Emotional Pain Doesn't Have To Be Lasting

16 February 2017 Written by 

Here is the story of how I learned to handle my heartache in a healthier way.

Last week one of my friends in recovery told me, “H.O.P.E. – hold on pain ends.” Being an over-caring codependent, I rushed to share this nugget with others in a cute meme on Facebook:

Not everyone loved this idea.

They asked, “When?” “Does it really?” and “Are you sure?” The Pollyanna optimist in me wanted this to be true, but what if they are right? What if pain doesn't end?

Two Types Of Emotional Pain

So I went looking for answers and what I found was there was a school of thought that divides emotional pain into two categories: clean and dirty. 

What is Clean Pain

Dr. John Preston, PsyD explains that clean pain comes from experiencing "normal" human experiences like:

  • Losing a loved one
  • Being diagnosed with a serious illness
  • Experiencing abuse
  • Being Humiliated
  • Failing at something we hoped would succeed at

Getting cut with a clean kitchen knife is painful, but not likely to become infected when the wound is cleaned and attended to. The cut is a good analogy for clean emotional pain. It is an unavoidable part of life.

What is Dirty Pain

Dirty pain stems from how we handle the clean pain in our lives. Dirty pain includes:

  • Unrealistic expectations of how we should be feeling
  • Harsh judgments from others or the world on how we are dealing with the pain
  • Getting stuck on how unfair life is
  • Ignoring or mishandling the original pain

Dirty pain would be like getting cut by the same clean kitchen knife, but being so outraged that you cut yourself that you ignored the wound. It became infected and you now have two problems, the original wound and a nasty infection. The infection is a good analogy for dirty emotional pain. Ouch and double ouch.

Clean Pain Is Inevitable

After my 39-year old sister died, I couldn't imagine my life without her. I wasn’t sure I’d ever quit crying, let alone wake up each day. I eventually learned an unhealthy way to deal with my pain, I ignored it. This became my dirty pain and it has caused me additional suffering even though on the surface it seemed to take away my pain.

Dirty Pain Is Optional

Martha Beck's article on further explains clean and dirty pain:

"The two kinds of suffering occupy different sections of the brain: One part simply registers events, while another creates a continuous stream of thoughts about those events. The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response -- not from painful reality, but from painful thoughts about reality."

In his book, The Paradoxes of Mourning: Healing Your Grief with Three Forgotten Truths, internationally noted author and grief counselor, Dr. Alan Wolfeit writes, 

"Dirty pain is the story we tell ourselves about the clean pain. Dirty pain, once identified, can be safely separated out and ignored, leaving you with more psychic energy to embrace only the pain that truly needs embracing."

Serenity And Pain

"Should've been" or "Ought to" are signs of dirty pain and they spit in the face of acceptance.  In recovery, I've found the Serenity Prayer holds the answers to many of my problems. "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change." I cannot change the fact that my sister died, but attempting to avoid the "clean" pain that comes from this truth ends up causing me far more harm.

When I participate in dirty pain, I actually determine this secondary pain's length and intensity. I can't take pain out of the human experience, but I can accept when life cuts me to deal with that specific wound directly and not infect my life with any unnecessary dirty pain. Yes, her death was unfair, but I don't want to add even more pain and suffering to my life by refusing to admit this deep cut needs to be treated and healed.   

A Reach Out Recovery Exclusive By: Pam Carver




Read 21298 times Last modified on Thursday, 23 February 2017 19:59
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Pam Carver

In my family of origin, three of us are in treatment for codependency, drugs, and/or alcohol abuse. Two of us are in denial about the devastating effects codependency, drugs, and alcohol have had on our family. None of us are talking about it. I’m the codependent one on a quest for healthy living through love and boundaries. My journey started in Celebrate Recovery. I have much to learn and practice. I live with my wonderful husband, amazing son, and pseudo-therapy beagle, Spot. I enjoy long walks on the beach and writing about the life-changing principles I’m learning in the rooms of recovery.
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