Why Allowing Difficult Emotions Is Good for Us
On the difference between "clean" and "dirty" pain.
Posted June 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Repressing difficult emotions such as sadness can lead to us not feeling positive emotions either.
- Surprisingly, automatic negative thoughts and negative self-stories are also common strategies for numbing our feelings.
- Negative thoughts about ourselves keep us trapped in a thinking state.
Most of us have a strong tendency to push difficult emotions away. In fact, many of us are genuine experts in not ever allowing ourselves to feel emotions such as sadness or anger. We may numb them by working too hard, drinking or eating too much, or always keeping busy. But there are various very common inner strategies that help us not to feel, too. Some of them are perhaps counterintuitive. I argue that automatic negative thoughts and highly critical self-narratives are chief among them.
The kinds of thoughts that our "inner critics," "judges," or "superegos" present (choose your metaphor) tend to have complex histories and many functions, of course. One of them is keeping us safe, in a maladaptive way. But they are also powerful feeling-suppressing defense mechanisms. How? Classic negative thoughts like “I’m not good enough,” “Nobody likes me,” “I’m a loser,” or “I’m so ugly that nobody will ever be able to love me” tend to result in self-contempt and self-loathing. But they rarely result in sadness. In fact, I’d argue that they deliberately keep sadness at bay. Sadness is an emotion, whereas self-contempt and self-loathing are mental states that rest on cognitive judgments produced by our minds. And we stay in that analytical zone—unpleasant as it may be.
"Clean" and "Dirty" Pain
Why does that distinction matter? ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) differentiates between "clean" and "dirty" pain. ACT holds that difficult emotions are an important part of what makes us human and that we should learn to accept them rather than constantly trying to repress them, or else to reason ourselves out of them. It encourages us simply to notice unpleasant or unhelpful thoughts, neither to fight or fuse with them, and then to let them go.
By accepting our pain and discomfort, and that they are part of life, we can feel them "cleanly." Clean pain is the root pain, usually sadness. Dirty pain emerges when we try to repress our pain, feel guilty about feeling it in the first place, or blame ourselves for it. Or when we question whether we have a right to feeling it, or whether our feelings are proportionate responses. When we go there, we add additional layers to our pain, like pilling on dirt, and we make our suffering much worse. There is always a dimension of self-blame, as well as shame and guilt, to such dirty pain.
Accepting Negative Feelings
Constantly trying to disavow negative feelings is a bit like standing in the sea and holding a ball underwater for an extended period of time. At some point, our muscles will grow weary, and the ball will pop up all the more violently. What is worse, we are so focused on holding this ball underwater that we miss out on most other things around us. We don’t even think of swimming, splashing around, or floating on our backs. In ACT terms, it is better to accept that the ball is there, to let it float next to us, and to focus on all the beautiful things we can do in the water regardless. ACT is based on the premise that there are two sides to the feeling coin: In order to be a person able to feel genuine happiness, gratitude, love, and excitement, we also need to accept that we will feel all of their opposites. We can’t just cherry-pick the positive feelings.
Most negative stories we tell ourselves about ourselves boil down to the belief that, at our core, we are unloveable, evil, or simply not good enough. We may habitually think we are stupid, losers, dumb, ugly, useless at romance, or socially awkward. ACT teaches us to notice and name these thoughts and stories, and then to make a decision about whether they are helpful or not. It thus encourages us to focus less on content and more on form—urging us not to take the content of our mind’s stories too seriously.
I would add to this the idea that many of our negative self-stories actually serve the function of protecting us from feeling the sadness that is hidden underneath them. They keep us trapped in the domain of thought—negative thought, for sure, but thought nevertheless. When we think “I’m not loveable and I don’t have any friends,” for example, we remain trapped in an unproductive (and very unpleasant) state of mind. But my point is precisely that it’s a state of mind and not a state of feeling.
Imagine instead the following scenario. How would you feel if, instead of reprimanding yourself for not having any friends, you had the following thought? “I feel sad today because I’m really lonely.” Or, taking this one step further, “I feel sad because I feel compassion for the child I once was. I wasn’t properly loved. Human relationships felt unsafe and fickle. I had no stable attachments. Today, I still struggle with making meaningful connections with others.”
By switching to a more clear-sighted and compassionate view of ourselves, one that properly accepts our suffering in the here and now and acknowledges the origins of our pain in the past, we can experience it cleanly. We dive below the layer of negative thoughts to connect with the pain. And then, in due course, when we have received its message, we can move on again.
For me, that’s precisely the point of all good therapy and coaching. To help people progress below their dirty pain toward the clean one. To thaw the frozen sea inside ourselves and help us feel again—whatever feelings that entails, good and bad.