If You Fear, Shun or Avoid Pleasure

Hedonophobia /Cherophobia: 2 conditions and 10 steps to greater happiness

Posted Jun 06, 2016

My client Meg, a young psychiatrist (names and details have been changed) came in to say that a psychoanalyst friend told her she is “pleasure averse.” Two phobias: Hedonophobia, fear of pleasure and Cherophobia, aversion to happiness, describe this psychological condition. There is not much about these two phobias in the scientific or clinical literature, so I will use a client story to elucidate the issue. First, some clarification:

Here is a wiki definition of Hedonophobia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HedonophobiaHere is a wiki definition of Cherophobia:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aversion_to_happiness

Meg: (A paraphrased monologue)

This is me. I have this. Hedonophobia. When life is good and I let go for a few minutes, feel happy, carefree, the next minute, something bad happens or has to. I stop the flow of good feeling.

I read that people with this problem do not want to watch comedies, listen to music, go to games, parties, stay out late. It makes them panic. Maybe it’s guilt or fear of punishment. A childhood experience causes it, there’s a consequence if you let yourself enjoy – an “I survived Catholic School,” kind of thing. It becomes associated with shame. Remember those Pavlov, Skinner conditioning experiments where when a mouse eats a crumb, an electric shock is delivered, so it learns to avoid it? Pleasure linked to pain.

People can get it from their family.  I always think about this movie August Osage County where the little girl begs for these red cowboy boots for Christmas. She opens the beautifully wrapped package to find mud soaked, stench-ridden men’s work boots. The mother thinks her joke and the girl’s humiliation is the funniest thing ever. Excruciating.

I can relate to that. Not with my Mom or my youngest sister who always have my back, but my other two sisters. They were so often insensitive, moving in on whatever you had, mocking. Once I had a boy over in high school and my oldest sister slithered though the bedroom door in a silk negligee and blathered on about my pear shaped body. I kid you not. She even started rubbing his shoulders. Ugh. And my younger sister, she has this way of raining on your parade….  bringing a bunch of drunk friends to crash your dinner party. Having a temper tantrum on your birthday. Taking your favorite shirt without asking and burning a cigarette hole in it.  They drank, snorted coke, slept around, stayed out late and no one knew where they were. They thought they were so cool but it was so out of control. Maybe with their hedonism, (“Fun is the most important thing,” was their quip) I just went the other way, repelled by, fearful of excesses. If I have fun, somehow I will be blindsided or become … gross in some way.”

There is so much talk about the pursuit of happiness these days. It might seem unusual for someone to fear this positive emotion. If it is due to a happiness/punishment link

by Chloe Barron
Source: by Chloe Barron

 in childhood, it could be more common than we think. Fear of happiness may not be expressed verbally because one may not even be conscious of it.  Physical symptoms often arise from unconscious conundrums. The fear may manifest via a visceral feeling or by conjuring up a conflict with a loved one.  Jitters, the sudden need to escape, an un-nameable anxiety, a stomachache, a headache, an argument might immediately follow a happy event.  One may resist packing for a vacation.

Intolerance for happiness may also play out in a relentless work ethic or an ascetic life.  Productivity, self-mastery, and being able to say “No” can lead to practical success.  However since health involves balancing the “reality principal” with the “pleasure principle,” (Freud), some whimsy is a requirement for wellness. Often we think that someone who is too hard on him or her self suffers from a harsh super-ego or too strong a conscience. But this may not be the actual problem. If you are pleasure averse, it may be because somewhere along the way, wrath, punishment, humiliation or theft – you earned it and they had to have it– killed your joy.  Now you are afraid to feel it because the bubble burst/brutality is coming.

Meg and I took two routes to tackle this. We dug into the past and we worked in the present to build a better future. Our goals were tolerance for wasting time, having fun and happiness without consequence.  Several interventions treat phobias. Systematic desensitization is often used.  This involves graded exposure or gradually increasing the amount of time with the feared experience (in Meg’s case, fun!). One develops techniques for handling the anxiety, relinquishing the fear and finding pleasure in what once repelled. Insight Oriented Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are useful for understanding the causes and undoing the pleasure/pain coupling.  

10 Steps 

  1. See how the problem started
  2. Talk it through with someone
  3. Identify pleasures you avoid
  4. Enter the discomfort zone by indulging
  5. Tolerate the anxiety
  6. Tell your self that the "proper" thing is to be happy right now
  7. Repeat and add more time, till you hit, say  30-60 minutes or more
  8. Know that those who protect their joys tend to be more productive
  9. Be aware that "wasted time" is when we integrate and cement important information or come up with creative ideas (Just in case you still need some justification....)
  10. Accept that play (spontaneous experience) is good for health. (Science says)   

This article by an experienced psychotherapist offers explanations and treatment suggestions for pleasure aversion. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/terri-cole/fear-of-joy_b_1703103.html including;

This blog by Dr. Peter Gray explains how free and autonomous play are essential for children and other living things: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn 

This Ted Talk by Stuart Brown, MD discusses the serious nature of fun

https://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital?language=en