Jun 9, 2019

Avoiding "Dirty Pain"


Troubling emotions and unpleasant memories are part of the human experience. We do not control the fact that they come up, unbidden and most unwelcome, but they come up to our awareness nevertheless.
The effort we put into NOT having these emotions, thoughts, sensations, and memories is called “dirty pain.”  Clean pain is the natural and automatic result of living life. When we try to deny, suppress, or “get rid of” normal life pain, we get caught up in a battle that causes even more distress.

Anxiety, depression, and fear all occur naturally in the human experience. But when we decide we do not want to have those negative feelings—thinking that they need to be gone before we can enjoy life-- and begin taking action to get rid of them, then we create the "dirty pain" that becomes more intense in direct proportion to our desire to get rid of them. The bad memory, the fear, the depressive thoughts are all transient, but when we engage them in a fierce battle they settle in for a good fight.

For many years I thought that I could control everything that went on in my mind. Of course, I failed miserably in trying to run my mind through logic alone. All these messy emotions kept coming up!  I wondered if there were some flaw in my personality that prevented me from suppressing specific emotions and memories.
Current research into the minute workings of the human brain gives strong evidence that to be human means that we must accept and co-exist with an ongoing reactive set of  distress signals—which we do not control. These distress and alarm signals are part of the  primal mammalian survival mechanism; a system exquisitely attuned to the slightest deviation from our personal sense of comfort and safety. This is the system that tells us to run when we see a charging bear, but it is also the same system that sends alarms when we are late to work and the person in front of us is driving at the speed limit. Always on the lookout for what is "NOT right," the alarm goes off constantly in daily life.

Is there no escape? No, if the question is "are we able to escape from who we are" but yes, if it asks how may we work more effectively with who we are.The solution is to work with, accept, notice, observe-- all in a non-judgmental way what is  actually occurring inside of us. Often, when we tune in and ask: "What is actually happening to me right here, right now?"  The answer is...Nothing is actually happening to me right here, right now."  But our internal struggle, the "dirty pain" we have created, makes it seems as if we are in a life and death struggle.

Next time you are in intense emotional distress, check in with yourself and ask: "What is actually happening to me me right here, right now?" You may be pleasantly surprised by the answer.

 Reference:  Learning ACT Therapy Luoma, Hayes, and Walser

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