BREAKUPS (CLEAN V. DIRTY PAIN)
Did you know that you can go through a breakup with someone you loved, and not suffer at all?
You probably think I’m crazy, so I’ll say it again: It is possible to survive the loss or love – or anything else – without being tormented by it.
That’s not to say it won’t involve sadness. It might!
But it is fully possible to accept the end of a relationship without being tormented by it – and it starts with accepting whatever feelings come up.
It’s not black magic. In fact, you just need to understand a nifty self-coaching acronym I created. It may sound like something you’d find on Sesame Street, but stay with me: I use what I call the “ABCD” method:
A = allow
B = feeling bad
C = carry clean pain
D = ditch dirty pain
First (AB), you have to be willing to allow your negative feelings – I’m referring to them here as ‘bad feelings’ because ABCD is a useful acronym, but there’s really nothing “bad” about them.
As humans, we tend to think feelings of pain or sadness should be avoided at all costs. Our brains evolved to think negative feelings mean we’re dying. Anxiety, according to our brains, means we’re being chased by a predator. Rejection or sadness, we think, means we’re going to be abandoned by the tribe in the middle of the night and die alone in the jungle.
Of course, this is not our current reality, so even though we may be conditioned to fear them, there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about painful emotions. They’re quite harmless.
One thought I practice if I find myself tensing up or avoiding a negative emotion is to ask myself “What if I were just willing to feel however this is going to feel?” Try it and you’ll likely find, as I do, just asking the question creates an immediate emotional release.
It is critical that you learn to let your feelings flow through you. The paradox of thought work is you can’t process an emotion until you are willing to feel it fully. You can’t use thought work to go around negative emotions, you have to go through them. That may sound horrifying to you, but it’s so necessary to progress in this work. And it gets easier with practice, I promise.
Once you learn to allow or accept “bad” feelings, you are ready to start working on CD – or, as I call it, “clean vs. dirty pain.”
I define clean pain as the kind of pain we WANT to feel. Yes, you heard that right. There are some kinds of negative emotion that we may want to feel because they are part of the full human experience. I may want to feel sad if my mother dies. I may want to empathize if my best friend loses a child. I may want to allow for grief, loss, sadness, nostalgia, and bittersweet memories. (Notice I said “want to” – because there is no objective guide to what feelings you “should” have, ever. It’s always up to you.)
Dirty pain, on the other hand, feels stuck, clogged, and murky. It feels like suffering, not just pain. It’s created when you’re thinking negative thoughts about yourself or someone else.
The main distinction between clean vs dirty pain is:
- Clean pain is the kind of negative emotion we want to create and feel because it’s part of the spectrum of human existence, and honors us and others.
- Dirty pain is suffering we create with resistance, anger, shame, self-loathing or other forms of negative emotion that revolve around the belief that you or someone else (or even reality!) is wrong or bad or shouldn’t be the way it is.
For example, let’s say you’re going through a breakup. You may want to feel grief, sadness, and loss. You may want to remember the love you shared and feel bittersweet about this transition in your life. You may want to honor the love you created and give yourself time to sit with your sadness, heal, and release the future you thought you had with this person.
All of that would be clean pain.
Dirty pain would be: hating the other person, blaming them for your feelings, arguing with reality about what should’ve happened, worrying that you’ll die alone, etc. You’re projecting into the future and creating doom for yourself, you’re believing there’s something wrong with you, or you’re arguing with the reality of how the decision was made.
Alternately, let’s say you experience the death of a friend. Clean pain may entail feeling sad about their absence. Dirty pain would be the suffering you create for yourself by thinking about how unfair it is that they died, or regretting that you didn’t keep in touch with them as much as you would’ve liked.
All of that dirty pain will feel overwhelming, exhausting, and heavy. It will never feel like it’s improving – and it may not improve, because your negative thoughts may even create a dark future for you.
So much of the suffering we experience when someone dies or we go through any other kind of rupture is dirty pain.
Ultimately, there are three ways we create dirty pain when dealing with loss:
- We resist reality and what is happening. We think things should be different.
- We layer negative meaning onto the situation. We make it mean something bad about ourselves or about the other person. We believe it’s proof something is wrong with us or wrong with someone else.
- We believe the loss means something about the future. We project out to an unhappy future and blame it on the breakup, or the death. We give the event too much power to determine our future.
When you’re working through some kind of breakup or loss or other rupture, remember ABCD. You’ll probably have to cycle through the process over and over again, and that’s ok.
If you learn to allow bad feelings, carry clean pain, and ditch dirty pain, you can weather loss without succumbing to it. You can honor the relationship for what it was and confidently move forward in life and acknowledging the pain that can come with love, and boldly accept both into your life.