From satisfaction to ecstasy - the experience of pleasure
A common motivation clients state at intake for wanting to work with me is that they are “unable to experience any pleasure”. When I get curious about this, it often turns out that the word “pleasure” is loaded with associations and expectations - about sex, reaching orgasm, being able and willing to give and receive touch, and more.
Whilst these are things that we can explore within the scope of my work, it’s helpful to take a step back first and look at pleasure on a broader scale.
Pleasure is defined as “a feeling of happy satisfaction and enjoyment”. A critical part of this definition is feeling.
I like to use Lisa Feldman Barrett’s way of explaining emotions as our brain’s best guess at interpreting what’s happening in our body. Using her scales of affect and arousal, I define pleasure as feelings of pleasantness anywhere on the scale of low to high arousal. In the diagram below, you can see on the right-hand side (in the pink box) some examples of “emotions” we may use to label these experiences.
Put simply, how we experience pleasure (and what causes us to feel it) is unique to each of us - it’s not a universal concept and to limit it to moments of ecstasy is missing out on a much richer world of pleasure possibilities!
One of the pieces of “homework” I set for my clients who are trying to reconnect to and rebuild their capacity for pleasure is to identify something in their life that feels pleasant and on the lower end of the arousal scale. Importantly, I ask them to choose something they can do alone so that they can be fully present with their own experience without distracting interpersonal dynamics! Perhaps it’s the smell of the first cup of coffee in the day or the feeling of climbing into a freshly made bed. I encourage them to notice what is happening in their body as they do this thing. How do they know that it’s pleasant? What are the sensations? What would it feel like to enjoy this 10% more? The results can be surprising!
There are many reasons why we can feel cut off from pleasure, but ultimately we are all capable of experiencing pleasure-like emotions. If you're feeling disconnected from pleasure, why not give this homework task a try and start building your portfolio of pleasure-inducing experiences. I'd love to hear what you discover!
If you want to geek out more on Lisa Feldman Barrett's work, check out her 2018 book "How Emotions are Made".