Clean Pain v Dirty Pain
Ep. 149
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This week I have a super exciting topic that completely changed the way I thought. It’s the concept of clean pain versus dirty pain, and it really helped me manage my mindset. This topic, which was first coined by Dr. Stephen Hayes, described the suffering we add to our human experience. We constantly make up narratives about ourselves that cause all of this unnecessary self-inflicted pain. It is crucial to understand when you’re doing this so you can stop it. Join me as I dive deeper into this topic and discuss ways you can work around it.


Show Transcript
There's a lot that you can and should feel when you have to completely change your career. What you don't need to feel is all the unnecessary stories that cause pain for you of like maybe there's something wrong with you. Maybe you're not smart enough. Maybe you're not good enough. All of that is unnecessary.

Hey, welcome to Lessons From a Quitter where we believe that it is never too late to start over. No matter how much time or energy you spent getting to where you are, if ultimately you are unfulfilled, then it is time to get out. Join me each week for both inspiration and actionable tips so that we can get you on the road to your dreams.

Hello my friends, welcome to another episode. I am so excited you are here. Today I was working on a plan for the next couple of months and I'm so excited about everything that is coming up. There's a lot of amazing podcast episodes that I think will be super helpful. I'm going to do a challenge again. I loved doing those. So we'll do a challenge to help you guys kind of get some more clarity and then I'm opening doors to my six month program, which I cannot wait to do. That's going to be later in June. If you want to know more about the program, especially like after you listened to this episode, if you want to go deeper with this work and actually apply it and get a separate set of eyes on your own thoughts and really work through how you start changing those thoughts, I would love to have you in that group. So you can sign up to be notified as soon as doors open so that you have a shot at the limited spots that are in it at So get on that wait list. Okay. I'm excited about this topic because it was one that really changed the way I thought when I learned about it, it made so much sense and it really gave me a handle on how to start managing my mind. And so I hope it does the same for you. It's something I work on with my clients literally every day. And it's something that is still, you know, hard to master, but it's something that I think, understanding is really the first step. So let's jump into it.

I want to talk about clean pain versus dirty pain. Okay. These terms were first coined by Dr. Stephen Hayes who founded Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It is a form of psychotherapy that is based on mindfulness strategies, mixed with some behavioral change strategies.

That's neither here nor there, but just in case you wanted to look up Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, it sounds pretty cool. And he started using these terms to describe the types of negative emotions that so many of us feel and the suffering that we add to so much of our human experience. Okay, let's go into what they are. Clean pain consists of really the primary emotions that all humans do and should feel. It is the kind of direct response to something happening. Okay. So as I talked about in episode 115, life is both good and bad. We all understand that our lives are going to contain lots of events that we have zero control over. And oftentimes those events are going to trigger kind of negative emotions in us. And the clean pain is that direct response to that event happening that is very natural and healthy and helpful. Okay. What happens with so many of us, and I'll give you examples of this as we go, is that we have the clean pain in response to an event, but then we add so much dirty pain on top of it. Okay. And that dirty pain is kind of these secondary emotions. It's our reactions to that direct response pain. Okay. It is completely self-created and self-regulated. It's basically the unnecessary suffering that we create when something negative happens in our lives, right. When we're feeling a negative feeling. So for example, let's say that your significant other breaks up with you. Now, when you have like ,you know, a loss of love let's say, like you're breaking up a romantic relationship, it is very normal to feel the clean pain of sadness that it ended, right? Disappointment in the future that you're not going to have, grief over the fact that it ended, right. Grieving the end of both that identity with that person and really the loss that you're suffering. All of that is super normal and you should process it. You should feel it. That's why in episode 115, when I talked about the fact that both positive and negative emotions are a part of every single person's life, I never want to be the person that is trying to push toxic positivity, right? We should not be happy all the time. There are things that are going to happen in your life where you want to feel sad, even though it's your thoughts that create your feelings, you're going to want to keep thoughts that make you a normal human. Okay. So if your significant other breaks up with you, it's normal to feel sadness and disappointment and grief and all the other negative emotions that go with that. The problem, the suffering comes where we add a whole lot of dirty pain to that claim. So instead of just feeling that sadness and giving ourselves the space or whatever we need to process that, we start adding a lot of the dirty pain, which could be, you know, the shoulds. I should have been nicer. I shouldn't have nagged so much. The blame shame cycle, blaming the other person, being angry at the fact that they did this or how terrible they are, and then shaming yourself and blaming yourself or, you know, like even getting into the relationship or not being a good enough significant other or whatever. And then it starts getting to like the attaching of stories of maybe I'm just not lovable. Maybe I'll never find love. Something's wrong with me. Why does this always happen? Right? And then we start ruminating in a lot of these painful thoughts and stories that we attach to this event. And that is what I want to talk about because that is the crux of so much of our suffering.

