02/04/2015 01:22 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2015

My Time in Prison

I spend time once a week in a prison... that is, coaching women inmates. I'm struck by how articulate, smart, funny, contrite, and eager they are about getting a second chance to move on with their lives. For those brief hours we hang out together, I can forget they are inmates incarcerated because they've committed a crime. But then I get to leave the building, while they get escorted back to the confinement of their cells.

I have other clients I coach who are in prison. But it's a different kind of prison. There are no bars on the windows or heavy bolts on the doors. They are trapped in the prison of their mind.

Some of them feel incarcerated and trapped by a life they believe they'll never be able to change or transform. And they believe deeply that it's their external circumstances or conditions in life that are the cause of the problem. I wouldn't feel so bad if my husband hadn't left me... I'd be happy if my boss hadn't fired me... I can't ever be happy when I know my mother is ill.

I hear a lot of gut-wrenching stories from my clients about lost relationships, lost jobs, lost wealth, and lost hope. There's no question about it, life can sometimes slap us in the face. People we love get sick and die; spouses no longer love us; or we get fired from our job. Hardship and adversity in life is inevitable and as predictable as the sun going down each day. And the emotional pain we feel is normal and inevitable. This is what we in the coaching world refer to as clean pain. PAIN.

But what I've noticed is that the people who end up feeling imprisoned and trapped in a life they don't want... who can't seem to shake off an unhappy cycle, are people who spin stories about what their plight means and why their pain is different. And boy, are we good at spinning a story.

This is when the pain gets dirty. And it has all the stuff of a Thomas Hardy novel: guilt, fear, self- loathing, regret, despair, and any other emotion that basically tells you there's something terribly wrong with you and the universe. Dirty pain is self-inflicted and it's kept alive and stoked by ourselves. We're essentially creating additional pain in the privacy of our own minds.

I used to do this all the time (actually, I still do, but I'm on to myself now!).

When my partner and I ended our long relationship, it wasn't enough for me to just feel the pain and sadness of a lost relationship. I added on another layer to the story that I'd live alone for the rest of my life because I was in my mid-40s, and men are not interested in older women. And then I added on yet another layer that told the story of how I must really at heart be selfish and unable to truly love someone. And I was left with the thought: There must be something terribly wrong with me.

I would never tell you that the pain you experience from loss or hardship is not valid or real, because it truly is. That's the clean pain, and you're entitled to feel every awful morsel of it. But it's the dirty pain you have to watch out for, because it will super-glue you to a life you don't want. It's dirty because it's suffering that comes from your thoughts about the event. It's not enough to just feel sad or depressed about a breakup. You allow your mind to make it worse than it is. And apparently, this is where most of our suffering in life comes from.

How can you tell if you're pain is dirty pain? You'll feel forever stuck and trapped in a life you can't stand. You'll feel limited, and you'll discover that you keep repeating the same dynamics in your life. You'll discover that your circumstances never change or get better. And the big giveaway is that you'll find yourself using phrases like: I should have... Or, if only I could have done it another way... In short, you fill your mind with thoughts that keep you trapped and imprisoned in a life that won't flow.

Martha Beck sums it up:

If you feel stuck in your present life, if you feel no enthusiasm for anything, if you think you have no purpose or that you lost that purpose somewhere along the way, I guarantee you are living in a dungeon made of stories -- and that none of those limiting stories are true. There is no such thing as a true story that keeps you from your best destiny. All thoughts that separate you from genuine happiness are lies.

There's a Buddhist saying that goes: "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." If you can learn to distinguish between what's clean and what's dirty, you'll discover the secret to not only how to bounce back quickly into life, but how to allow your life to flow in the direction it naturally wants to go towards: happiness and well-being.

My prison women are quick to learn this lesson. They know that in order for them to really get back into life (to get out of prison), they're going to have to think and act deliberately about themselves. They're going to have to keep it clean.