Life is a form of suffering

We all suffer. You hurt. I hurt. Your friends, neighbors, family, all hurt too. And this barrage can feel overwhelming. Add the global issues to our hardship-heavy lives, and we begin to feel anxious, fearful, and worried. We start to future catastrophize.

Scientists call this emotional state of prolonged exposure to hardship compassion fatigue or empathic distress. In effect, we’re surrounded by unease and unrest, directly and indirectly, and the cumulative suffering heightens our psychological fear and psychosocial fatigue.


How do we stay present and compassionate to our own unease, and other’s unrest, without being overwhelmed by it?

We avoid empathic distress, by cultivating empathic presence.


This is empathic distress: I am worried about you, them, us, the country, the world, and this worry prevents me from being present to what I can directly affect – awareness of my own suffering, caused by my own illusions. Empathic distress heightens my own suffering because it fuels my own illusions.


When one’s fear-tape is playing, it’s difficult to stay connected to one’s true self.


Empathic distress might sound like: “This is happening to them, and it could happen to me too. People are not to be trusted. It’s not safe anywhere. Tragedy can strike tomorrow. What if…” Empathic distress might feel like: sorrow, anger, blame, futility, bombardment, overwhelm, fatigue, anxiety, discontent. And empathic distress might look like: insomnia, projection, personalization, busyness, perseveration, hypersensitivity, the inability to turn fear off, future catastrophizing.

Fueled by our thoughts about the situation, empathic distress leaves a sticky residue of self-doubt, insecurity and wary disbelief. And herein lies the solution, if our thoughts about the situation cause the distress, we can learn to differentiate between thoughts which are depleting and thoughts which are life-giving.

Stephen Hayes, a professor of psychology, differentiates between two types of pain: clean pain and dirty pain. Clean pain is the inevitable pain that comes with life: loss of health, loss of loved ones, rejection, a broken bone, childbirth, divorce, natural disasters, sociopaths. The Buddha called this type of pain, first arrow pain. Something happened that caused a wound that wasn’t there before. Clean pain is temporary — when you take the Rx, deliver the child, grieve the loss, remove yourself from the sociopath, the pain goes away. How quickly one heals from pain is known as resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back quickly after hardship.

Clean pain can be direct and indirect. Direct pain is personal hardship: you lose your job, health, beloved, freedom. Indirect pain is vicarious hardship: your friend loses their spouse, natural disasters, political unrest. Hardship is happening around you, but you’re not directly impacted by it.  Indirect hardship is what we stream into our lives or read in our social media feeds. Even though this hardship is not direct, the volume and the repetition demands a high cost on our resilience because it creates dirty pain.  

Dirty pain is our thought about the hardship. Said simply, dirty pain is what we make the clean pain mean. Dirty pain is the second arrow, pulled from your own quiver and placed in our tender wound by your own hand. Dirty pain is layered on top of clean pain, ad finitum. Dirty pain also creates empathic distress when it fuels our illusions, our thought-stories, about a potential future hardship. In two words: future catastrophizing.

For example, indirect pain is hearing about the many people who are suffering from wars, fires, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters.  The constant bombardment of unsettling news can create the empathic distress that leads to dirty pain: I am unsafe. My life could drastically change tomorrow. This world is unsafe. There isn’t enough to go around. I could run out of food, money, security. I feel: Scarcity. Fear. Wariness. Weariness. Sorrow.


Here is the thing about dirty pain, we can add countless arrows to the original wound, an infinite layering of illusions. Dirty pain stands in the way of our resilience and is much more painful than any clean pain life can throw at us.


There is a kinder, more compassionate way of being present to our own suffering and the suffering of others: We learn to differentiate between empathic distress and empathic presence.

Empathic presence is an intentionally cultivated, heightened capacity to feel and befriend our own uncomfortable emotions without being captured by them. When we remain open, aware, non-judgmental and compassionate to our own internal state of suffering, we avoid the illusions that dirty pain generates. Empathic presence is cultivated by learning to embrace the cycle of change with curiosity and kindness.

We have the greatest impact on the wellbeing of others when we can compassionately and cleanly embrace our own discomfort. The healing starts within; only then can we show up empathically present for another’s discomfort. We can hold an open container of compassion for their emotions, while maintaining the boundaries between their discomfort and our own. We feel their pain, and acknowledge that it is not ours to carry.

Actions you can take to increase empathic presence:

1)    Rest from streaming global hardship.

2)    Find your dirty pain.

3)    Get clear about your hardship. Make a list with three categories: Direct Control. Indirect Control. No Control.

Join the conversation: What dirty pain keeps you in empathic distress?