You've all heard the quote, I don't know who to attribute it to, cause it's attributed to a lot of different people, but pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. We are all going to feel pain in our lives. It's just a part of being human. How we allow ourselves to process and feel that pain and move on from that pain is what will determine the type of life we have. Right? It's not about how much we avoid pain. It's about what we do with the pain that we have. And unfortunately, for so many of us, we just kind of dog pile this dirty pain on top of this clean. Right, as another example, you know, on this podcast, we obviously talk a lot about careers. And I talk to a lot of people about the fact that like yes, like you're allowed to feel disappointed that the career didn't turn out the way you wanted. You're allowed to have grief for the loss of the identity for when you change this career. There's a lot that you can and should feel when you have to completely change your career. What you don't need to feel is all the unnecessary stories that cause pain for you. Of like maybe there's something wrong with you. Maybe you're not smart enough. Maybe you're not good enough. Maybe you're just not cut out for hard work. Maybe you're too lazy. Right. All of that is unnecessary. And that is the thought work that I talk about working on. It's not so that you don't feel the disappointment over the fact that the career ended. That's a good thing to process. It's just making sure that you're not adding a ridiculous amount of other pain to it.

I talked about this story a while ago. Um when I was having a conversation with my niece who was 13, I think she was 12 at the time maybe. And she was having like a ton of anxiety over going to swim practice. And when I was talking to her about it, it became very clear that she didn't want to be on the swim team. And she is a very high achieving child. She's very athletic. And when I tried to get to the bottom of like why she was doing it if she didn't want to do it, she started talking about all these thoughts about the fact that she had been on a gymnastics team, like a very competitive gymnastics team and she hurt her ankle to the point where she wasn't allowed to do gymnastics anymore. So she had to quit. And then she tried basketball after that and she didn't like it. And so she decided to quit that. And she was now on swim and she had all these stories of like if I quit this, then it just means I'm a failure. And it means that like I'll never make it on a team and I'll never be good enough, like she wanted to be competitive. I'll never be competitive. I mean, all of this insane thoughts that was causing her, literally to have anxiety attacks where she couldn't go to practice, where she was crying like shaking all of this stuff from thoughts that are not only untrue, completely unnecessary. I said this before when I've talked about this story, when you listen to, you know, that situation, it's very easy to see how insane her thoughts are and how untrue they are. Right? Because for most of us as adults, it's very clear to see like okay, you're 12, you could try a million more sports and it wouldn't make you a failure just because it didn't work in those other two things doesn't mean it won't work later. Right? It's very clear to be like okay, you're kind of exaggerating this, but I promise you, this is exactly what we all do every single day in our lives. Every client I have does the same exact thing, where it's like it didn't work in this career, how can I trust myself to pick another career? Because I'll never be successful if I pick one more and it doesn't work, like all this, you know, pain that we create and make ourselves panicked and add more, you know, it just adds to the negative emotion we're already feeling. And I want you to understand that that is the source of your suffering. It's all made up. It's all self-created. And I know while that honestly can sound kind of depressing, it's the best news because you can fix it. You can work on it. You can learn to manage your mind. So many of us think that our thoughts are just true and we believe that there's nothing we can do about it but I want you understand your brain is literally like a toddler just running around unregulated. And you're just listening to everything it tells you and just taking it, right? Like oh yeah, maybe it does mean I'm not good enough. Yeah, you're right. Maybe yeah we are just the worst thing that's ever happened or we'll never have love or whatever other crazy stories we have. And I want you to understand that so much of that is optional. When we think about emotions, I want you to think about like neurologists and the studies that they've done of emotions. They've shown that like the chemical release from your brain that causes the emotion in your body typically lasts 90 seconds. That's it. This is why all emotions, both good and bad are always fleeting. Whether that's the joy and the elation that you feel at something like you realize after a while you come off that kind of high, right. Or even sadness, grief, all of it is fleeting. And that's not to say that it only lasts 90 seconds. It comes in waves and we re-trigger it with our thoughts, right? We keep re-triggering those chemicals. But what happens is like if you just allow the clean pain to go through you, those emotions pass relatively quickly. Now for each thing, it's going to be different, obviously how long it lasts, but you can process it. You can learn to process emotion. Like hey, I feel really disappointed and sad that this didn't work out or that this person rejected me or that I got fired or whatever it is. Like I'm going to allow myself to have that human emotion. I'm going to let myself sit with this discomfort. I'm going to feel it in my body. I'm not going to try to suppress it. I'm