When Pleasure Fails

Dr. Scott Baum, in his paper “When Love Avails Not” has written about anhedonia in the person whose mistreatment at the hands of others has resulted in the death (and dearth) of love.  That is, in people who have been so badly abused that all love, all capacity for experiencing the general goodness of the world, has been drained or squeezed or ripped out of them.

“People use the word pleasure to cover a broad spectrum of feelings. We could break it down into many categories: relief, gratification, satisfaction, enjoyment, joy, fulfillment—and surely there are more. Not all these meanings are tied to goodness—for example, sadistic revenge can be gratifying, and we ignore that fact at our peril. However, I choose to use “pleasure” as I think Reich and Lowen intended—meaning the capacity to feel connected to the benevolence in the universe. Surely this is related to love….Pleasure’s opposite, anhedonia, is a complicated psychosomatic phenomenon. … One aspect of anhedonia is that the person’s capacity for love — to feel the cushioning, warming envelopment of the energetic field, which I am quite sure exists on some physical level—is destroyed. This can, of course, be a temporary state. In grief, for example, or in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, a person may lose the capacity for pleasure or hopefulness. This loss may be intermittent or persistent, but it is a transient state, and eventually the person’s underlying capabilities to experience pleasure are reinvigorated. This can happen with the passage of time or because of more direct intervention, such as psychotherapy, where this restoration of function is a directly intended outcome.”

Fortunately, most people experience anhedonia as a temporary situation, one in which the capacity for pleasure has become limited.  Focusing on the body’s language helps people to notice both their lack of enjoyment (pleasure, gratification, joy) and also the tiny light that appears as one begins to regain that capacity for feeling.  Often, there is an obstacle that lies in the way of pleasure.   For many of us, it can be our practice of avoidance.  That is, we may believe we have a need to avoid our unpleasant thoughts, memories, images…any of the mental content that generates big unpleasant feelings.   It seems paradoxical:  in order to get back our capacity for enjoyment, we need to dive right into what many people consider the opposite: our rage, our terror, our horror, our despair.

frightened child

In simple terms, when you work to shut down emotional experience in one realm, you effectively shut it down across the affective area in general.  Specifically, suppose I was terrified as a child, spent my very early childhood fearful of parental anger, and subsequent years trying my hardest to keep my parent happy, or at least avoid getting him or her angry.  In order to get out in the world and survive, for example, in order to manage school, I  had to figure out a way to function without being frozen, so I learned to numb out that fear. I  also avoided ever feeling angry, because that would trigger my angry parent.  I probably didn’t feel much in the way of sadness, either, and happiness was a very light surface skim of a feeling, mostly relief because it went with avoiding punishment.

As an adolescent, I might have found places to go where there was a bit more safety, or I might have just assumed that all places were as unsafe as my home.  As an adult, I might actually begin to look at my childhood and realize that everyone didn’t have terrifying parents, and that maybe there are lovely people in my life and I could perhaps learn to be a little trusting.  But feeling good….well, that might not actually be possible.  It might be far to frighterning to feel good….and I certainly don’t want to go into feeling that terror from childhood.  I grew up so I didn’t have to feel that, right?

credit:  http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing
credit: http://ttactechtuesday.pbworks.com/w/page/7857889/AT%20Solutions%20for%20Writing

Unfortunately, that model isn’t reflective of how people actually work….If I want to feel the joy that I think is probably available to me, then I need to let my body feel that terror, that rage, that despair that are all stuck in me somewhere.  Saying yes to pleasure means I have to say yes to all of my feelings, not just the ones I think I’d like to experience.

Mark Nepo, in Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, says “…there are small pressure points of residual feelings that live in our bodies, small pockets of trauma that hold the sediment of the stories that have shaped us.  We carry these residual feelings like emotional time capsules……” and sometimes those time capsules open right up.  We try out best to shut them down, to close them up, and we do it using our bodies.  We tighten, we cut off our breathing, clench the jaw, tense the shoulders, do whatever we can to not feel. But then we miss out.  Nepo goes on to say about those emotional time capsules “… whose small doses of healing are released when we bump into life unexpectedly.  It is natural to recoil from the rupture of those potent feelings but it’s the meaning carried in them over the years that begins to heal us…” And once we have allowed those feelings, actually felt them, allowed the body to open up, expand and integrate the feelings and the meanings we make of our experience, then, THEN, pleasure can become available again.  Baxter State Park, Maine, 2010

We can start the process of feeling pleasure by tuning into sensations. Notice the warmth of your coffee cup on your hands.  Notice the way that the warmth moves into your hands and begins to move up your arms.

Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours
Thanks to Katie Huffman, of Looking at Life through Agreeable Hours

Notice where you are blocked, and where you are holding on tightly, so that you cannot feel.  Allow warmth and softening to enter those tight places and notice what else is present to you at this moment.  Notice any sensations of movement within your body, or desire or intention to move in some way.  Notice whatever sensations and feelings arise for you without judging or turning away from what you experience.  Let your experience happen;  let your life flow bringing whatever emotions are present for you.  Feel whatever it is and let it flow.  The path to pleasure can be circuitous, especially if you have cut off the pathways for many years.  But getting back there is so worth the effort.

Many thanks to Dr. Scott Baum, Video of Dr. Baum on bioenergetics

And to Mark Nepo  Mark’s website

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