The psychology of pleasure

It hurts while we let go

Fear of pleasure. That sounds peculiar. Why would we fear something beautiful? And yet we see so many examples where people avoid pleasure or become tense in pleasant situations.

There must be some logic to that, otherwise we would not be doing it. Where there is behavior, there is a motive that drives it. We must look for this one in the unconscious.

It’s so good it hurts

Tighten your fist strongly. Hold it like that for half an hour. Okay, it is a little hard. – Imagine holding it like that for half an hour. Now, when you release the grip, the tension goes away, but it also hurts a bit. It feels good and hurts. Stretching the muscles is painful, but the circulation has started working again and that makes us feel good.

It is the same with the emotions that we are squeezing intoourselves. It’s just that we keep emotions for much longer than half an hour, so the math is different. The longer they stay and the more of them, the more will it hurt when we let go and the longer will it last. Admittedly, it will be more pleasing and give more to our lives when we endure the pain. Yes – there is no joy without pain. Enduring pain for the purpose of achieving pleasure is part of the principle of reality. So, we get pleasure by releasing the tension that we would not have reached if we had not endured a certain amount of pain. But this is not the same as a masochistic character. It is good to make a difference.

It’s so good because of the pain

Motives of a masochistic character are similar, but here a person needs pain in order to get rid of the pressure. It is a need, not for pain as such, but for pleasure that can only be obtained through pain. Over and over again, like a circle, in the same or similar painful situations, a person seeks pleasure. Which certainly doesn’t happen, but the person is not giving up.

Another important difference is that the masochist is driven by the need for approval, which requires submission. Without working with the feeling of guilt and fear, the masochist remains in the same circle looking for pain in order to feel pleasure, which, in the end, he will always have less than pain.

Happy tears

Imagine a wave of warm water approaching a large piece of ice. Ice can then crack and melt. Now, imagine that ice is your defense against everything that can hurt you, and the wave of warm water is love, joy and pleasure. Perhaps it is already clearer why the „cold“ take refuge from the „warm“ people and why they run away from pleasure. It’s because it is a threat to the ego defense. Those icy layers of protection were once created for the purpose of protecting us from pain, and now they are creating pain for us because they keep us from warm and pleasant emotions. So there is logic – sometimes we had to protect ourselves from vulnerability by following emotions. We were small and vulnerable then, but now that we have the capacity to do the same, we no longer defend ourselves from external attacks, but attack ourselves, defending our pleasure for fear of the disintegration of this iceberg and the pain that awaits us there. The client I worked with until recently clearly described this feeling. She longed for intimacy, but every time the relationship became „warmer“ and closer, as she says, she had a strong urge to leave. She described it as a strong feeling that she would fall apart, burst. She gave this precise description unconsciously, because those situations really were a threat of breaking her defenses. Only with lowering of these ice defenses could she take someone closer to the heart. When she was ready to tolerate pain and stay in the situation, to allow herself that „disintegration“, she began to stay in relationships and enjoy everything beautiful that intimacy brings. Although the glaciers broke, the heart muscle developed through new mature relationships with oneself and the others. And it really brings a man to tears, as Bukowski would say in „Blue Bird“. If not like this, you did feel it a bit when you cried embracing someone you hadn’t seen in a long time. Or when you remembered something beautiful through a smile and tears, which has passed, which you miss, but at the same time fills your heart because you have after all experienced that something. Or by sending the child on a journey through new phases, or after something really pervasive. You feel pleasure every time, allowing yourself to experience the pain that is related to that moment. It is the only way it can be.

Sad tears

Sobbing is one of the primary mechanisms for tension release.We can see this clearly in children who have not yet learned „that it is not nice to cry“ or „to cry only when someone dies“ or not even then. Although, even in children we can see that before crying the body stiffens and the chin begins to tremble. It is the moment when every mom knows a loud sob is about to happen. However, a child, unlike an adult, cannot maintain that stiffness. At least a little longer, until the adults, the experts, teach him. It will burst into sobs and cries after a few seconds. But not only that. Have you noticed that even when the one who comforts comes, the child does not stop crying until the tension is released. Unlike the adults. Adults are much less likely to allow themselves to „cry their hearts out“ (another interesting and appropriate term). When they allow it to themselves, they reallydo feel better. The problem may not be solved, but the tension came out and left room for a solution. And the emotion is certainly recognized. This already is a gain. More often than not, I hear that the inhibitions are so strong that adults cannot, in the midst of strong control, allow themselves to really cry, and thus not even feel the pleasure of relief. Even when they know it would be easier for them. That is fear and control for you. The conflict between the desire to surrender and the fear of surrender is too strong.

Fear of pleasure is fear of pain

Growing up, we learn to deal with pain, sadness, loss, fears, frustration by suppressing them. The more we suppress these feelings, the more we reduce our capacity for pleasant feelings. Love, enjoyment, pleasure. By numbing ourselves for pain, we also numb for pleasure. You cannot break a stone, but you also cannot warm it up. We can regain the capacity for pleasant feelings if we let go and experience the painful ones as well. The pain is there to warn us, but it is also there to repair the injury and integrate the personality. – It hurts when we get a wound, it hurts while we clean and heal it. Whenever you run from pain, be aware that you are also running from pleasure. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should chase pain like masochists do. In fact, the masochist is incapable of facing the pain within himself, so he projects the pain into the external environment. Pain that is developmentally legitimate is that which comes from honestly confronting oneself and one’s experiences. Without it, there is no pleasure. Thus, the therapeutic process can be painful. It requires returning to experiences and emotions that you may have been anxious to leave behind. It sounds paradoxical, but you can only leave them after you approach them.

You can feel the pleasure only after you approach the pain. Theescape from pleasure is actually an attempt not to pay the pricethat is pain. Everything that is valuable is expensive. That’s right. Let it be.

Ivana Paunovic


Integrative psychodynamic psychological counselor,

psychotherapist and educator- OLI Center