not going to numb myself. I'm not going to do all this stuff. And then we process it and we can move on. But that's not what happens for most of us. Most of us just create these feedback loops because we attach these stories to the event. And those feedback loops keep triggering these chemicals, these emotions in us. Okay. So we had some event that happened. We start thinking really painful thoughts, a lot of dirty pain, and then we just live in it, right? And then that just becomes the narrative. Like maybe I'm just not good enough. Maybe I'm not smart enough. Maybe I'm not lovable enough. This person rejected me, maybe it just means I'm not worthy of love. And then every time we subconsciously or consciously have that thought it triggers all of that pain. And honestly, I think this is why so many of us are afraid of negative emotion, right? Because when you are resistant to the actual clean pain, like so many of us don't want to just feel that grief or that sadness, that disappointment. So we start kind of ruminating over it, spinning on it and creating stories about it and trying to rationalize it and doing all this stuff. And that resistance to that creates so much of the secondary emotion. It creates anxiety. It creates anger. It creates shame and guilt and all of these like really heavy emotions. And we don't know how to get out of it because we keep thinking those thoughts. And so we prolong the suffering and the negative emotion. And then so many of us are just so afraid to feel. And the irony of it is like it's all by your own doing. It's all those stories that we keep creating and we keep living into. And then if we learn to manage our mind, to not attach those stories, then processing that emotion is not that difficult. To be honest, it doesn't feel great. But once you realize you can feel a negative emotion and survive and be fine, you can let yourself process, you lose the need to engage A in all of this dirty pain and B in all of the numbing and suppressing and you know, all the other stuff that we do because the pain is so much, like the Netflixing, the drinking, the eating, the scrolling, the shopping, all of that stuff is because we don't want to feel this pain. And if we can take away the dirty pain, it's a lot more manageable. Anyway, just likened our brain to a toddler but speaking of children in a kind of a good way now, I think children are the most beautiful example of processing emotion. If you have children, or if you're around children, then you'll know what I'm talking about. Most people obviously, um, even if you're not, if you don't have children, like you know how children are. Kids to us seem as though they're a little crazy, right? Because they can go from like complete anger or despair or, you know, frustration, sadness like hysterics to complete joy instantly in a minute, right? The reason why they can do that is because they do not suppress or numb their emotions. They do not attach stories to what is happening. They just react to what is happening directly in front of them right then right. They drop their lollipop and they're frustrated. They act that out, they cry, they let it out. They stomp their feet. They do whatever it is that their body needs to get that emotion out. That chemical release in them feels too much and so they don't know how to suppress it yet. They don't know how to regulate it, which is actually a beautiful thing for them. And so they get it out of their system. And then in the next instant, when, you know, they find the toy that they like or, you know, something else peaks their interest, they're instantly in joy. They're not back thinking about the lollipop. They're not creating a story of like see, I'm always so clumsy. It's my fault. Why do I always drop lollipops? What's wrong with me? And it might seem laughable, but like that's literally what we do. When you look at it from like an outside perspective and you look at the unnecessary amount of suffering we add to ourselves, it's exactly that. It's like yeah, you know, maybe I'm just not good enough to have lollipops. Kids don't do that. They're just the most present. And obviously they have different brainwaves. The way their brain works is different. And it's not evolved enough so like we literally can't be like that. I'm not saying that like the goal is to be completely unregulated. There's a lot of advantages to having a developed prefrontal cortex and being able to make better decisions and not be at the whim of your emotions. But I think it's a beautiful example of just processing the emotion you're having right then, and then moving on. What so many of us have a problem with is that we start taking all of these negative emotions and we start stacking them on top of each other. Right. We start taking it as evidence. Like when we already have this hypothesis that I'm not good enough that I'm going to take every painful event and I'm going to keep showing my brain that this is evidence that I'm not good enough. And that's why I'm so terrified of trying something new, because it's just going to be another piece of evidence that I'm not good enough. Or that's why I'm so terrified of getting into another relationship because I have all this evidence that I'm not lovable enough. And it's just going to be one more piece of evidence. And so you can start seeing that how this thought just affects everything you do and don't do. And so so many of us sit in suffering, we keep repeating these stories. We don't try new things. We wall ourselves off. We don't allow for the good and the, you know, the magic and the beautiful and the possibilities and the opportunities. We don't go after the dream. We don't try to create more relationships because it's too painful to keep adding that dirty pain to our lives. I'm convinced that it is the largest contributor to all of our suffering.

