A large part of my work in the last year has involved exploring the ways in which pain and pleasure are inextrecably linked. The ways in which we desperately avoid pain and simultaneously find ourselves gravitating towards habits and patterns that bring us pain, at times even finding pleasure and relief in pain. And the ways in which we crave pleasure and yet avoid it. Living with this fear that with experiences of pleasure comes the risk of pain. Or maybe we feel shame when we experience ‘too much’ pleasure, never able to fully relax into this pleasure, a part of us always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
There exists a correlation between our ability to tolerate pain and our ability to tolerate pleasure. And earlier this year, I had an experience where I literally felt this window of tolerance expand for me. As I sat across a fellow retreat goer, tears streaming down both our faces, I remember feeling so much love. I remember thinking that the acts of giving and receiving love were in fact, one and the same. I remember feeling as if the parts of myself that I’ve struggled so much to accept were being mirrored back to me. And I felt a deep sense of acceptance both for myself and this other person, for our inherent messiness, our inherent humanness. Somehow I had dropped this internal resistance that I almost always feel towards strong emotions, both in myself and others. I could witness this other person’s pain without it becoming my own, without getting pulled into the depths of it, without feeling repulsed by it, while holding on to all the pleasure and goodness available to me, to us. I had this deep sense that things were so okay.
I have to admit, sometimes I wonder how much of this experience was in fact some form of denial or spiritual bypassing. And I think that warrants serious consideration. Yet for now (because nothing is ever permanent), I believe that this experience was in fact quite the opposite. It was an experience of expansion, of turning towards rather than away from, a feeling of okayness that I rarely get to embody. Interestingly, though, it was a concept with which I was familiar.
You see this correlation between pain and pleasure, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ experiences is not new to me. I’ve blogged about this before. I became familiar with it in my 2019-2020 binge of Brené Brown’s work. It’s something she writes and talks about a lot when exploring the ways in which we numb, a practice that actually contributes to shame and disconnection. It’s hard to summarize her work and I feel a bit like a broken record because I know I’ve explored these concepts on my blog before, but it feels so relevent and also as if it’s a concept and a lesson I (apparently) need to come back to , again and again (you may sense a bit of frustration here).
When we numb – whether it’s by maintaining overly busy lives, spending endless hours in front of a screen, overconsumption of food/booze/other substances/material things, or any other thing we may do to take a break from a difficult experience or emotion or state – we numb both ends of the spectrum. The best and the worst of our human emotions and experiences. Brene Brown explains that we can’t selectively numb our emotions, and so in our [often unconscious] attempts to reduce our suffering, we also end up reducing our joy. A lot of us are left with a sense of numbness, apathy, or at least a significantly reduced ability to experience life and all the emotions that come along with it.
So I’ve known about this, and yet I’ve struggled to find ways to start moving towards expanding my tolerance of emotions. Before leaving for British Columbia this past winter, I spoke to my mom about moments of expansion, where my tolerance for others, my ability to accept others and hold others in compassion despite their hurtful words or actions, was growing. This expansion of acceptance towards others mirrored the growing compassion I could experience towards myself as well. It was hard work – painful and slow. I remember thinking “I’m like the Grinch whose heart was growing in size”.
Why is this shit so hard?
I have never been big on group settings for therapy. I’ve always preferred to do things on my own. Actually, this goes beyond the therapeutic world. I’ve often felt impatient and intolerant of others, preferring to go it alone, so that I could go at my pace, unhindered by others. Why waste time waiting and accommodating others when I could learn, do and enjoy more on my own?
I noticed this pattern in school, opting to study alone, and feeling so annoyed when fellow students would raise their hands to ask what I considered stupid questions. Studying in a group often felt like a waste of time. I also noticed this socially. In high school, a group of friends would plan trips to Montreal so we could go clubbing and shopping. By the second year, it was a well known fact that I would head off on my own for shopping, preferring to venture the streets of Montreal alone, rather than waste time going to stores that I didn’t want to go to and waiting for my friends as they shopped. Same goes for traveling, I am notorious for solo adventuring – a part of me really hates having to accommodate someone else’s needs and desires when it infringes on my own. (Fully aware that I sound like an asshole right now)
And in therapy, again, I just didn’t want to have to waste time listening to other people’s struggles, believing that I had knowledge and wisdom that they didn’t. Believing that by ‘wasting’ time listening to their stories and experiences, I’d hinder my own progress.
