The first three years of my 15-year relationship with my husband were very rocky. We broke up and got back together so many times that we and all of our friends had perpetual whiplash, partly over a tricky impasse: I wanted to have a child at some point; he did not.
In a session with a coach helping us work out this impasse, my whole world got flipped on its side, and I discovered where true confidence actually comes from.
In the session, the coach said, “Look, I can’t tell you whether having a child is the right decision for you or not. Kids are great, and they are also a lot of work and stress. But I can tell you that you are having a miserable time figuring it out. What if you had a pleasurable time figuring it out?”
A pleasurable time? Working through a miserable impasse? Could that be done? Should that be done?
I realized, my brain sputtering and smoking, that until that moment I had been pretty committed to having a miserable time figuring out hard stuff, easily falling into despair and shame when things got difficult. But what if amid the stresses and storms that life inevitably throws at all of us, I could just as easily reach for pleasure?
So, I got practicing. I asked myself at various times of the day, “How can I make this moment more pleasurable for myself?”
I practiced listening to the nudges and feelings that bubbled up, and I followed as many of them as I could. I wrote, “You are gorgeous!” in dry-erase marker on the bathroom mirror and smiled every time I saw it. I mustered all my resolve and said no to things that felt like life-sucking obligations, so I had energy left at the end of the day for quality connection with my partner. I left an extra dollar tip for the barista, just to see a little light creep across her sleepy face.
It was less about the actions I took, however, and more about how I felt each time I chose to boost my enjoyment. Remarkably less anxious and self-effacing. Sassy. Nourished. Intuitive. Sure-footed.
It turns out that feelings of pleasure, whether platonic or erotic, stimulate dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for motivation and desire. Neuroscientists tell us that if dopamine is depleted or blocked, you may lose the will to strive, even the ability to move.
So, sister: dopamine—a powerful and natural by-product of pleasurable experiences—equals confidence.
That woman who is feeling like a million bucks, who is thinking clearly, choosing boldly, and speaking her mind freely? That’s her brain on pleasure. She is no longer driven by worry. She knows how to put her own well-being at the top of her to-do list. She has discovered a secret to thriving, not just surviving.
I know, I know. For those of us who rely on perfectly-pressed outfits, resumes, and all-nighters in order to feel capable and valuable, choosing to “make the moment more pleasurable” may seem counterintuitive, if not downright silly and selfish.
Our collective mistrust of pleasure runs deep. We link pleasure with shame. We gorge ourselves on it and then purge ourselves of it. We believe that going for what feels good is weak, untrustworthy, and disgraceful, and that enjoying ourselves is something we can do only after we’ve earned it, or only in secret.
You may believe that pleasure will lead you to pain, but really, it is in not enjoying yourself that you suffer. It is the banishment and bedevilment of pleasure—the stuffing down of what is native and natural to you—that guarantees burnout. Without the landmarks of pleasure—your embodied knowing of what you want, care about, and love—you feel lost.
So, it turns out that tending to your pleasure actually boosts your confidence. You are then more creative, clear, and resilient, with deep reserves for the tricky impasses.
As of this writing, our son is 5 years old. It turned out that my husband wasn’t a no to the experience of having a kid but to the experience of losing his playful, vibrant partner (me) to the inevitable stresses of parenting. For us, orienting toward enjoyment was profound. It not only stopped our relationship from becoming a train wreck, but allowed us to navigate the rollercoaster ride of having a newborn, with quite a bit of pleasure.
So, give it a go. As many times a day as you can, ask yourself, “How can I make this moment more pleasurable for myself?”
Start small. You don’t have to completely remodel your house; you could just open a window to let in the fresh air. You don’t have to apply to grad school for a new career track, you could just take a dance break during your lunch break.
I predict that three important things will happen organically:
1. You will begin to re-organize your priorities.
You will no longer be trying to fit your well-being into your built-for-burnout life. Of course, sometimes life requires us to work late, hustle, or muscle through without particularly enjoying it. But that will become the exception rather than the default. Your actual daily schedule might look the same, but your enjoyment will become a non-negotiable that everything else revolves around. And you will then have the ability to enjoy your life simply because you say so.
2. You will become more trustable and generous—rather than a navel-gazing narcissist as you may fear.
When you are myopically focused on what you should do, you burn out. You might be giving to others, but it’s from an empty cup. When your own cup is full, and full of what truly brings you some joy, you not only have more to give, but what you are giving is free from the icky residue that comes with giving when you really don’t have it to give.
3. You will begin to redefine success for yourself.
You will no longer buy into the myth that burnout is the ticket to a good life. You will adjust your nervous system from one that has been vigilantly attuned to stress to one that knows it’s good to feel good, and it’s safe to feel safe. You will shift from surviving to thriving.
Counter-intuitive but true: the more pleasure, the better you feel, the better choices you make, the clearer your vision, and the brighter your life.