As human beings, we’re wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain – at least so we’re told. It’s a gross oversimplification of what is actually a complex neurobiological process, but it’s not wholly untrue.
This pleasure-seeking motivation is why so much effort is expended by cultures and institutions to keep us “in check.” If as humans we’re always going to go to what feels good, we’re clearly not to be trusted with important things.
But in practice, this is actually far from what happens for many of us. Because many of us fundamentally struggle with tolerating pleasure. Not only are we not seeking it out, but we can hardly stand when we’re in it – so much so that we might actively work to avoid experiencing it or minimizing it when it comes along.
For us pleasure-avoiders, our code has gotten switched. We’re genuinely much more comfortable with experiencing pain. While it doesn’t feel “good,” it at the very least feels familiar and safe.
Maybe that sounds bizarre? Maybe it sounds familiar? Let me explain a bit further.
While we have built-in pleasure and pain biology, how we process these concepts still get shaped through our experiences.
If we grew up with someone in our lives who was jealous of us and wanted to make us feel bad for feeling good, for example, we may have learned to associate pleasure with shame.
If we have had experiences of feeling immense joy and then being crushed by the grief of loss, we may associate pleasure with heartache and hurt.
If we have witnessed other important figures get lost in their own pleasure, perhaps to the exclusion of being able to care for us or meet our needs, we may associate pleasure with abandonment or perceived selfishness.
If we experienced abuse of any kind and pleasure was part of the experience in some way (as it often is), we may associate pleasure with being betrayed, harmed, or fearful. We might not trust ourselves in the experience of pleasure.
There are probably hundreds of other ways in which we could learn that pleasure is something to avoid, especially in large doses. And when we develop those associations early on, they get encoded into our bodies in a way that rationalizing ourselves out of it simply doesn’t work.
If we recognize this challenge in ourselves and we want to heal our relationship with pleasure, there are a few practices we can try to delve into this work.
- Practice savoring a piece of food by letting it sit in your mouth while you are mindful of the sensations involved. You might even practice this once per day with different items and journal about your reflections in the moment.
- When you have the urge to shift from rest to productivity, see if you can stay in a state of rest and pleasure for one more minute. Notice what body sensations get activated when you don’t let yourself tap into your productive drive. You might feel anxious or agitated. Just let yourself practice experiencing that and riding that wave.
- Let your fingers caress your own skin, noticing the differences in your experience as you experiment with speeds, pressures, and directions. Without judgment, see if you can notice what feels most pleasing to you in this moment.
- Pay special attention to moments of relief and release. For example, if you are lifting something heavy, focus in on how it feels once you set it down. Hold your breath for just a few seconds beyond what’s comfortable and notice how it feels to release the air at last. Notice how it feels as your body warms up after being too cold. These moments of contrast between discomfort and relief can tune us into sensory pleasure.
- Rather than shutting down someone’s request to help you with something or take something off your plate, allow them to do so and notice how it feels to have more spaciousness and support. There may be discomfort, but see if you can notice the edges of warmth and gratitude you might experience and let yourself feel those as well.
Getting comfortable with pleasure is, for many of us, a process of releasing barriers. We’re often contending with our body’s attempts to keep us in safe and familiar territory. But it’s our job to communicate our safety back to our body and practice reconnecting with pleasure. Only then can we take in the full beauty of what it means to be human.