Why We Deny Ourselves Pleasure

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated on: November 1, 2022


Reviewed by: Aimee Falchuk, MPH, MEd, CCEP

Why We Deny Ourselves Pleasure

Photo courtesy of Tahnei Roy. Model: Keke Lindgard.

The fear of loss is one of the reasons we might (subconsciously or not) deny ourselves pleasure, says Boston-based therapist Aimee Falchuk. We play it safe in the risk-free world of “if I don’t put myself out there, I will protect myself from suffering.” Well, spoiler alert…

That suffering is not simply a denial of joy or happiness. It’s far more nuanced than that. Falchuk describes pleasure as the natural flow of our energy, of—without overstating things—life itself. “I experience pleasure as the felt experience of consciousness,” she says. “I describe that aliveness as pleasure. Others might describe pleasure as a feeling of being fully present, of being in alignment, of feeling open, of when they are in their creativity.”

A Q&A with Aimee Falchuk

Why do we deny ourselves pleasure?

We strive so hard to stay alive, and yet in so many ways we deny ourselves life in the form of pleasure. Pleasure and life are the natural flow of our energy: When we limit or even deny our pleasure, we are essentially limiting and denying life. There are a few reasons we may do this:

1. We have a need to maintain our identity. We all have a certain attachment, if not addiction, to a belief that our identity (our name, our status, the things we own, our physical body) is all there is. That our materialism is all we are. We fear losing those things that tether us to our identity: If I am not me, if I am not my body, then I am nothing. It’s a feeling of total existential annihilation.

Because of this attachment to materialism and the fear that motivates that attachment, we spend much of our time doing what it takes to sustain it. We use our thinking mind and volitional will—our ego faculties—to maintain our material self.

When we cling to materialism, the ego faculties are not in service of awakening and activating the inner intelligence that lives within all of us. Our inner intelligence holds our wisdom, our spirit, and our true purpose. It is where the keys to pleasure live. The inner self is waiting for the will of the outer ego to activate it, but our outer ego is focused elsewhere—focused on maintaining the material self. As a result, pleasure is hindered.

2. We have an attachment to our idealized self. This adaptive self is the person we think we need to be in order to be loved, to feel safe, to belong. It takes time and effort to maintain this idealized self. The idealized self does all it can to express our “goodness” and stave off our “badness.” As human beings though, we have a higher self and a lower self. This denial of a fundamental truth of the human experience prohibits the expression of the real self. And it is the real self—and the acceptance of the real self—that allows for the experience of pleasure.

3. We depend on others to allow it. Children are dependent on their caregivers for pleasure, whether that pleasure is food and nourishment, love, acceptance, etc. Oftentimes it is the caregiver who has to give the child permission to have their pleasure (i.e., to be with friends, to buy a toy they want). Many of us do not move out of that state of dependency, and as adults, we transfer that dependency onto parent substitutes. In this place, we do not know that we alone have the ability to feel our own pleasure at any and all times. Instead we feel we need permission—through either validation or acceptance—from others. This dependency forces us to expend our energy ensuring that others approve of us. We bend and contort to be the person we think we have to be to win favor from them.

If we do the work to acknowledge the places where we remain in our child dependency and feel the pain and loss of the separation of growing up, then we are more able and willing to take full responsibility for ourselves—including our pleasure. This should not be misinterpreted to mean that pleasure comes through independence only; we are relational and social beings, and we need others. It is a state of interdependence that we seek to achieve.

4.Our beliefs hold us back. Our beliefs about pleasure are often formed at a young age, either through the explicit messages we receive or through the experiences we have. We may have been taught that pleasure is selfish or indulgent or a sin or that we must choose between pleasure and responsibility, that we cannot have both.

