Clean Pain Versus Dirty Pain

Distinguishing clean from dirty pain is like washing a dirty window through which you see events in your life

Is your pain clean or dirty? Clean pain is unavoidable. Dirty pain is optional. You can choose.

A truly delightful client wrote, “Haven’t really been joyful lately, and when that happens, I withdraw.” Now I know why she “disappeared!”

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: “I’ve been dealing with the peeling onion syndrome, and each layer I peel makes me feel sadder and sadder. I’ve been feeling very much a failure when I think how long I’ve been trying to get this business going. It seems to just stay on the back burner as everything else takes precedence: helping out my daughters with their business, babysitting two grandchildren, food shopping, cleaning the house, and laundry for six on top of my full-time job. Now with summer approaching, there’s the yard to care for and painting that needs to be done in the backyard. And the girls feel equally stressed out/overwhelmed so I don’t feel I can ask them to help.”

Are your thoughts keeping you stuck? Are you experiencing a viscous cycle of worry or “nervous-ing” – when you obsess with the same thoughts over and over again? My “nervous-ing” can come from a conversation with a family member or friend, or a future worry about my glaucoma, which creates many sleepless nights.

Downright. Painful.

Until I started to categorize my emotional pain. Clean pain or dirty pain? Dr. Steven Hayes, a psychologist and pioneer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, has differentiated the two types of pain.

Clean pain is what you experience when something intrinsically stressful or hurtful happens to you. It could be a health diagnosis or health crisis, a problem with a relationship, a job challenge, a loss, or an accident. All of these trigger natural stress and you will feel bad for a time. But, this pain has a limited duration and eventually it naturally goes away.

Dirty pain stems not from an objective situation or event but your subjective thoughts about a situation or event (whether real or imagined). Dirty pain is the result of our thoughts or story about how wrong it is. For instance, “I am so busy taking care of my family and doing it ALL that I will never be able to start my business.” Or, “If I’ve had 7 eye surgeries already how many more can my eyes handle; bet I won’t be driving when I am 80!”

We keep on triggering the negative emotion over and over with our worry and “dirty pain.”  It is like we have a file drawer in our head and the glaucoma worry is filed in drawer G, number 17. I picture the drawer staying open for easy access. Anytime I want to worry it is waiting for me!

Event > Belief > Emotion > Behavior

Remember, there is an event, which triggers a belief, which triggers an emotion, which triggers a behavior. Our emotions are simply our response to our beliefs and stories. If the story is a “good story” our emotions are happy, and if the story is a “bad story” our emotions are negative, worrisome, and ridiculously time consuming.

Your Call to Action

Next time you are worrying about something ask yourself:

  • Am I experiencing clean pain or dirty pain?
  • Is the story that I am telling myself true or false?
  • How will I feel without the story?

I feel more inner peace since I have created awareness of clean and dirty pain. I want that for you! And this quote reminds me, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me!”

“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.”
—John Milton

P.S. Our beliefs attract things.

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We would love to hear from you!
What do you do to change up your story when the same tired one has been cycling endlessly?

2 thoughts on “Clean Pain Versus Dirty Pain”

  1. Great article Chere! I will definitely be paying attention to clean and dirty pain and helping my clients to do the same!

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