Keeping Pain Clean

As a therapist, I blog somewhat hesitantly at the risk of adding to the bloated mountain of advice at our fingertips. 24 hours a day we are surrounded by media that overwhelms with unrealistic guidelines, “10-Things” lists, and other how-to instructions on everything from living the near-perfect, pain-free life to fixing aspects of ourselves we’ve labeled broken.  There is the assumption that the “experts” out there may hold just the right fixing, healing knowledge to serve as guides to a right way of living that brings ultimate happiness.

It’s never that simple, though.

The proliferation of self-improvement resources designed to help us better ourselves and our lives is a double-edged sword, generating moments of hope, while sending the message that we aren’t doing this life thing well enough on our own. Helpful tools are out there, potentially, but depending on how we respond to what we encounter, we can end up experiencing more disappointment and pain if we aren’t altered by what we’ve read, heard, or seen in the ways we had hoped.

In my very human experience, pain is not easily discarded, people aren’t just broken parts to be fixed, and happiness isn’t a guarantee–at least not happiness in the way it’s often touted (I call it Pleasantville Happiness…remember that movie?), as if a sense of complete, joyous contentment is available to us if only we were somehow different or better or a little more perfect. We strive for this type of happiness as a way of mitigating our pain, but in the process we are set up for suffering–the pain beyond pain–because so often we are disappointed to find the emotional struggles, the negative thinking, the body image issues, the relationship troubles, or the distressing moods have found us again.

Suffering…the pain beyond pain

Life is really, really hard sometimes, and pain, whether it be physical or emotional, is a universal part of what it means to be alive…to be fully human.  How much we suffer (“become worse because of being badly affected by something” Thank you,, however, is largely determined by how we respond to pain and the circumstances surrounding it, i.e., what we tell ourselves about it, what we feel about it, and other ways we behave in response to it.

Within Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a model of practice I use in my work, the concept of pain is sometimes differentiated as “clean pain” (the pain of being human) and “dirty pain” (suffering: the pain beyond pain).

Clean pain vs dirty pain–what does this even mean? 

Here are a couple of scenarios we can probably all relate to…

When a relationship ends due to breakup or death, there is potentially grief and sadness as our brains and bodies work to adapt to a great loss. When we’re up for a job we really want and learn it has been given to someone else, disappointment or another emotion may be present. Both these experiences involving loss cause some degree of pain and discomfort. For the most part, this is clean pain unclouded by judgments, layers of other emotions, or any other stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of the pain and its circumstances. This is the type of pain that comes with being human.

Dirty pain comes into play when we use language to create stories about the pain and what it means in our lives. These meaning-filled stories are particularly problematic when they involve judgments about the experience, the pain, and how we’re responding to it. As part of this, dirty pain also comes in when we believe we have to get rid of the pain or avoid it through whatever means necessary, possibly leading us to engage in avoidance behaviors that ultimately aren’t healthy for us.

Now back to the scenarios from a dirty pain perspective..

After a breakup or death of a loved one, if we layer on judgmental thoughts or assumptions such as,  “I should be farther along by now.” or “I’m not grieving correctly,” we have clouded our clean pain. Instead of the pain of grief and sadness, now we also feel ashamed and defective because we’ve told ourselves we aren’t fitting some prescribed time frame or manner of grieving. If we’re denied a job we wanted, and we tell ourselves we didn’t get the job because we “never have been good enough” or the “interviewer had it in for me,”  we have clouded our clean pain. We already feel disappointed, and now we may feel worthless or resentful because of our framing of the experience.

In both scenarios, now we have the pain beyond pain, which leaves us with more hurt and vulnerability and more likely to engage in unhelpful habits in the attempt to rid ourselves of the pain and the suffering, only to find those things don’t ultimately do the trick either.

We receive abundant messages in blatant and subtle ways suggesting that if we could do things better, look a certain way, or be/feel somehow different, we won’t hurt. We are human and we will hurt. We’re all in this together. The good news is you and I have a great deal of power over how we respond to the hurt. If we can allow ourselves to feel the pain and let it move through us, while being aware of when we may be layering on unhelpful stories or emotions and then choosing not to engage with them, we can begin to reduce the amount of suffering we experience on a daily basis. Doing this isn’t easy and it takes practice. Sometimes the support of a therapist familiar with these concepts can help in navigating this process.

For today, let’s stay aware of how we respond to our pain. Are we trying to do something with it-get it to stop, figure it out, read about it, judge it away? Let’s see if we can allow the pain to be present without doing these things. Maybe we can find something compassionate to tell ourselves such as, “Even with this pain, I am OK in this moment and I don’t have to fight it or myself. I don’t need to be fixed or any different than I am right now. I can feel what I need to feel.” Next we can practice self-soothing using our senses: take a bath, go for a walk, listen to a favorite song, eat a yummy meal, and really notice that experience. The pain may still be there. That’s OK. We’re still OK. It’s the clean pain of being human.  Let’s have compassion for the pain, for ourselves, and for all of us who are in the same place.

Today, I hope for genuine self-compassion for all of us.