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Pleasure and Joy: Trusting in a Culture Opposed to Play

Recovering lost states of well-being.

Key points

  • Some people struggle for a lifetime to find a sense of wonder and joy.
  • Our culture can trick us into thinking that play and freedom come through external means.
  • The "freedom" we give ourselves often stretches only as far as what fits the culture's definition of acceptable.

Can you remember being curious as a young child—bold, creative, and able to question or challenge? Can you remember what it was like not caring about how you looked and feeling great no matter what? Do you remember what it was like to have a vivid imagination, that you believed whatever you imagined could come true?

These experiences are the essence of play, and play is the behavioral manifestation of psychological freedom and joy. Freedom is part of humanity's quest, woven into the very fabric of existence. Unfortunately, not all of us get to experience play as children. Due to the frailty of human character, some people struggle for a lifetime to find a sense of wonder and joy; perhaps they have engaged in playful activities, but their creative thoughts, imaginative freedom, and sense of wonder are constrained. Sometimes parents squash this sense of freedom in their children before it can fully form, which might have been true if your childhood was devoid of playful and carefree memories. Can you consider how and why such play would be essential to all people's emotional health and mental well-being throughout the life cycle, regardless of age?

Even those whose lives have been marred by abuse, impoverishment, and oppression can close their eyes and imagine lying on beaches or other restful states and places. So likewise, our minds seek rest to feel soothed and find happiness. So why do we resist the calling of what provides intrinsic rest?

Addictions of all sorts, sometimes ubiquitously referred to as "isms" (based on the language of alcoholism) are the "compulsive use of a mood-altering substance or behavior, which continues even in the face of adverse consequences [to oneself and those we love]" (Culbreth 2018.) "Isms," present in all cultures, trick us into thinking that play and freedom come through external means: substances, consumerism, video games, gambling, the constant seeking of attention (especially sexual attention), porn, or the relentless use of 'smart' devices and 'playing' on social media platforms. Sure, some or many of these vehicles bring pleasure. Going out to a new brewery to sample a new beer and live music is fun; watching YouTube can be hilarious; even online shopping and being turned on by pornography have their place. But curiosity and wonder, the natural inclinations of human beings, are not generally discovered through these means. How are these human inclinations realized if they have been squashed through childhood experiences or redirected toward technology and consumerism? Can play be reconsidered through the lenses of mind and body and relationships?

Freedom, in the context of mental health, allows wishes and fantasies the room to breathe in your psyche. These thoughts and feelings enable exploration in the real world toward becoming who you most want to be. (Winnicott 1971.)

You need to make space for play, creativity, and curiosity to do that. Unfortunately, so much of the "freedom" we give ourselves stretches only as far as what fits our culture's acceptable definition. Our fears usually keep us constrained as individuals, partners, and parents. For instance, when we are preoccupied with fitting in or driven toward a relentless need to outdo others, we limit how we can allow ourselves and our children to develop into fully mature, complete human beings. We put them and us in a psychological prison built of our fears, unanalyzed beliefs, and our culture's rationalized dictates. For example, eating disorders and porn addiction signal this entrapment of mind, body, and spirit.

Sometimes, individuals enter treatment precisely due to the relentlessness of their sex life, which has left them feeling empty, longing, and self-loathing. Sex is readily available and as accessible as alcohol or chocolate; quick fixes surround us. However, it is often exhaustion, more profound depression, and diminishing excitation that ultimately leads some to want to understand what drives them toward repeated, incessant or compulsive sex.

Filling a void with sex and pursuing many sexual conquests does not provide sexual fulfillment. Instead, insecurities, displaced anger, a need for power to combat low self-worth, sexual inadequacy, fear of intimacy, and body dissatisfaction (including body dysmorphia, shame, or sexual performance issues due to repressed emotion or feelings of inadequacy) can underlie the motivation for seeking out repeated sexual encounters and alternative sexual communities.

Bondage, domination, sadomasochism (BDSM), and non-monogamous sexual relationships, for some, are lifestyles that incorporate rules, truth-telling, protocols, and clear definitions of boundaries. Many in these underground communities firmly attest to their members' health, well-being, and stability. Members commit to secrecy, hence the name "underground community," for fear of social, cultural, moral, and religious criticism. However, blanket statements can also be rationalizations to camouflage pathology and distort psychological and interpersonal realities. Involvement in these communities can also be a rationalization for compulsive sex and relentless sexual exposure experiences. Deep-seated rage, sadness, shame, profound feelings of inadequacy, or histories of abuse can be easily transformed, enhanced, diminished, or denied through participation; its members reinforce the denial. Manipulation, sociopathy, and sadistic intent can also underlie some peoples' motivation to participate in such communities; they quickly find a host for their pathological plan.

