Am I Allowed to Feel Pleasure?
How a serious commitment to pleasure can keep us sane during the pandemic.
Posted Aug 24, 2020
During this pandemic I met with a growing number of clients who, for different kinds of reasons, experienced a sort of breakdown. Their coping mechanisms somehow failed, and they started looking for help.
Although each story is unique, one important common theme I found among them is that most deny themselves the right to feel good.
In the long run, conjugal feelings come, then a family, and then the perfect job. What comes tagging along is the concretization of these dreams that seem to scream for serious work. For some recreation, there is Netflix while we rest on the couch.
Committing oneself to pleasure becomes a crime that somehow negates the reality of hard work and the dreams they are trying to achieve.
Yet, COVID-19 arrived and with it many things had to change. Couples became stuck together in the space of their home for months, with or without children or their extended family. Others had to go through their quarantine alone. Where do we find the will to get up every morning and get dressed? How do we find the patience to tolerate the shortcomings of our partner? How do we get out of the anxious loop of thoughts that obsess us during these days?
Pleasure is the answer to all.
If we do not take pleasure seriously, our resentment for the people around who do not make us happy grows—or steals the opportunity from us to be so. If we do not take pleasure seriously, sooner or later we fall into a low mood. Low moods, sadness, frustration, melancholy, are a big trap that prevent us from achieving true joy in life.
Let’s Take Pleasure Seriously
“Pleasure is our first and kindred good. It is the starting-point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.” As Epicurus wrote in his Letters to Menoeceus.
I saw people taking pride in denying themselves pleasure. They were proud of always being serious and somewhat miserable—as if God would reward them more for these feelings. They shared with me sad stories of how their fathers never played with them or how palatable the tension was at the dinner table every time they had a meal together.
I think that devoting time to pleasure is as difficult as working hard for the realization of your dearest project.
Nurturing your soul with what you like means to dedicate time to know yourself and what makes you happy, it means to listen to what you need, and pay attention to both the child and the adult in you. Finding what gives you pleasure means opening yourself to love. If you close that door for too long, you risk losing the ability to love yourself and accordingly the ability of loving the people around you.
It Costs Energy But It’s Worth It
As Lowen remarks, “Pleasure demands a serious attitude toward life, a commitment to one’s existence and work.” For us to feel pleasure, we need to open ourselves to life and its surprises.
Here, I do not want to conflate pleasure with self-medication like drinking alcohol or using any substance to alienate your sense of self. Devoting yourself to pleasure means to sit and transcend the limits of what is present to you at the moment to take care of yourself. “Happiness and fun,” Lowen writes, “belong to the category of transcendental experiences” because they involve true self-reflection and a careful observation that goes beyond our bodily limits. Finding pleasure is an activity that goes beyond our limits but has the power to redefine ourselves in a new way.
Why Do We Stop Pleasing Ourselves?
It happens, though, that at some point in life we stop pleasing ourselves because we have internalized some harsh voice from the authority figures of our past, perhaps our parents or teachers, or because the feeling in general feels dangerous as if we would lose control of our lives.
Some of my clients are just afraid to feel. They are afraid that if they allow themselves to feel something, all the negative feelings they have been trying to push back for so long may come up as well. In doing so, they may not realize that they are ignoring the most important person they are obliged to have a relationship with for the rest of their lives—themselves. If one stops feeling, one stops making any meaningful connection with their own self to the point that that self may feel abandoned, left alone, and will try to find what they need without asking for permission—abusing alcohol, cheating, or being enraged.
If we stop feeling and become incapable of finding joy and happiness for ourselves, we leave ourselves alone.
The risk of living a life without pleasure is that we pay too much attention to the egoic part of ourselves, the one that pushes for the fulfillment of goals, constrictions, and concerns. We risk living a life “on alert,” where the sense of who we really are vanishes.
Joining life for what it is, can bring so much joy to us—even in these concerning times.
Lowen, A. (1971). Pleasure: a Creative Approach to Life, Coward-McCann.
Epicurus, Letters (available online)