Dirty discomfort vs Clean discomfort
In ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) we use the idea of dirty discomfort and clean discomfort. Nobody likes pain or discomfort. It makes sense that we make every attempt to avoid it or make it go away.. We all begin to experience clean discomfort from the moment of our birth. It’s just part of being human, but why do some of us seem to have less of it than others?
The answer is because we have the ability to use language. We don’t have a lot of choice about clean discomfort. It comes in the form of the raw emotion – sadness, anger, jealousy, disgust. fear, shame, guilt (and even for some people; happiness and love). We have evolved to experience these emotions, they can’t overwhelm us, they tell us something and for the most part our responses are adaptive. However, over the years our culture has determined that certain emotions are bad and unwanted and we are encouraged to pursue happiness at all costs. The medical way of looking at these things has determined that “negative” emotions are pathological and must be gotten rid of. It’s not surprising then that our reactions to this clean discomfort cause layers of “dirty discomfort” to be heaped upon it. “Why am I feeling like this? I’m not normal. Everyone else copes better than this. I’m weak. I’m a burden. I have depression/anxiety/OCD. This will never change. I am mentally ill. I can’t go on. I have to get rid of this”.
This is suffering or dirty discomfort. We don’t have a choice about the clean discomfort. That will come to us quite naturally just by being alive. We do however have a choice about suffering. This idea is not new or revolutionary. It is as old as the hills and is present in many different cultures. A vicar once gave a talk that addressed it. He said “we all have crosses to bear. Some are tiny and some are enormous. It’s not the size of the cross that matters – it is the grace with which we bear it”.
Epictetus (a Greek philosopher) was on to it in the first century AD. He said “men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them”.
Confucius observed that “life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated”.
Buddha said “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”.
Charles Swindoll taught that “life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”.
And of course Shakespeare had to get in on the act – “Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison. Well, then it isn’t one to you, since nothing is really good or bad in itself—it’s all what a person thinks about it. And to me, Denmark is a prison”.
Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2.
None of this is to deny the distress and suffering that we feel, it is just to say that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can’t get rid of clean discomfort. We can change what we do when it arises and that is called resilience. ACT can help you to develop the quality of resilience.