Thursday, April 17, 2008

Clean Pain and Dirty Pain

One of the consistently interesting newsletters I receive is Creating Space, by Anna Paradox, available at The following essay on Clean Pain and Dirty Pain is something I thought would be of benefit to many writers, so here it is:

Clean Pain and Dirty Pain (by Anna Paradox)

I was running late on doing my taxes this year, and I felt a terrible dread about the task. I fortified myself with chocolate, and enlisted my husband for moral support. I shied away from starting several times, finding other tasks that "had" to be done first. Finally, I decided to take just the first step, just open the program, maybe gather a few documents...

Once I started, I did it all, and it really wasn't that bad.

Come to think of it, this happens a lot. The dreading is often much worse than the doing.

Martha Beck taught me a distinction she calls clean pain and dirty pain (which she gathered from Steven Hayes). The clean pain is the actual physical and emotional sensation from the event. If you break your leg or fall out with a friend, it legitimately hurts. Much of the time, the stories we tell ourselves about the pain hurt much worse than the direct sensation. That's dirty pain.

Here's an example:

Suppose I sent a story to Asimov's and they sent it back with a form rejection slip. So, this story did not sell to this market at this time. That hurts a little. And I can shrug it off in a few minutes.

Suppose, instead, I start telling myself "Nothing I write ever sells. Here's proof that I am a talentless know-nothing who ought to be relegated to digging ditches. Lacey in eighth grade was right when she said I would never have any friends or any success. I am as worthless as cat vomit and I should just give up doing anything creative ever." That could be the start of a good three day depression.

The dirty pain - the suffering from the stories I inflated around the real event - is much more severe than the direct impact of the original event.

Investigating the line between the clean pain of reality and the dirty pain of our interpretations of reality can open our eyes and free us from suffering. I would be glad to help you explore the difference. Call me and we'll set an appointment.

Until next time, may your stories of struggle feed your fiction instead of draining your life.