On Clean and Dirty Emotions

by Annie Kaszina on July 8, 2014

How do you cope when times are tough?

My own experience, and that of my many clients, suggests that we get caught up in the emotions of a situation. When life slaps a glass -or a bucket – of bitter aloes in front of us, what do we do? We tend to drain it – dutifully – to the dregs and then feel terrible because of all the bitterness we have ingested.

Did we have to do that?

No…

But we thought we did.

Some pain and sadness we have to take on board. Some we need to push away, right to the furthest edge of the table.

Let me tell you what I mean. If you’ve been reading my e-zine over the past few months you’ll know that my mother rapidly declined into dementia and had a death that was horrible to witness. (Although she did not appear at all distressed and may well have been absent enough not to be distressed by it.)

That experience was horrible and there was nothing to be done except work through it to the best of my ability.

Around my mother’s death, there was a morass of old family stuff: family resentments were brought up, and rejuvenated. Family members took it upon themselves to tell me what a wicked, cruel parent-torturer and all round AWFUL human being I was. 

Now that was potentially painful. 

It’s easy to slip into: how can they hate me so much, and if they say such awful things about me can I really be a decent human being? Even though I know with absolute certainty that I made the only sane choices I had at the time? 

All of that stuff; the accusations, the demonization, and the soul-searching on my part are dirty emotions.

What useful purpose could they possibly serve? 

Everything that has happened is in the past. An impasse was reached. At some level, they arrived at a decision that what was done was beyond repair. And because it was beyond repair they had a right to judge, criticise and blame forever after. 

Amen.

 Now that is what I call a dirty emotional attitude. That’s wallowing in negativity and nastiness. The pay-off for them is that they get to feel self-righteous by pointing the finger, and jabbing it good and hard into the soft spots of another person’s psyche. (Sure, I am talking about myself here, but I could just as well be talking about you.)

 

The problem with this kind of mechanism is that the results are always short-term: a quick jab makes them feel good about themselves. But since this goodness is based on the articulation of someone else’s badness the two become inextricably linked. They can only feel their own goodness by laboring the other person’s badness. 

When you and I buy into that by asking ourselves: “How could they…?” we get caught up in their dirty emotions – and our own. 

We know that – or, at least, we should know that – because we start to feel so foul. And, one way or another, we go into Social Pariah Mode: either we think we aren’t worthy to mix with decent people, or we assume that decent people will shun us, and that those who shun, and criticize, us are decent people. 

Despite all evidence to the contrary. 

There is plenty of pain that every one of us has to go through in a lifetime. However… when that pain is mixed – or, worse, submerged by other feelings like: “[people think] I must be such a dreadful person…”

that is not clean pain, that is dirty pain. 

So, too, is the whole spectrum of self-pity, the “I’ve had it so hard” stuff that we can all retreat into. 

Chances are, yes, you have had it extraordinarily hard. Most likely that is absolutely true. And once you know that, and you acknowledge it, how does it help you to stay with it, and focus on it? 

That takes you into Victim Mode. 

Let me tell you a couple of really, really important things I know about Victim Mode: 

People who are in Victim Mode suffer hugely.

However much suffering you experience when you are in Victim Mode, it will never, ever earn you the consideration you want from the person – or people – who triggered those Victim Feelings.

It just doesn’t work like that. 

People who make it their business – and I’m really NOT suggesting it’s easy – to live as well as they can outside Victim Mode enjoy much more quality of life. Even when a lot that is going on is truly hideous. 

They stay with the clean pain of whatever event or situation is unfolding. They don’t make it their business to view it as some kind of tragic psycho-drama with themselves at the centre of it. 

I say this as someone who can do things both ways – and who has been known to oscillate between the two. Not uncommonly. And not unlike the proverbial outhouse door in the wind.

But this I know: 

When you manage to stay in clean pain nothing feels nearly as bad. 

That has to be worth a lot, right? 

Clean pain is self-limiting. Dirty pain is self-perpetuating. 

Only you can choose how you respond to the pain in your life.

Which will you choose? Clean emotions or dirty emotions? 

 

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