Although to be honest, more and more, I wonder if this story is maybe just one I tell myself to avoid the true reasons why I find group therapy intolerable. Maybe it’s because I fear being unable to tolerate other people’s suffering, maybe because it reflects my own, forcing me to acknowledge the suffering I live with when parts of me have worked so damn hard to repress that pain (hello depression), in an evolutionarily brilliant attempt to keep me safe (shout out to Sarah Baldwin).
There came a time in my self-exploration, in the summer of 2021, when a difficult experience led me to the conclusion that I had essentially walked as much of the metaophorical road as I could on my own. It became blaringly obvious that I would eventually have to allow people to support me, allow people to witness me at my worst, and vice versa.
But I thought I knew this already?? Brene Brown talks about this a lot – how sharing and connection is crucial to fostering shame resilience, how shame can’t survive when we shed light on our hard experiences. But I suppose I am stubborn. Or rather, I have extremely strong and resilient protector parts. Either way, clearly cognitive work has its limits.
I think maybe this is why this shit is so hard – because these patterns stem from strong evolutionary mechanisms working below our level of consciousness. We can’t override these things, at least not indefinitely, or not without repercussions on our well-being.
Now, I am more focused on slowly working towards re-educating my autonomic nervous system, one small disconfirming experience at a time, painstakingly building new neural pathways to allow me to experience connection as a safe thing. I am learning to check in with my system, get to know it, and what feels safe and what feels scary. I am learning to be patient with it, with myself, constantly reminding myself that it’s only doing its best to keep me safe … a definitive work in progress.
I am learning to go slow, identify my boundaries so that I don’t push myself way past them, while also learning to take tolerable steps towards things that don’t always feel so great, but that I really want and need. I am learning to care for myself in a way I never have before, and in a way I think most of us are never taught to. I am learning to pause and let myself actually enjoy pleasure, beauty and wonder. Although this practice is, I have to admit, one I have not been very skilled at maintaining.
After attending a transformational retreat earlier this year, I left with a very clear and strong knowing that I needed to make pleasure, play, beauty and joy priorities in my life. That I needed to slow down enough to be present to all this goodness that was already in my life, but that I just had a tendency to rush past. Stop and smell the roses, literally.
This work actually involved increasing my window of tolerance for pleasure, in the sense that slowing down has often felt hard. When I slow down, it seems one of two things happens. I either feel absolutely restless, sometimes even panicked. There is a part of me that senses urgency, a need to take action NOW, there is no time to rest. I think this is part nervous system dysregulation, part capitalist culture – but I’m not opening the latter can of worms today. The other thing that happens when I try to slow down is I shut right down. And it feels like I get stuck in this fog of apathy, inactivity and isolation. It feels incredibly difficult to get unstuck from this place. So I often fear slowing down, because I worry I’ll never speed back up again.
For the first few weeks and even months after the retreat, it seems my system developed this ease to increase my tolerance for slowness and pleasure. Rarely did I feel a sense of panic when I tried to slow down, nor was I afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pick up the pace again when I felt ready to. I believe this was neuroplasticity in action.
Interestingly, as I focused on slowing down and increasing my tolerance for pleasure, I felt an increasing ability to tolerate chaos as well as challenging emotions. I felt more calm and confident in my ability to navigate these things, trust that difficult experiences would pass, and I would come out the other end intact.
But it seems the neuroplastic properties of my experience have slowly fizzled out.
The last few weeks have felt very difficult, and I find myself once again stuck in old patterns, struggling to slow down and be present while also feeling like I’m doing nothing and going nowhere, stuck in negative thought loops and drowning in shame.
It feels frustrating, to be here again.
Things do feel a bit different though. I suppose I am a little more present with myself, more patient and compassionate. I feel a bit more aware, not quite in control, but definitely able to steer my experience, at least a little bit. I am able to reach out for support, sometimes just by text, and sometimes with a bit of delay. But that still feels significant.
And when I can overcome the fear that bubbles inside me as I take the steps to reach out for support, when I lean into the pain instead of away from it, I am surprised.
Surprised to find that allowing in this pain is actually what helps me find connection, pleasure. Something happens when I let myself ask for what I need, when I let someone walk beside me on this previously lonely path. Shame fades a little bit, my heart expands a little bit too, and I am able to lean into both pleasure and pain, a little more.