Deep blue filtered shot of a man doubled over in pain.

All emotional pain is not the same.

Learning about clean pain and dirty pain was helpful for me. Knowing the difference caused a shift out of unnecessary worry, rumination, and blame. Understanding these two types of emotional pain can help you live a more peaceful life.

Please note: If you notice that the pain and sensations you’re present to are from dirty pain, you may be able to simply let go of the thinking that’s causing your pain. If you’re able to completely let go of the thinking that’s causing the pain, great job! It’s not easy to do this, but it is possible. I’ve found that the steps I share below are more reliable in relieving emotional pain.

Types of Clean Pain:

  • Grief, sorrow, sadness: Loss of a friend or loved one (death, divorce, separation, friendship ends)
  • Sadness, sorrow: Someone you care about is ill or has been in an accident (causing short or long term pain)
  • Natural disasters or terrorist events.
  • Sad, upset: Someone does or says something to you that is intentionally hurtful
  • Regret: You did some sort of wrong against another
  • Hurt or sadness over an experience (present or past) that you haven’t grieved or worked through

Types of Dirty Pain:

  • Ruminating and worrying above and beyond normal emotional sensations (tears, sadness) of a loss.
  • Blaming yourself or others for a painful experience that was out of your/their control.
  • “Should-ing” about a painful experience (i.e. it shouldn’t have happened at all; it shouldn’t have happened this way; it should be this way or that; he, she, or I should have…)
  • Thinking, spinning thoughts, or worrying endlessly about a past experience or about what could happen in the future (i.e. stuck in fear about future tragedies or things that “could” happen)
  • Blaming a victim for what they were wearing, doing.
  • Blaming an entire group for the actions of one or a few.

What to do:

PRACTICE SELF AWARENESS: Many of us resist emotional pain. We do many things to avoid feeling. Begin to notice your body (the next step will facilitate connecting with your body), be aware of emotions or sensations that are present. Notice without judgment when you resist or are avoiding your pain.

BREATHE: Take a deep breath. If you’re able, follow your in-and-out breaths. As I mention in the video, you don’t need to breathe differently, just notice your in-breath, then notice your out-breath. To help with this, say to yourself, “There’s my in-breath, there’s my out-breath.” Do this for 10 seconds or as long as you can.

SLOW DOWN & FEEL: Take a break, allow yourself to feel the sensations in your body. You may have tears, allow them to come. You may experience other sensations in your body, like a “pit” in your stomach, or a sensation in your eyes or chest or throat.  These body sensations are different for every person, so just notice the sensations. If it isn’t too overwhelming to you, you can “track” the sensations you notice or follow them in your body. I discuss this in the video. Sometimes writing or talking to a trusted friend about the experience will facilitate your feelings and sensations.

CONNECT: Connect with a loved one, a friend, or family member. Be with a group where you feel comforted by others – perhaps at a religious institution or at a vigil you attend. Give and receive hugs, comforting words, and other kindnesses. If a friend is sick or hurting, offer to sit with them. You don’t have to say much, just be with them. If you’re the one hurting, allow others to support you when you’re ready.

BE IN NATURE: As you’re able or as your pain eases, begin to connect with your surroundings and with nature. If you have an animal, connect with it. If you can go outside and look at the sky (or trees, plants, ocean, horizon) do that. Or wherever you are, simply let your eyes wander to wherever they want to go. Don’t force your eyes to look, let them look wherever they are drawn.

SELF COMPASSION: Follow the steps found here to soothe and accept yourself exactly as you are, in the moment.

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About The Author

Katie McClain SEP's picture

Katie McClain, SEP is a Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner, author, and certified life coach. She’s been coaching for 25+ years and uses Somatic Experiencing®, a gentle body-mind method, to support her adult and child clients in releasing stress, growing self-compassion, and restoring goodness to their lives. Katie’s book, How to Tame Your Thought Monster, is available in multiple formats (English, Spanish, coloring book, and app) and presents mindfulness and positive thinking tools for adults and kids so they can feel better and do better. Visit Katie at her website,, follow her on Facebook  and Instagram.

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