill Bolte Taylor, when a person has an emotion, there is a 90 second chemical process that happens in the body; after that 90 seconds, any remaining emotional response is caused by you choosing to stay in that emotional loop.
When you experience clean pain, you can feel the emotion washing over you for as long as you need it to. Each time you think a thought that creates clean pain, you are allowing a negative feeling; you are willing to feel clean pain, because it’s what’s true for you.
However, when you judge yourself for feeling clean pain or feel uncomfortable with it, when you make yourself or others wrong for the situation, this resistance and unwillingness becomes dirty pain. This judgment and battle with clean pain winds up hurting you more than you realize.
What helped me tremendously was learning how allowing clean pain can be very healing. It’s acknowledging that while you wouldn’t have chosen it, you are willing to feel whatever comes with certain situations in life.
On the other hand, when you find yourself experiencing dirty pain, or the pain that’s a result of arguing with the reality of a situation, you always have the option to change dirty pain to clean pain. Since dirty pain is created by your thoughts, it can be changed with your thoughts.
Unfortunately, when you argue with reality, there is no opportunity for relief. However, when you know you can feel fear, sadness or disappointment without becoming consumed by those negative emotions, you can process the emotions.
If you’ve ever seen or taken martial arts, you may have noticed when the person being attacked relaxes their body and allows the attack in a fluid-type motion. This non-resistant stance allows them to be more effective, more flexible and prevents serious injuries.
The same is true when you experience negative emotions. Allowing clean pain to be experienced, to flow through you, creates a much more effective way to process pain and prevent more emotional injuries.
So the next time you are feeling negative emotions like fear, sadness or grief, notice whether you are arguing with the reality of the situation, and drop the argument. Since pain is inevitable, it’s also more manageable when you allow the experience of clean pain and drop the dirty pain.
- Unfortunately, no matter how positive you may try to be, pain is just part of the human experience.
- By understanding the difference between clean pain and dirty pain, you will no longer be at the mercy of the natural ebb and flow of your life.
- Clean pain is the pain you want to feel, and can choose to feel, because it makes sense to you.
- We all experience emotions like anger, sadness and disappointment, because those feelings are just a part of life.
- Experiencing clean pain is an inevitable and necessary part of a well-lived life.
- Dirty pain is the suffering you create when you believe that something is wrong, bad or shouldn’t be the way it is.
- Since life is always going to be 50/50 and pain is inevitable, it’s important to understand when you are allowing clean pain or when you are creating dirty pain.
As heard on the podcast
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