In my book How To Feel, I make a distinction between “Clean Pain” and “Dirty Pain.” To recap, Clean Pain is inevitable. Dirty Pain is optional . . . sort of.
Technically, it’s optional insofar as we learn how to leave it. We are wired to create dirty pain just because of how our brains are designed. Remember, we have survival brains, not happiness brains.
Our evolutionary past inclines us toward avoidance and struggle. If we encounter a wild animal we are inclined to avoid it or fight it. Here in Tucson, we have an unsettling population of coyotes and bobcats (and javelinas and rattlesnakes . . .). It is not unusual to stroll past a pack of coyotes on my morning walk, or to discover a lone bobcat taking shelter under the oleander bushes in the backyard.
I’m new to this area and maybe a little more on edge about this than many of the locals, who seems to have greater ease coexisting with wild predators. So far, I have not been eaten or maimed, and I owe this to my natural avoidance abilities. Or, perhaps they’re just not that interested in me.
When it comes to psychological or emotional pain, avoidance tends to have paradoxically unhelpful outcomes, and often creates additional problems. The same adaptive strategy for survival is woefully ineffective when it comes to dealing with private, internal experiences. Yet, it seems to be a strategy that, although maladaptive, gets deployed by default. We are simply programmed to move away from pain automatically.
Remember, Clean Pain is inevitable. Eventually, someone you love will die. Eventually, you will get sick, or you will be betrayed, or you will lose an investment, or your heart will be broken, or you will stub your toe. If we evaluate the feelings associated with these events as bad, we will instinctively want to avoid them. Our minds define a problem as: anything you don’t want. And nobody wants pain.
It starts with the evaluation that pain is bad, and then how we interpret and create stories around the existence of that pain. Instead of acknowledging and accepting the existence of clean pain, we struggle with it. We curse it. We go to war with it. We say, “That’s not fair!” And “This isn’t suppose to happen!” And “Why me?”
Or we avoid it by distraction, using substances, working late, pleasing others, or opting out of parts of our lives where the pain is likely to show up again. We start engineering our lives to avoid feared outcomes until our lives get smaller and smaller, more and more restrictive and predictable.
Things can be unpleasant without being evaluated as bad. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. If we can allow the feelings to be what they are, we have a chance to get through it without making it worse by dumping Dirty Pain on top of it. In other words, if we can allow the pain, we don’t have to suffer.
Pain + Resistance = Suffering
Let me offer you another emotional equation: Happiness = What is - Your Opinion about it. If you can have a painful experience, and let go of your judgement that the pain must be bad, then, and only then can you be happy. Happiness is not the absence of pain. It’s the ability to live meaningfully and have whatever life gives you without running from it.
Living a life of meaning often requires a reasonable amount of Clean Pain. It is the currency of living your values. When you go to the movies to see a film you’ve been looking forward to, you don’t argue with the ticket seller about the price. Even if you think, “Dang, ticket prices have sure gone up lately,” it’s still worth it to see that movie, right? So you’re more or less happy to pay the price.
Now if you were to balk at the amount you are expected to pay, and start cursing under your breath as you swipe the ticket from the box office attendant, and start going on and on about how movies use to be $6 back in the day, and how everything is unfair, well now you are experiencing Dirty Pain.
Essentially, now you’re throwing emotional currency down the drain. Because it doesn’t buy you anything but needless suffering. So when it comes to Dirty Pain, it’s helpful to “let it go.” Or rather, to let go of your grip of it. It’s unnecessary to hold onto it so tightly, and it’s wasted energy.
When it comes to Clean Pain, it’s a matter of “letting BE.” Allowing it. Making space for it. Giving it permission to be there and to accept it as part of life. The better you are at recognizing clean pain and how to open up to it, the more your life will open up and the more meaning you will find.
Oro Valley Psychotherapy
10311 N Renard Pl
Oro Valley, AZ 85737