As children, we may have been shamed in our pleasure and as a result formed a generalized belief that we will always be shamed in our pleasure, and it therefore must be contained. Or that if we feel our pleasure, if we feel the full flow of our energy, we will be annihilated or abandoned. I remember when I was a kid, my mom would tell us that it was good to be happy but not too happy. What I came to understand as an adult is that she had formed a belief that if somehow pleasure was fully allowed, it would be taken away. I also came to understand that this belief was a way to make sense of and manage the pain of loss. If there were a certain denial of full pleasure, then the pain of losing it would feel more manageable.

How can we reconcile the reality of loss with the pursuit of pleasure?

In many ways, our fear of loss is our fear of death. The Pathwork—the spiritual teachings that inform my work—says that those who know how to die know how to live. This makes sense to me.

If we fear loss and death, we spend all our time staving off what we perceive as a negative possibility or certainty. In my work, we call this negative motivation. We expend our energy avoiding a negative possibility rather than putting our energy toward something life-affirming.

As an example, if we fear death (whether that is physical death or aging, humiliation, endings—any kind of loss), then we will spend all our energy and time ensuring none of that happens. Our energy isn’t really in full flow: It is often contorted and contracted, because fear and mistrust are driving the energy. Our grip is so tight.

If we can do the hard work it takes to come to terms with death—to be with it in a different way or understand it as a continuum rather than the polar opposite of life—then we don’t have to spend all our time staving off what we perceive as a negative possibility.

Part of the reason we struggle with death is because most of us have a dualistic consciousness. We are conditioned to see things as either/or. We are either alive or dead. We are either happy or unhappy. While there is a certain truth to this (at least on a human plane of consciousness), a unitive consciousness says it’s not either/or but all. All of it is one experience; all of it is necessary for our maturation and evolution. Each experience—life, death, happiness, unhappiness—is all one energetic experience. And staving it off because we perceive it as bad and fear it is resisting our tasks in life.

When and why do we deny pleasure at the level of the body?

Wilhelm Reich, one of the pioneers of body psychotherapy, said that our history is frozen in the body and that the body is an instrument of emotional repression. In this way, the body can and does block our pleasure current. It does this through constriction of the breath, tightness and tension in the musculature, restriction of movement and spontaneity, and an overall distortion of the energy system.

In people who have experienced trauma, we more than likely will find that their body is protecting them by contracting or restricting the energy system. We therefore need to support them in opening up the spaces in their body that would allow for more energetic flow.

To experience pleasure, we need to have a container big enough to hold it. The physical contractions that form as protective defenses shrink the container. That is why somatic and expressive work is so integral to our process. The work to open up our body and to learn how to tolerate the charge of our life force is essential to allowing the experience of pleasure.

How can our ego help us instead of hindering us?

A healthy ego serves a tremendously positive purpose. We need it to appropriately balance our natural impulses with our own (and society’s) values and norms. We need it to assert ourselves, to take care of ourselves, and to act in the world. It is the mechanism by which we engage in our purpose.

The problem isn’t the ego: It’s the overreliance and the overexertion of the ego in service of everything that gets us into trouble and blocks our pleasure in the ways I described earlier. When the ego is motivated by fear and premised on distorted thinking, it misses out on its most important role, which is to be in service of our inner wisdom and our higher self.

It is not about surrendering the ego but more about channeling it to where it can perform the greatest service.

Let me give you an example. When I work with people, I help them to distinguish between a life task and purpose. A life task may be to learn how to trust; it may be to learn how to give and receive; it may be to learn how to accept and surrender. It may be learning how to claim your life force, how to stand in your power and claim your space in the world. It may be how to have mature love or how to let your creativity and intuition be expressed. Purpose is the external manifestation of an internal life task.

This stuff isn’t easy. So imagine if we focused the energy of our outer ego (our thinking mind and volitional will) on meeting these life tasks. How would life be different if we put our energy there rather than using our egos to convince others to permit us pleasure, or to stave off a negative possibility, or to assert our will through force or manipulation? What would it be like to trust that this material life (the solid wall of matter that is our body) isn’t all there is? That we can use our energy toward something that could allow us to really feel alive? What would be different?

Is any of this self-inflicted? Does masochism have a role here?

