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

Embodied experience….or did I really fall off that cliff?

What’s that experience right before falling asleep? You know, the one where you are just starting to drop off and suddenly awaken with a jerk, feeling like you were falling through space? Yeah, that one.

What’s that experience right before falling asleep?  You know, the one where you are just starting to drop off and suddenly awaken with a jerk, feeling like you were falling through space?  Yeah, that one.

What do you make of that?   2014-08-13 12.23.56Being a scientific sort, I see the whole experience as some simple physiological reaction to the shift between waking and sleeping. But also being a wondering, curious sort, I can also imagine that I am falling between two worlds, really experiencing the liminal in a completely embodied way.  And that’s a much richer, more interesting, more human way to be with my own experience.

I have been thinking a lot about that word, embodied.   In a kind of cold, rational sense, everything we do and everything we are is, in fact, embodied….we ARE our bodies and that’s pretty much that.  But we live a lot in our minds, or perhaps another way to say that is we are often lost in memory or in future planning and often quite willing to experience our body sensations, feelings, and emotions in the most trivial or superficial of ways.  Sort of like when I want to scoff at my hypnagogic moment as a simple physiological phenomenon.

What makes us human beings is our capacity to make meaning out of our experiences.   And when we give that up, for example, if I don’t notice that my chest is tight and my heart beating a bit faster and my breathing becoming more shallow and my toes are curling up, then I give up seeing what meaning an event has for me.   The fact is, events HAVE meaning for us, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not.   We MAKE meaning out of events and when we refused to notice the effect that meaning is having on our bodies, we miss out on a whole range of human experience.

Body psychotherapy helps us to tune in to what the body is experiencing so we can connect to the meanings we are making in our lives.   

In trauma, our bodies know the meaning that we have made of traumatic events even when our minds have shut those events out.  Our bodies re-enact the events, over and over, telling us the stories of  terror and struggle.  We ignore them, trying to overrule from the top down, telling ourselves a different story.   But the body isn’t convinced by words.  The body needs more than platitudes and positive thinking.  It needs to have us acknowledge the meaning that the original event had for us.   That original meaning could be distorted and unrealistic; it could be completely out of whack with the facts.   Particularly when the trauma comes from childhood, the story of necessity has a child’s eye perspective.   But simply switching perspective isn’t usually enough to make lasting change.  The embodied story has to be heard.  The memories have to be unearthed and opened up to fresh air and the stories heard with the compassion and kind curiosity that allows full expression.   Once those meanings are opened up, they become free to change.  The actual work of trauma therapy is allowing the body to bring the meaning of the traumatic event into the room.  Then the body and nervous system can heal themselves.

Embodied experience: tuning into the experience of being alive from the point of view of oneself as an organism….as a human being in a human body.   How do you know when you are “in your body?”   How do you know when you are no longer in touch with those moment-to-moment experiences?  Can you notice the shifts that happen?   Doing grounding exercise can make a difference.  Try this now….take a moment to notice whatever is present to you right now.  Notice the screen, any noises from electronics, any light impinging on you, your body standing or sitting or lying down.  Then stand up and bring your clear attention to the way that your feet connect to the floor.   Bend and straighten your legs a few times, each time pushing your feet deeper into the floor.   Imagine roots going deep into the earth to support you.  Then stop and re-assess….do you experience your body differently?   How much are the external stimuli impinging on you? How aware are you of thoughts and sensations?  Have you moved more “into” your body?   Have you increased your momentary awareness of your body experience?   What meanings do you ascribe to the experience you have just provided for yourself?

Certainly when I am in my bed and feel like I have fallen off a cliff, I have not actually fallen off a cliff.  In fact, I have never fallen off a cliff, so I am not even experiencing a memory.  But I have made a meaning (“falling off a cliff”) for the sensations I experience, and so to me I have fallen off cliffs many times as I drift off to sleep.   The experience is in the body;  the meaning is also in the body.

 

 

Counseling or psychotherapy?

What’s the difference between counseling and therapy?  Often these two terms are used interchangeably.  However, I like to make a distinction between them.  Counseling is mostly about solving problems in the here-and-now, talking about concerns and getting another perspective on them.   If your issues are really situational and of brief duration, counseling might be best for you.  Psychotherapy, in contrast, helps you to look at your patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.  It helps you to identify and then to develop ways to change the defenses that you may have had in place for a very long time.  If you have been chronically anxious, unhappy, or in trouble, or if you have a history of depression or anxiety, or you have a history of stress, trauma, or loss, then psychotherapy may be appropriate for you.

What I do in my practice…..

Beside the fact that I am trained as a bioenergetic therapist, I am also a licensed psychologist.  There are some problems in everyday life that I would especially like to help you with.

I am particularly interested in working with concerns around reproduction, especially from a woman’s point of view.    That would include fertility concerns, pregnancy loss, postpartum stress, adoption, and infertility treatment, just to start.

I also work with people who have traumatic histories.  Many reproductive issues are, in fact, traumatic, but other traumatic events can generate problems for people.

A third area of my practice is working with children ages six and under with a parent, who have experienced trauma or attachment disruption.  This model is called Child-Parent Psychotherapy, and is largely a home-based model of support, education, and intervention to support attachment between the parent and child and help both to resolve trauma.

Sometimes people just want to get more out of life.   Maybe this is you.  Everything in your life looks like it is fine but deep inside, you feel like you are missing something, or that the way things look is NOT the way that things are for you.  Therapy, especially body-mind therapy, can help with that.

Is there something I can help you with?  Some issue you want to talk about, or some concern that keeps coming up in your life?