When my 39-year old sister died, I couldn’t function. I couldn’t quit crying let alone make it off the couch to cook dinner for my family. I thought I’d never find normal again. Yet life moves on, and I had to go back to work. To cope, I decided to ignore my grief. Little did I know, this method of coping led to an emotional infection of unresolved grief.

What is Clean Emotional Pain?

Dr. John Preston, PsyD explains that clean pain comes from experiencing “normal” human experiences like:

  • Losing a loved one
  • Contracting a serious illness
  • Experiencing abuse
  • Humiliating experiences
  • Failing at something we hoped would succeed at

Let’s say I got cut with a clean kitchen knife. The cut hurts, but if I clean the cut, it’s not likely to become infected. The cut is a good analogy for clean emotional pain. It is an unavoidable part of life.

What is Dirty Emotional Pain?

Dirty pain stems from how we handle the clean pain in our lives, and it includes:

  • Unrealistic expectations of how we should be feeling
  • Harsh judgments from others or the world on how we are dealing with the pain
  • Fixating on unfairness
  • Ignoring or mishandling the original pain

Next, let’s say I got cut again with a clean kitchen knife. However, this time I didn’t clean the cut. My cut becomes infected, and now I have two problems: the original wound and a nasty infection. The infection is a good analogy for dirty emotional pain or unprocessed grief. Ouch and double ouch.

Dirty Pain Is Optional

Pain is inevitable. Everyone we love will eventually pass. Children leave home. Jobs come and go, and some marriages fail. How we process the pain is what makes the difference. Martha Beck’s article on Oprah.com explains clean and dirty pain as:

“The two kinds of suffering occupy different sections of the brain: One part simply registers events, while another creates a continuous stream of thoughts about those events. The vast majority of our unhappiness comes from this secondary response — not from painful reality, but from painful thoughts about reality.”

In his book, The Paradoxes of Mourning: Healing Your Grief with Three Forgotten Truths, internationally noted author and grief counselor, Dr. Alan Wolfeit writes,

“Dirty pain is the story we tell ourselves about the clean pain. Dirty pain, once identified, can be safely separated out and ignored, leaving you with more psychic energy to embrace only the pain that truly needs embracing.”

Serenity And Emotional Pain

“Should’ve been” or “Ought to” are signs of dirty pain or lingering grief, and they spit in the face of acceptance.  In recovery, I’ve found the Serenity Prayer holds the answers to many of my problems. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”

When I ignore my need to accept grief, I determine the length and intensity of my suffering. While my sister’s death was unfair, refusing to accept it kept hurting me. After I finally decided to face the truth, I began to find some peace in her passing.


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Pam Carver

Pam is the author of two books: Co-dependent In The Kitchen, and Find Your True Colors In 12 Steps. She's also a contributing editor for Reach Out Recovery. She's a recovery advocate who likes long walks on the beach and chocolate.

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