Episode 220 – The Fear of Pleasure

fear of pleasure

Do you fear pleasure? You might be saying ‘no’ but many of my clients do. Think about it. Do you take compliments well? Do you look at others who are pursuing their pleasure and think it’s frivolous or inappropriate? It seems paradoxical because we spend so much of our life in the pursuit of happiness. Where does the fear of pleasure come from? For many of us, it comes from our childhood. Children are the epitome of pleasure! But then we’re told to not be so loud, or not do that. And our brain begins to subconsciously equate pleasure with danger or even death. Listen to this week’s episode to see what you can do about your fear of pleasure.

fear of pleasure

Show Notes:

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References for this episode:

Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D.


Show Summary:

Do you have a fear of pleasure?  Right off the bat, you might be thinking “of course not!” But when it comes down to it, I have found that many of my clients have a fear of not only sexual pleasure, but of pleasure in general.  This fear often baffles them because, like you, when they think about it, it seems silly to *fear* pleasure.  Pleasure is a good thing…isn’t it?  Well, pleasure in theory is a good thing, but when it comes down to actually experiencing it, many of us have reservations and even some fear about it.  So today, we are going to discuss our fear of pleasure.  

Fear is one of our strongest emotions. It’s instinctual. It’s a survival mechanism. A healthy fear is what has kept the human species alive for thousands of years.  I like to think of our brain like a computer.  We have certain programs installed and those survival instincts were installed for very good reason.  But today, we are not being chased by saber-tooth tigers and yet our brain still operates with the same programming as if we were.  So if our brain perceives something as dangerous, it is going to do everything in its power to keep us safe and alive.  And often, our brain finds the idea of pleasure dangerous.

The fear of pleasure often seems very paradoxical because as humans, we often go to great lengths to seek happiness.  So why are we afraid of pleasure?  In the book Getting the Love you Want, Harville Hendrix, Ph.D and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. said “to make sense of this reaction, we need to remember that the sensation of being fully alive is deeply pleasurable.  When we were young children, we had boundless energy and experienced intense joy.  But some of our pleasure was curtailed by our caregivers so that we could be safe and conform to social norms: “Don’t yell and run.” “Don’t jump on the couch.” “Be careful! Come down from that tree.” “You’re making too much noise.” But our fun was also cut short because it threatened the repressed state of our caregivers.  Many adults have long given up diving into the lake, rolling down the hill, skipping down the sidewalk, and jumping up and down for joy.  As these limits were imposed on us, sometimes in punitive ways, we began to make an unlikely association between pleasure and pain.”

Oftentimes as children, when we experienced pleasure we were reprimanded or even punished.  This behavior triggered, on an unconscious level, a fear of death.  So when it came up again, we were reluctant to experience that pleasure because it created anxiety in us.  So essentially, we learned that to be fully alive, to feel pleasure, was dangerous.  And as children, we unconsciously began to tell ourselves that we must limit our pleasure in order to be worthy of our parents’ love.  

Oftentimes, because we aren’t used to pleasure, even coming up with ideas of what would be pleasurable is difficult.  And when pleasure does come, we often sabotage it or reject it outright.  What does this fear of pleasure, rejecting and sabotaging look like?

  • When someone gives you a compliment it feels so uncomfortable that you immediately look for the negative in the situation instead of just saying “thank you.”
  • An inability to understand why anyone would want something pleasurable or find something pleasurable
  • Normal things or acts seem frivolous or inappropriate
  • Having no needs or desires
  • You feel guilty about feeling pleasure or experiencing pleasurable sensations

I have many clients who won’t let themselves enjoy sex or won’t let themselves go all the way to orgasm because of their fear of the pleasure and the fear of losing control (which by the way, you don’t lose so much control that you are unable to get it back with orgasm.)

Did you know that there is an actual diagnosable phobia of pleasure? It’s called Hedonophobia.  Hedonophobia is an excessive fear or aversion to obtaining pleasure.  With this condition, there is a very high amount of anxiety from merely thinking of feeling pleasure, let alone actually experiencing it.  Now this can be attributed to feeling a sense of solidarity with those who are less fortunate.  For others, a recurring thought that some things are too good to be true resulting from indoctrination that they are not entitled to feel too good.  Oftentimes it is triggered by a religious upbringing.

According to Wikipedia, “Hedonophobics have a type of guilt about feeling pleasure or experiencing pleasurable sensations, due to a cultural background or training (either religious or cultural) that eschews pleasurable pursuits as frivolous or inappropriate. Oftentimes, social guilt is connected to having fun while others are suffering, and is common for those who feel undeserving or have self-worth issues to work through. Also, there is a sense that they should not be given pleasures due to their lack of performance in life, and because they have done things that are deemed “wrong” or “undeserving.”

Now, I don’t think many fall into this category of a phobia of pleasure.  But I do find that many women I talk to have a fear of pleasure or at least believe that there is a limit to how much pleasure they should feel.  It’s ok to feel good, but not too good.  And if they think about something that could be pleasurable they feel anxiety, they might also experience headaches, stomach issues, muscle tension or pain, or trembling or twitching.  And as Wikipedia mentioned, this anxiety often comes from a religious or cultural upbringing and I would also add a familial upbringing where pleasure was thought of as sinful or undeserved.

Some clients of mine specifically come to mind that grew up in families where work was the priority.  The emphasis in the family is on working hard and there are not rewards unless the work is done, and even done to a certain level of perfection.  This mentality is ingrained into the individuals and their worthiness is often tied to what is accomplished.  So if there isn’t certain accomplishments, then there is no reward or pleasure. So thinking about having sex or doing something else pleasurable is unheard of until all the chores are done…and they are never done.  

So maybe you’ve recognized yourself or your spouse in what I have been talking about.  Maybe you can even see how this fear of pleasure is causing problems in your marriage.  So how do you get over it?

The first step is recognizing it.  Recognize that this is what is happening for you and start gaining awareness around the thoughts and feelings you have around pleasure.  Once you are aware, then you can start working on changing those thought patterns.  Personally, I suggest getting a coach, like myself, to help you with this.  I can teach you how to change these thought patterns in a way that actually works.

The second step is to start working on getting pleasure in small ways.  Can you see the pleasure in putting lotion on your skin? Can you see the pleasure in spending time relaxing doing something that is just for you? Can you see the pleasure in a foot rub or a back massage? Just start small.

When you notice the anxiety come up, breathe, but don’t stop.  Eventually, as you keep going, your anxiety will go away. Then you can start working towards bigger things.

And of course, if you need help with any of this, join me in my coaching program!  I have some really great tools that not only help you with the mindset piece, but also the somatic work in the body.  Oftentimes when you’ve denied pleasure for so long even when you try, it’s not there.  There’s a numbness.  And I can help you work through the numbness to bring the pleasure back.

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