When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool. - Chinua Achebe
If you’ve been on planet earth for a bit, you’ve probably experienced it.
This thing we all hate, that we try really hard to avoid feeling.
This thing called Pain.
Yup, you’re probably familiar with it, too.
If you’re a normal, healthy human, you will have experienced pain at some point in your life.
There’s no way to avoid it.
Something doesn’t work out - hello, pain.
A relationship ends - hello, pain.
Someone we love gets sick or dies - hello, pain.
I’m sure you get the picture.
And what’s really mind-blowing and perhaps also incredibly obvious is that none of us is going to go through life without experiencing pain.
It is the cost of entry to being human.
Pain is the other side of the same coin as CARING: We hurt because we care. If we didn’t care, if we were simply robots going about our lives, we wouldn’t experience pain.
But we CARE: We care about people. We care about projects. We care about animals. We care about being loved, about belonging and acceptance.
And we will all inevitably face loss, rejection, disappointment, failure, gaps between where we are at and where we want to be.
And this stuff hurts.
So I wanted to share a very simple way of working with this natural pain of life.
This might be one of the favorite ‘tools’ of my clients in individual sessions.
It is based on an idea by Dr Steven Hayes, the founder of the approach I use, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
He talks about Clean Pain vs Dirty Pain.
Clean pain is the natural pain of life. it is the pain none of us can avoid that I mentioned above.
This pain is a little more optional. It is everything we layer on top of the natural pain of life.
Dirty pain is all of the ways our minds make this pain worse, by resisting it, fighting it, telling ourselves we shouldn’t be feeling this way or blaming ourselves or others.
We are all experts at dirty pain.
Our minds are really, really good at making clean pain so much worse.
Here’s how I see it, with an example of feeling sad about something as ‘clean pain’:
By dropping the struggle, we avoid additional suffering and enable clean pain to simply be there, rather than wasting energy struggling and making it much bigger.
According to brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, emotions last only 90 seconds IF we don’t resist them, if we don’t create a storyline around them and simply allow them to show up and hang out.
In other words, the more we can stay with the clean pain of life, the more quickly it tends to pass through - and the less pain we are adding on to it.
When we stay with the clean pain:
We don’t waste time and energy fighting or avoiding our emotions.
We don’t add any pain to what we are already feeling.
We still experience pain but it feels more ‘clean’, more manageable.
Instead of making things worse by adding dirty pain where:
Our emotions are stuck and feel much ‘bigger’.
We waste a huge amount of time and energy struggling with them.
We beat ourselves up instead of recognising that pain is a normal part of life.
Dropping the struggle
There is no right or wrong way of doing this - or any real recipe for it, but here’s something you can try next time you experience pain:
Instead of fighting it, telling yourself you should feel something different, or that you should be over something by now:
Notice your mind starting to go into dirty pain.
Take a deep breath + give yourself permission to simply allow whatever pain is showing up to be there by dropping the struggle and telling yourself something like: It’s OK to feel this way.
“The best way out is always through.” - Robert Frost