I was recently coaching a client on the grief that she is going through with the loss of a loved one. And it's so subtle, the dirty pain, like we don't notice it you know. She was upset, or I don't know if upset is the word, she was saying she was having a hard time because people tell her that time heals all wounds and time isn't healing this. And she wants to think about her loved one and feel happy but she doesn't, she still feels immense amounts of sadness. And she doesn't know how long it's gonna last. And she, you know, wants to kind of be able to move on. And I was just simply pointing out like that's all dirty pain. The fact that you think you should be somewhere else, that you shouldn't be feeling this, that there's something wrong with you, that other people go through grief faster, that you should feel happy. Doesn't that sound lovely? I want to think about this person that I loved, who is no longer here and feel happy. Why? What if we just sat with the sadness? What if I just knew that like grief is absolutely normal and clean pain, and I'm going to feel that grief as long as I need to feel it in order to fully process it. And I'm not going to add a lot more shoulds to myself and I'm not going to beat myself up for doing it wrong or not doing it wrong. And so many people that I coach, I see them for myself. So much of managing my mind became easier when I realized oh, it's just the unnecessary suffering I don't need to have anymore. Oh, I can lay this part down. Now, I still have to deal with my negative emotions. I still have to deal with the fact that I'm going to try something and it's going to fail and I'm going to feel disappointed or sad, or I'm going to lose a loved one and I'm going to feel grief, or I might get rejected and I'm going to feel embarrassed and I'm going to feel depressed or whatever the feeling is, but I don't need to keep adding stories to it. I don't need to keep creating thoughts that keep re-triggering those feelings by telling myself that there's something wrong with me for doing that, like for feeling this or for having this happen. Like this was just something that happened in my life. I'm going to process it and I'm allowing myself to move on. And so how I want you to start approaching this in your own life is that when there is an event that is causing you a lot of negative emotions, I want you to write out what the event was factually as neutral as possible. Okay. I don't want you to use a lot of descriptive terms. I want you to realize what is subjective and what is objective. So like what would everybody in the world agree happened in that situation. Could be like this person died or it could be what somebody said to you. Right? It could be like my boyfriend said I don't want to be with you anymore. Okay. That's factual if if that's the thing that he said. I want you to just write that down. And then I want you to write all of your thoughts about it. And I mean all because what happens with us is that a lot of times we're embarrassed about our thoughts. Like we know when it comes out, like oh, that sounds crazy or bad, or like dramatic. And so we don't really want to face them, but they're still there, just because you're not facing it doesn't mean it's not running in the background all the time.

And so let's get face to face with them. I want you to know that everybody has terrible thoughts. That's the way the brain works. It's okay. There's nothing wrong with you. You don't have to feel ashamed about them. We don't have to try to hide them. Let's just understand that we have human brains that think terrible things sometimes. And I want to know what those terrible things are so I can decide if I'm going to choose to think them on purpose or not. And once you write down all of those thoughts and you will see how much dirty pain is there, right? I want you to see like what is the clean pain that I want to feel in response to this event? What is the sadness? The grief, even the anger. What is it that I want to feel that I'm going to let myself go through? Because like this hard thing is happening in my life and I'm gonna let myself process that emotion. And what is all of the other stories that I'm attaching to it? What are all the thoughts that are just useless suffering? Where's the shame and the guilt and the blame? I guarantee every time you find guilt, blame or shame, it's dirty pain. Where is all the unnecessary anger and the denial and the arguing with reality? Where's the story that I'm attaching that it makes me I guess just means that I am X. I'm not worthy of the, I'm not good enough. I'm not smart enough. Where's all of that? Because that’s the things you have to clean up, that's what you have to learn how to manage your mind for. The rest of it, we're not trying to get rid of your negative emotion. We're trying to feel it. We're trying to process it. We're trying to move past it. We're also trying to stop all of the unnecessary suffering, because once you can do that, it's like a superpower. Negative events aren't as scary anymore. You realize that your whole self worth doesn't have to be attached to it, that you can feel any feeling and be okay. You can process it and you can move on, move on to the next thing. And that's what opens you up to taking risks. That's what opens you up to being vulnerable and allowing things to happen that might not turn out the way you want. The reason so many of us are so hesitant is because we know that when we attach all of these painful stories, we're gonna ruminate in it for decades. Who wants to go through that? It's like better to just not even try, like you already know what your brain's going to do to you. And I just want you to know that it doesn't have to do that. Learning how to get rid of this dirty pain is one of the best skills that you can learn. And if you want to learn how to do it, if you want somebody to teach you based on your own thoughts, because oftentimes it's hard to see our own blind spots. It's hard to see where we are adding dirty pain. I would love to help you. This is what we work on for six months so that you can self-coach afterwards so that you can start seeing what those thoughts are. And you can learn to manage that mind. So then it's not a crazy toddler running around. If you want to join me, sign up for the waitlist at I would love to have you in the next cohort of my six month program. And if not, I just want you to start looking in your life and seeing where you're adding dirty pain that doesn't need to be there. Alright, my friends, I hope this was helpful and I will see you on the next episode.

Thank you so much for listening. I can't tell you how much it means to me. If you liked the podcast, please rate and review us on iTunes, it'll help other people find the show. If you want to connect or reach out, follow along on Instagram and Facebook at Lessons From a Quitter and on Twitter at QuitterPodcast, I would love to hear from you guys and I'll see you on the next episode.