I have a Border Collie named Shakti, who has Addison’s Disease. She needs a hormone injection every month to prevent her electrolytes from becoming so out of balance that her cardiovascular system collapses, causing seizure followed by painful death. She’s as smart as a small child, and she was rescued from an abusive family. She worries when we go to the vet because the waiting room is loud and crowded, and that makes her nervous. On the other hand, she barely responds when the actual injection goes into her thigh.

Contrast with an actual small child visiting the doctor for a shot. Old enough to mentally model that the shot may be painful, but not old enough to control the spiraling fear that radiates from that mental image. Her palms sweat on the way there, and she chatters incessantly. She has butterflies in her stomach while she waits, and her heart pumps in her throat as she’s called into the office. She’s crying as the doctor enters, and has to be physically restrained as the doctor draws the medicine from the vial with the plunger. She wails as the needle penetrates her skin, and bawls for some time afterward, despite the Flintstones Band Aid and Blow Pop from the doctor.

The difference between these two scenarios can be explained as Clean Pain and Dirty Pain.

A dog who barely responds to an injection is experiencing the true sensation of being injected, which isn’t pleasant, but is also trivial. She doesn’t think about it before it happens, she doesn’t over react when it happens, and she forgets about it the moment it’s over. That pure reaction to actual stimulus is Clean Pain. In most cases, clean pain is minor and brief. I’ve had worse things happen to me than most people, and still I’ve only experienced legitimately excruciating and prolonged pain about once.

The child who works herself into a frenzy of fear and pain has not simply experienced an injection. She’s generated a whole new experience, that’s both longer and more painful than the injection. She generated fear and pain so great that it overwhelmed the trivially painful sensation of the injection. She didn’t even feel the needle in the literal sense—she just expected it so strongly, that her brain generated a terrible and harrowing array of fear and agony chemicals. Every bit of that agony, minus the tiny prick of a Tetanus needle, was Dirty Pain.

It’s basically the same mechanism that works when we’re hungry and smell some delicious food. Have you ever been hungry enough to feel light headed, then you feel better almost immediately upon sinking your teeth into some food? The food couldn’t have digested that quickly. What happened is that your brain anticipated new energy coming into your body, and released the energy reserves it had stored in preparation for starvation. Dirty pain is your brain anticipating pain and overwhelming your conscious mind with chemicals commensurate to the imagined future pain.

It’s a Muddy Life

The fundamental truth is that dirty pain is an illusion. It originates within your mind, and only exists insofar as you choose to experience and react to it.

The thing is that dirty pain isn’t limited to nervous children getting booster shots. We generate it constantly. We create and react to so much dirty pain that we’re practically wallowing in it. We worry about our future finances. We are embarrassed to make fools ourselves. We fear rejection, and heights, and spiders, and water, and unemployment, and public speaking, and obscurity, and 100% of it is dirty pain.

To a greater or lesser extent, people live their lives in reaction to the dirty pain they create for themselves. By living in fear, we constrain ourselves to mundane and unremarkable lives. We condemn ourselves to doing and thinking the same things we always have, which are probably the same things our parents also thought and did. For people who want to live productive, fulfilling, and remarkable lives, dirty pain is deadly.

The fundamental truth is that dirty pain is an illusion. It originates within your mind, and only exists insofar as you choose to experience and react to it.

Clean up your Dirty Pain

Dirty pain is “meta pain”—it’s pain about pain. Pain caused by reflecting and feeling bad about pain that you’ve experienced or anticipate experiencing. It’s self-induced pain, and it’s not helpful or productive.

The bad news is that we experience a lot of dirty pain. Some people experience it almost constantly, and everyone experiences it far more than they experience clean pain.

The good news is that because dirty pain originates in your mind, you can choose to turn it off.

Here’s how to beat dirty pain:

Identify which Pain is Dirty

The first step is to identify pain that you are creating:

  • Fears about the future are universally dirty.
  • Anxiety about the past is dirty unless it only exists to avert a similar situation in the future, and then only if that future situation is both probable and legitimately detrimental. If you’re not sure, then it’s dirty.
  • The grimace on your face as you cope with a broken bone is dirty. Your brain is grimacing because it’s a complicated social reaction, and the more you do it the more you’ll believe it. Don’t believe it. I call that “buying the hype.” Don’t buy the hype. Your broken bone probably hurts, but it’s not debilitating. Think of a dog limping along with a sprained ankle, smile on his face. He is not reflecting on whatever pain he’s experiencing, and neither should you.

Acknowledge and Ignore the Pain

turn it off by consciously acknowledging it and consciously choosing not to react to it

Once you’ve identified which pain is dirty, you turn it off by consciously acknowledging it and consciously choosing not to react to it. Be as nervous about your speech as you want to be. Wallow in as much self pity about your broken collar bone as you want to. But speak anyway, and hold your body and face straight anyway.

Be crushed by devastating fear of rejection, but talk to her anyway. Be consumed by terror, but jump out of that plane regardless.

Doing that not only numbs you to fear in exactly the way rejection therapy does, but it has the longer lasting effect of preventing the fear from being generated in the first place. You’re training yourself to exist in the present, and to react to reality.

A perfect example is public speaking. Almost everyone is terrified of it, and when you take the first step of doing it anyway, you are initially petrified. The more you subject yourself to that terror, the less hold it has over you. Eventually the fear goes away entirely as you make yourself competent and convince yourself there’s nothing to fear.

Clean pain is inevitable, but you will find as every athlete and creative has, that clean pain is tolerable. Clean pain is often the precursor to growth, so you may even learn to enjoy it and seek it out.

Take your life back from the dirty pain you create by realizing it’s there, acknowledging it, and then ignoring it entirely.