How to Deal with Emotional Pain

Learning how to overcome emotional pain is an essential part of healing.

woman in bed emotional pain

Pain, anxious feelings, stress, unease, discomfort, and sadness – do these emotions ring any bells? These feelings are usually a part of our daily lives, and for a handful of us, these fears and beliefs are paralyzing and have the ability to stop our entire day in its tracks.

For another handful of us, these feelings may go on to be diagnosed as depression or generalized anxiety disorder, because we feel as though we cannot escape these emotions as they begin to consume our minds and create new thought patterns.

Everyone has a different way of internalizing whatever (insert whatever negative emotion is applicable to you) they’re feeling and dealing with, but just as we have the ability to adapt and adjust to pain in our lives, we have the ability to let it go. That’s the beauty of being human.

Discover different types of emotional pain

Today, I want to share with you two different types of emotional suffering, and how you can gently nudge yourself to let go of some parts of that discomfort.

A dear friend of mine introduced me to the concept of clean and dirty pain as I was working through my anxiety under her guidance. This idea of two distinct types of pain struck a chord with me, a quite simply, outlined it in a way that was easy for my brain to navigate, understand, and apply to my own daily life.

Pain type #1: clean pain

Clean pain is pure. This type of suffering begins the moment we are born into this cold, bright, and loud world. We cannot avoid clean pain, as it’s a natural and unavoidable part of being human.

Common emotions

Sadness, grief, suffering (physically or mentally), sorrow, mourning.

Common triggers

  • A loss of a loved one, friend, or relationship by death, divorce, breaking up, etc.
  • A loved one (or yourself) falling ill or experiencing an accident of some kind.
  • A natural disaster or tragedy.
  • An intentional hurtful action of another.

As you can gather from the common triggers of clean pain, we don’t necessarily have control over the events that cause us to feel these pure emotions. Clean pain is our reality. These situations usually arise unexpectedly in our lives and we’re oftentimes forced to deal with them without much notice.

woman screaming into a pillow

Pain type #2: dirty pain

Dirty pain is oftentimes created in response to clean pain. This type of emotional suffering is a way for our brains to rationalize, avoid, cope with what we’re feeling for the time being. Essentially, it’s a way for our brain to make short-term excuses about the pain we feel so we can further avoid it. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

To help, here’s a light-hearted example:

Imagine, you went out on a fantastic first date with the most handsome man. A real stand-up guy. Everything was perfect, right down to the last moment, and you even kissed at the end of the night. After saying goodbye, you went to bed practically on cloud nine, but then he didn’t call.


That hurts. That’s clean pain. You feel sad because that’s a loss of a potential relationship with someone you truly had a great time with.

Then, after chatting with your coworkers, you begin to get anxiety over the fact that he didn’t call and start running through various “should’ve” scenarios of why he’s not following up – I should’ve worn my butt-hugging jeans, I totally regret that; I should’ve gone home with him; I shouldn’t have had that last drink, I’m such a lush – that’s dirty pain.

And no, there’s nothing wrong with you.

Let that anxious pain go.

Common emotions

Worry, doubt, regret, anxiety, thoughts of “should’ve/could’ve”, fear of future, blame.

Common triggers

  • The “should-ing” of a painful experience (i.e. it shouldn’t have happened this way; it shouldn’t have ever gotten to this point; it shouldn’t have come to this; I/he/she should have…)
  • Blaming yourself for experiences or situations that are completely out of your control (or someone else’s, for that matter.)
  • Fear of tragedies that “could” happen in the future – spinning, out of control, and worrisome thoughts.
  • Worrying endlessly or blaming yourself about past experiences that are now out of your direct control.
  • Blaming an entire group of people for the actions of what’s actually only a small group of people
  • Comparing your future to someone else’s reality – just because it happened to them, doesn’t mean it will happen to you, too.

With dirty pain, the common triggers are events or situations are: unchangeable and in the past, not reality, or haven’t even happened. They may never even happen to begin with!

Dirty pain is not usually the reality of the situation.

woman with hands on heart

Curious about how to navigate emotional pain?

1. Slow down + practice self-awareness

In those moments when you experience sadness, anxiety, or whatever emotional suffering you’re feeling, take a moment to really feel and be aware of where that pain is coming from. You may feel a pit in your stomach, tightness in your chest or throat or your palms may begin to sweat. Notice these sensations.

Then, in these tense moments, ask yourself these questions:

1. Where do I feel this pain, physically?

2. Is this pain real?

3. Am I somehow inflicting this pain on myself?

4. Am I willing to let this pain go and start the process of emotional healing?

2. Take a deep breath

Breathe. Be accepting of what you’re feeling. Don’t make too many snap judgment calls in this moment of pain. Notice your breath as you inhale, as you exhale. Let it go. You’re deserving of that.

3. Connect instead of compare

When you’re hurting, reach out to a friend of loved one that will calm your fears, not ones that will add fuel to your fire. If someone else is hurting, offer a non-judgmental ear and a warm hug. Take that time to really listen, but be careful not to draw comparisons between your life based off of theirs, because that’s not the reality of the situation, now is it?

“I wonder how much of what weighs me down is not mine to carry.”


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