I once spent some time in a women’s prison... that is, coaching women inmates. I was struck by how articulate, smart, funny, contrite, and eager they were about getting a second chance to move on with their lives.
And for those brief hours we used to hang out together, I would momentarily forget they were inmates incarcerated because they’d committed a crime.
But then I would get to leave the building, while they were escorted back to the confinement of their cells.
I have other clients I coach who are in prison. But it's a different kind of prison. There are no bars on the windows or heavy bolts on the doors.
They are trapped in the prison of their mind.
Some of them feel incarcerated and trapped by a life they believe they'll never be able to change or transform. And some of them believe deeply that it's their external circumstances or conditions in life that are the cause of the problem.
I'd be happy if my boss hadn't fired me...
I don’t have the right kind of personality to start my own business…
I wasn’t born confident like other people…
If only he would be different, then I’d be happy.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of gut-wrenching stories from my clients about lost relationships, jobs, wealth, and lost hope. There's no question about it, life can sometimes slap us in the face.
Hardship and adversity in life are inevitable and as predictable as the sun going down each day. And the emotional pain we feel is normal and inevitable. This is clean pain. But what I've noticed is that the people who end up feeling imprisoned and trapped in a life they don't want... who can't seem to shake off an unhappy cycle, are people who spin stories about what their plight means and why their pain is different. And boy, are we good at spinning a story.
This is when the pain becomes dirty. And it has all the stuff of a Thomas Hardy novel: guilt, fear, self-loathing, regret, despair, self-doubt, and any other emotion that basically tells you there's something terribly wrong with you.
Dirty pain is self-inflicted and it's kept alive and stoked by us. We're essentially creating an additional layer of pain in the privacy of our own minds that tells us there must be something wrong with us.
I would never tell you that the pain you experience from loss or hardship is not valid or real, because it truly is. That's the clean pain, and you're entitled to feel every awful morsel of it.
But it's the dirty pain you have to watch out for because it will super-glue you to a life you don't want. It's dirty because it's suffering that comes from your thoughts about the event.
How can you tell if you're pain is dirty pain?
You'll feel forever stuck and trapped in a life you can't stand. You'll feel limited, and you'll discover that you keep repeating the same dynamics in your life. You'll discover that your circumstances never change or get better.
If you feel stuck in your present life, if you feel no enthusiasm for anything, if you think you have no purpose or that you lost that purpose somewhere along the way, Know for sure that you are experiencing dirty pain – because all thoughts that separate you from genuine happiness are lies.
There's a Buddhist saying that goes:
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
If you can learn to distinguish between what's clean and what's dirty, you'll discover the secret to not only how to bounce back quickly into life, but how to allow your life to flow in the direction it naturally wants to go towards - happiness and well-being.
Those women in prison were quick to learn this lesson. They knew that if they were ever going to get out of prison, they would have to think and act deliberately about themselves. They knew they were going to have to keep it clean.