On some layer of our consciousness is a certain negative pleasure we get from our suffering. How many times have we stated that we want to move on from with something but stay in the story of it and indulge in the blaming or complaining (be it toward ourself or other)?

Negative pleasure is a compensatory strategy to manage pain. It is a pseudosolution to our feelings of powerlessness in given situations.

We have to uncover—and then be willing to let go of—our negative pleasure in order to have real pleasure. And this is hard. Negative pleasure has been wired in us for so long. There is a certain energetic charge to it that can feel alive and powerful, even if it’s in the context of our suffering. It’s a familiar experience. But real pleasure, the full flow of our life force, can feel unfamiliar, ungrounding, and unconfined at first. So we need do the work to release our negative pleasure—to trust that there is something more profound and satisfying to be experienced—and learn to tolerate the charge of real pleasure.

What can we do to experience more pleasure?

We have to look at all the ways we block it or deny it. There are a lot of questions that can help you can start to understand how and why you block pleasure in your own life:

What are your beliefs about pleasure? What was your experience of pleasure growing up? What messages did you receive? Where are you bound by dualistic consciousness? Do you believe that you have to choose between the reality principle or the pleasure principle? Do you believe that if you are on a spiritual path, you have to deny yourself pleasure?

Where are you motivated by fear? How often are you driven more by staving off a negative possibility than by your pleasure current?

Where are you demanding that life be your way—and how does that affect your pleasure? Where are you feeling frustrated, annoyed, stuck? What aren’t you accepting that, if you did, might free your energy from its tight grip?

How does your body block pleasure? Do you breathe fully and deeply? Does your body move freely? Do you allow for spontaneity or do you control how you move to the point of compulsion?

How does your attachment to your idealized self-image keep you from having your pleasure? How is your pleasure dependent on others?

Pleasure is a felt experience. It is felt in the moment; it requires us to be present. That is hard for a lot of us, but we can’t really feel pleasure if we are attached to the past or fixated on the future. Presence is a prerequisite for the experience of pleasure.

What if you have an ingrained belief that pleasure is selfish?

I have never heard someone say, “I am struggling. Is that selfish?”

We can certainly be self-centered in our struggle and lose perspective. But are we selfish? I don’t think so. So why would we so easily feel selfish in our pleasure? My sense is that it is related to how we think and feel about our needs. So many of us are taught to put others first. We are taught that to love is to give. We think that if we allow our pleasure, then our attention to others’ needs will falter. And if we’re less attentive, we fear we may be perceived as “less loving,” which could result in us losing our connection with others—which may be a connection that our child consciousness feels we so desperately need.

There are so many distortions here that are important to look at. But despite the distortions, there is beauty and wisdom in this worry about pleasure and selfishness. The beauty in it is that our worry about pleasure can be a reflection of our humanity. It’s us feeling the pain of other people’s pain or feeling pain for their lack of pleasure. The wisdom comes from the truth that we can and often do distort pleasure so that it is actually selfish. When we are stuck in our ego consciousness—our child, dualistic, and materialistic consciousness that is motivated more by fear than love—then our “pleasure” may actually be selfish, for in this place, the self is all there is.

As we do the work to mature out of these states of consciousness, we can awaken to our purpose—our responsibility to share our gifts and contributions—to assist in our collective evolution. If real pleasure is the natural flow of our energy, then we need our pleasure to understand and activate our purpose. Seen from the perspective of our purpose, it could be the deprivation of real pleasure that is selfish.

It may be hard to believe, but some of us may not want the responsibility of our pleasure, for it is in our pleasure that we feel our aliveness. And in our aliveness is our essence; it’s what we bring to this world as our contribution. That comes with real responsibility.

Aimee Falchuk, MPH, MEd, CCEP, is the founder of the Falchuk Group and works with individuals and groups. Falchuk facilitates workshops and lectures on the Pathwork. For information on upcoming workshops and other presentations, follow Falchuk on Facebook at CoreBoston.