Research on sexual abuse and BDSM concluded that the prevalence of self-reported sexual childhood abuse was higher among BDSM practitioners (8 percent men, 23 percent women), as compared with the general population (3 percent men and 8 percent women) (Nordling, 2000).

One study cited regularly and used to normalize BDSM practices was flawed and severely limited. Research by Andreas Wismeijer is routinely cited in promotional BDSM literature, but very little is reported about the limitations of this Dutch study (McGreal, 2013), though the researchers themselves thoroughly discuss the limitations of their study and potentially biased outcome. They state that participants were recruited from one Dutch BDSM forum website. The control group of participants was mostly women recruited through a popular women's magazine. The researchers state, "The psychological health of these 434—mainly female—adults cannot be assumed to reflect that of the general non-BDSM population. Other research indicates that power is at the core of BDSM interactions; pain, bondage, and humiliations are tools or methods to achieve the mutual creation of hierarchical status (Cross 2018).

For example, a previous Psychology Today blog post discussed a scenario in which "John," a senior corporate executive, broke the rules of his corporate responsibilities by taking a subordinate work colleague to a hotel (a fireable offense if discovered) and "debasing her." Additionally, he broke the codes of BDSM behavior and protocols by sending pictures of his "subs" to his friends and associates outside the BDSM community. (Scheel, 2018.)

The 'upside-down pineapple community' (partner swapping) asserts that it is a healthy lifestyle among those not accepting monogamy; such practices, when clearly defined and consensually agreed upon, can, indeed, reinforce commitment and intimacy between partners. However, when mutually agreed upon established protocols break down, i.e., lying, deception, "play" and intimacy enhancement are no longer the actual goals.

Having sex daily with multiple partners is not an uncommon fantasy for many people; however, deeper analysis typically reveals the emptiness of such 'play.' Psychodynamic theory accepts that contradictions and ambivalence are omnipresent in the psyche. Most analytically oriented therapists get that integrating opposites in one's thoughts and emotions will provide greater freedom in behavior while maintaining respect for self and others.

Playing in the mind's sandbox enables us to form ideas and create; creation is the natural result of fantasy taken into play. In this sense, psychoanalysis is an art form where the gift of insight is offered to patients to open and explore. Enabling dreams, fantasies, feelings, and contradictory thoughts in an environment that is safe and non-judgmental is the essence of an emotionally safe childhood and is the foundation of the ability to know and internalize joy. The absence of emotional safety during childhood creates a void and longing; culture provides many opportunities for pleasure masquerading as joy. When the need to seek pleasure becomes excessive and relentless, perhaps joy has been missing all along.

Working with a well-trained therapist offers possibilities for uncovering lasting satisfaction and deep fulfillment. Creativity and play can emerge, and internalized joy and satisfaction last. When happiness is understood this way, pleasurable states take their proper place and are no longer substitutions for well-being. Playing is an intensely real experience that has intrinsic therapeutic virtue and provides self-healing. However, therapy is work, and accepting responsibility for one's well-being is not always pleasurable.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


DeNeef, N. , Coppens, V. et. Al. Bondage-Discipline, Dominance-Submission and Sadomasochism (BDSM) From an Integrative Biopsychosocial Perspective: A Systematic Review. Sexual Medicine. Volume 7, Issue 2, June 2019, pages 129-144.

Dunkley, C. & Brotto, L. Clinical Considerations in Treating BDSM Practitioners: A Review. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. Volume 44, Issue 7, May 2018, Pages 701-712.

Scheel, J. BDSM: What is healthy and what is pathological: A relational look at BDSM. psychology Blog Post. January 21, 2020.

Winnicott, D. W. 1971a. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.

Culbreth, J. "From Treatment Lorre to Theory Application." Theory & Practice of Addiction Counseling. 2018 Sage Publications. Pg. 3

McGreal, S. BDSM, Personality & Mental Health. Blog Post July 25, 2013.

Nordling N. & Sandnabba, K. & Santilla, P. The prevalence and effects of self-reported childhood sexual abuse among sadomasochistically oriented males and females. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Volume 9, Issue 1, August 2000, pages 53-63

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