Black Lives Matter.
In his book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem describes two kinds of pain. Clean pain and dirty pain. Menakem explores these concepts in the contexts of racialized trauma, but their application is quite broad. Clean pain, he explains, is when you can turn toward the pain instead of running away from it, and then let it wake you up. He writes, “Paradoxically, only by walking into our pain or discomfort—experiencing it, moving through it, and metabolizing it—can we grow.
“Clean pain hurts like hell. But it enables our bodies to grow through our difficulties, develop nuanced skills, and mend our traumas. In this process the body metabolizes clean pain. The body can then settle; more room for growth is created in its nervous system; and the self becomes freer and more capable because it now has access to the energy that was previously bound, protected, and constricted. When this happens, people’s lives often improve in other ways as well” (pg. 20).
Dirty pain, then, is the suffering that comes when we run away from our clean pain through avoidance, denial, or disassociation. Dirty pain is the pain that leads us to unhealthy coping strategies, like substance abuse, relational trauma reenactments, or racism. Dirty pain might feel relieving initially, because it is an avoidance of clean pain. But ultimately dirty pain feels terrible.
In my work as a somatic practitioner and certainly in my personal experience, I see the effects of dirty pain all the time. It breaks down bodies and hearts and minds over time in ways that lead to profound and entrenched suffering.
Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve felt in myself and witnessed in many of my clients a painfully intense emotional response, a sharp enduring pang of what, for many, is the door opening to what may well become a profound collective healing process. Exactly what this pain means is different for each client feeling it. But for all of us the work is the same: Turn toward the clean pain, learn what it has to teach you, let it transform you, and you will feel more free.
I can assure you that this is hardly a simple four-step process. Deep healing work happens slowly and over time. But there is a way through, and I’m here with you to help you find it. Let’s do this.