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Clean Pain versus Dirty Pain


Have you ever made a “problem” much bigger in your mind than it actually was?⁠ ⁠ I remember the feeling of putting something off that I didn't want to do. I stressed about it for months and the feeling of dread built and built. I built this thing up into a huge deal. What started out as something I wasn’t in the right mood to do turned into a huge obstacle.

Eventually, I had no choice but to just do the thing. It ended up taking one phone call that took approximately 10 whole minutes. A few minutes of discomfort put months of agonizing, worry, dread and fear to rest.

What a waste. So much drama and suffering from something that could have a fleeting moment of pain that came and went (that’s even an exaggeration because it turned out to not even be very painful).

Since then I've learned a concept called Clean versus Dirty pain which I also teach my clients. This concept can help you to understand how much you cause your own unnecessary suffering.⁠ When you realize that you’re doing it you can learn to stop. ⁠ Yes, pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

The fear of pain or some other uncomfortable feeling stops us from doing all kinds of things. But most of the things you think you're too afraid to face are like my example above. Made much bigger when you keep them in your head or make them mean something about you or others or the world at large that isn't necessary or true or helpful.⁠ ⁠

I help people see this about their obstacles every day.⁠ ⁠ If you’re putting something off you should seriously schedule a call with me to talk about it.

The concept of clean versus dirty pain has been coming up a lot lately in relation to loneliness. During this time of physical distancing, there's a chance that whether you’re actually "alone" or with your immediate family, you've experienced some pangs of loneliness over the past weeks. Missing friends or family who are elsewhere or even missing the way things "were" is something coming up a lot for most of us.⁠ ⁠Loneliness is something my clients speak to me about a lot.

The absence or presence of people around is not what defines whether or not we feel lonely.

Some of my loneliest moments have been felt while in the presence of others. I witness this a lot in other people too.⁠ ⁠

Recently I watched a video of a woman turning 88 while she was self-isolating. She appeared to be celebrating her Birthday alone. She didn't seem lonely to me. Another person watching the same video might think something else. This is because loneliness isn’t a factor of our situation but rather, created by our thoughts about it.⁠ ⁠ Somebody else could watch the same video and think the lady appeared to be very lonely.

Whether she was or wasn’t isn’t a problem anyway. There’s nothing wrong with feeling lonely sometimes. It’s natural to miss and long for things. I call this clean pain. I think of it like a bitter sweet longing and I’m glad to feel it. It reminds me that I’ve experienced beauty and love and have the memories to remind me of it. It also reminds me of other things, like to call my mom!

Sometimes though, we feel lonely and think it’s a problem. We make it mean something terrible about us, the world, or our situation. This is dirty pain. We think we should never feel lonely, don’t want to feel lonely, and that it’s something to be avoided and feared at all cost. We work ourselves into a frenzy thinking we’re destined to die alone, or that we’re a loser, or unlovable, boring, or missing out on something. FOMO anyone? We might actually enjoy our own company but never know it because we resist the experience—either by avoiding being alone or thinking all kinds of helpful thoughts the moment we are.

Rather than just experiencing loneliness for what it is—a moment in time – we attach a bunch of thoughts to it that feel bad.

That make us feel worse. We don’t have to do that.

Of course, we may crave touch, hugs, and physical connection, with others—sure I know lots of people I'll be hugging hard at some point in the future when it’s safe to do so. Until then, I'll decide to choose what I want to think about my situation in a way the feels helpful to me. One that embraces what I can access rather that what I can't. We can all decide to honour being alone, feeling sad, upset, angry etc. without making it mean we have to suffer. There's a big difference.⁠

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