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Clean Pain vs. Dirty Pain

Healing is about taking the time to notice what gets in the way of feeling connected to your life, your community, and your sense of possibility. Healing, at its core, is about slowing down so that we can better listen, to ourselves and each other. -Susan Raffo, quoted in My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem

When you read the word “pain,” what do you think about? Do you think of a headache you had last week, or perhaps a stiffness in your joints? Maybe you go a more emotional route and remember the pain of an argument with someone you love, or the let down of a job not going how you wanted or anticipated. The word “pain” captures all of these elements. Each situation is unique, the complexity of each pain intricate and only fully known by the person experiencing the sensation. Moreover, this is where we have a choice, as knowers, to experience the pain. What do we choose to do with it? For a moment, sit with that question for yourself. When you experience the pain of any kind, what are some of your go-to methods for managing that pain?

Try to withhold judgment at this point in the conversation with yourself and be honest. I acknowledge that this is much easier said than done. You could try shifting the tone of your discussion to one of a more curious nature, rather than judgment. Instead of, “I can’t believe I [such and such]...” or “I know I shouldn’t, but I…,” try something along the lines of “I notice that when I feel [certain type of pain], I [do a certain type of action]. How interesting to notice that about myself.” Even subtle shifts, like the words you use in self-talk, can begin to make this journey of observing your pain a bit easier. As you notice the ways which you choose to manage your pain when it arises, try this more gentle approach.

If what you begin to notice is that many of your methods for experiencing pain include distracting yourself from that pain, I will tell you that you are not alone. To avoid is built into our culture and our way of relating to ourselves and one another. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score, summarizes our culture’s relationship with pain in this way: “Accessing the interoceptive world is not a strong skill in the Western traditions. Getting to know yourself and to feel yourself--being still--is not part of the dominant culture of Western Civilization. Our culture suggests if you feel bad, take a swig of something or take a pill to make whatever symptom go away. Our culture is constantly forcing people to be distracted by stuff for them to not feel themselves” (“Trauma in the Body: Interview with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk” It is certainly much easier to distract ourselves than to be in pain. At times, this distraction serves a significant purpose. Sometimes we are in so much pain that our sensory system is completely overloaded. This is trauma. Dr. van der Kolk defines trauma as, “something that overwhelms your coping capacities” (“Trauma in the Body”). Your body cannot cope, so distractions offer the essential, temporary solution of getting through each day. Again, as a reminder, be easy with yourself here. Where you find yourself right now, is okay! It is enough to notice that at this moment. The next question could be, “Is this how I want to manage this pain indefinitely?” If the answer is “no,” then let’s continue together.

When we choose to live in the distracted place indefinitely without a willingness to even make a plan for confronting our pain, we are refusing to heal. Moreover, refusing to repair may save us from some discomfort early on, but as time goes by, refusal to improve is always more painful than choosing to heal. In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, Resmaa Menakem makes a distinction between these two choices--either refusal to heal or choosing to heal--by labeling them “dirty pain” and “clean pain,” respectively. By his definition, “dirty pain is the pain of avoidance, blame and denial” (p.20) and “clean pain is pain that mends and can build your capacity for growth” (p. 19). As you’ll notice, both are still some form of pain because healing hurts! It can be very uncomfortable, and it is certainly work. However, when we can sit with our pain, sit in this stillness that Dr. Bessel van der Kolk describes, something will begin to shift. It will require patience and presence. It will not be a “miracle drug” where you wake up feeling healed overnight. Choosing clean pain is choosing to do some work. However, it is an essential work. Moreover, if we can begin to decide to step into healing our pain instead of blowing that pain through others and the Earth (dirty pain), we will start to see some dynamic shifts within ourselves and culture as a whole.

So what does choosing clean pain versus dirty pain look like? That answer will differ for every person and every situation. However, there are a few constants among the many variables. Clean pain will always require some stillness or slowing down--sitting with your pain and acknowledging how you’re affected by it. Moreover, it is usually helpful to have a witness for this part. A therapist can often fulfill this role for you. However, this could also be a trusted friend who has agreed to sit in that space with you and remind you of what’s true. Dirty pain will perhaps require less at the beginning, but the longer you hold that pain and refuse to do the healing work, the harder and harder it will be to suppress. You may begin to notice that most of your energy is going into suppressing the pain, so much so that your relationships may start to suffer or your job may be harder to focus on, simply because you are expending so much energy into not feeling what has been too hard to feel in the past.

Moreover, once more, if this where you find yourself, good for you for acknowledging that to yourself. That is an incredibly hard first step. Moving forward will require patience and presence as you begin to make that choice to confront the pain, and slowly, methodically, begin to move through it and metabolize it. None of us is alone in this process. It is a constant, active choosing for all of us. May you find permission and ease to ask for help as you need it.

About the Author: Heather Baker-Jackson is an RYT 200 certified yoga instructor as well as a certified Trauma-Informed Yoga Therapist. She also graduated from the Naturopathic Institute of Therapies and Education (N.I.T.E) as a Natural Health Educator. During her education at N.I.T.E, she learned flower essence therapy, which is a therapy that she continues to utilize in her work with trauma-informed yoga. Her passion in her work is to create and facilitate a space for people to feel safe and seen and known. She believes in the innate wisdom of the body and seeks to cultivate a mind/body relationship that honors that wisdom. While every person’s healing journey is unique to them, a central part of each step in that journey is finding a supportive space where one can turn inward and truly listen to their inner guidance. Heather seeks to help create that space through the mindful movement and meditative practice of yoga.


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