Let’s talk about pleasure – or about what we do when we feel drained and stressed and exhausted from living life at an unsustainable pace, which most of us do to some extent. When we find ourselves on the brink of burnout, the selfcare we’re encouraged to engage in is usually surface level. Take a hot bath, or do a mindfulness exercise, learn more effectivev ways to deal with stress and so on, which are all good things, but they address the symptoms.
They don’t address the actual issue, which is that you’re living your life in a way that is not sustainable, that you cannot maintain in the long run without paying for it, healthwise.
It’s a much bigger project to instead take a look at what is going on in my life.
What is going on around me in this society that I live in, in the culture that I have been brought up in? Why is it that we are asked to do more than is possible for one human being? Why is it that we are under such extreme pressure that many of us get ill?
Obviously that’s a much bigger project than just having the glass of wine or having the bath so that you can get through another week. But getting you through another week, won’t change anything because next week, you’ll still be there, stressed out, passed out, doubting everything because you feel it in your bones that you can’t keep this up.
This is not how you want to live. This was not how it was supposed to be. And you’re stuck and you don’t know the way out because everyone seems to be doing it this way.
I know it’s a bigger deal to have a look at the underlying issues, but that’s what I’m asking us to do, because I want real change for us.
My work is to show you how to approach your dream projects sustainably, how to plan sustainably, how to prioritize your schedule and so on. But none of that matters if your whole life is unsustainable. If the whole foundation of your life is off, then whatever you create from that foundation will be off as well.
That’s why I talk a lot about radical self-care in The Creative Doer course, and about pleasure. What pleasure is and why women have been denied it and how that impairs our creative capacity in a very real way. But I’ve been noticing that there is some confusion about what pleasure actually is. And isn’t.
So let’s talk about the difference between pleasure on the one hand and relief on the other. Because those are two very different things, serving very different purposes.
Seeking relief is what we usually go for when we’re exhausted. It’s totally understandable, and it’s serves a purpose, it helps us check out and just pause for a bit. We need that in our lives. But only seeking relief will not change things, will not change that unsustainable foundation.
Pleasure, on the other hand, seeking out and being intentional about having pleasure in your life, will create real change. It will fill you up for real, it will fuel you. Whereas relief is more like letting off a bit of steam so that you don’t explode.
And I want to invite you to bring that distinction with you and look at it, just look at it and try not to judge yourself, look at it in your life. The things you do to feel better, which category do they belong to? The glass of wine in the evening, which category does it belong to? Spending an afternoon binging your favorite series, is that self-care, or is it just relief?
The answers to these questions will be different for each of us. Something that’s in the relief category for one person will be in the pleasure category for another. And it might also be different for you in different phases in your life. So you need to be mindful and truthful to yourself.
And, again, we need the relief as well. Our lives are what they are, sometimes we just need to do what we need to do in order to get through the day. That’s okay. We’re not going for perfect. We’re not looking to create this evolved, perfect spiritual self-care routine, where we just do all the right things and meditate at dawn and eat the kale and what not. Please. Let’s not do that.
Let’s not bring the achiever into our self-care practice as well. This is simply about taking care of yourself in whatever way you need right now.
At first, for me, this looked like learning how to even allow for relief in my life, because I was so insanely focused on the achieving, the producing, maximizing everything in my life. I could never allow myself to check out, not without guilt anyway. I felt I shouldn’t spend one single hour on anything that would not produce results or feed into something useful.
I’ve had to allow myself to do that, to waste time. You know, to “waste an evening” on something that has zero to do with anything other than momentary relief. Just because I’m too tired to do anything else, to just allow myself that relief. That can be an important part of it. But it can’t stop at relief. Because relief won’t change anything.
If I’m using it as a way to get through, and that’s all I do, then I’m not really engaging in self-care even if it might look like it. There has to be pleasure too. There has to be nourishment.
Think of the relief as empty calories, whereas pleasure is nourishment. It fills you up. It feeds you. It makes you stronger, makes you more resilient. It gives you something that you can build from.
The tricky thing is that when we feel down, when we feel tendencies towards exhaustion or depression, when our anxiety is up, that’s when we tend to lean even more towards relief because it’s all we can manage. And the paradox is of course that, then more than ever, we need the actual nourishment. We need the pleasure. We need the joy.
That’s why it’s so important to start paying some attention to pleasure right away, to cultivate that pleasure practice before things get desperate and we’re lost in exhaustion.
So that we know what works for us, the simple things, so that it becomes as easy to reach for pleasure as it is to reach for relief. (Or almost as easy, let’s be real.)
And then you might have to rely on some of the relief as well to get through the week, but then it won’t just be relief. You’re also getting some real nourishment. And that will make it possible for you to change the things that need to be changed. Not just maintain status quo, but actually build a stronger, jucier foundation.
Relief is the bandaid. Pleasure is the deep medicine.