There is no end of advice these days on how to be a good person, how to make good decisions, how to be mindful and compassionate, how to have boundaries, how to be open, how to be assertive, how not to be self-effacing, how to be politically invested, how to live in the now, how to live in a world that demands immediacy, how to think about the future, how not to think too much about the future, how not to think. For a certain kind of person — the person who, usually, strives to be a responsible parent, a sensitive friend, an upright citizen, a person who tries to care about their community — it can be impossible not to succumb to the incessant urge to mimic someone else’s supposed balance and feeling of wellness in life. What do we even know about them really?
I‘m increasingly seeing this in my work as a therapist in New York City. So are my colleagues. One said to me recently that he was tired of listening to his patients talk about the impossible advice inhaled on Instagram and TikTok — to say nothing of the self-help industry. “Doesn’t anyone come asking to be more free?” he exclaimed. “They don’t,” I said pessimistically. “Everyone wants to make the right decisions.” The problem is it’s very hard to tell someone that pursuing the abstract question of “right and wrong” ways to live will lead you into a cul-de-sac. It avoids the deeper question of desire, and desire is a compass.
The promised image of goodness skirts pleasures that — for obscure reasons — you aren’t sure you can want. I see patients grow fearful when they can’t tell if what they desire is compulsive — just another rote, maybe addictive, behavior, or a real attempt to test the boundaries they live under. How do you locate free will in a world this compulsory? Unsettling desires challenge our perception of who we are and what life might look like. This boundary, the testing of it, takes time and care. Importantly, you come to see that limits cannot be held or crossed under compulsion. They must be approached freely.
My patients have spent time on the couch struggling with the joys and pains that come with their wish to take drugs, not to expand consciousness but just because; quit their job, not to re-evaluate life, but simply to stop working (along with the bonus pleasure of thumbing their nose at their employers); or give in to an irksome captivation with the wrong person at the absolutely wrong time. After a futile struggle with my son over “Call of Duty,” I finally heard what drew him to play: the twisted entertainment of uttering the most obscene, vicious, and yes, witty words for the killcam seen by the other player before being exited from the video game. I had little sense he was honing his verbal acuity by playing when I set out to curb him.
These pursuits certainly aren’t what you ought to do — much less post about — and yet I find that it’s when we dwell on our secret enjoyments that we learn the most about ourselves. Sexual and aggressive feelings, veering self-destructive, are finally confronted without the veneer of rationalization.
Limits cannot hold when it comes to pleasure. What is too much one day, is not enough on another. What is too much for one person, is just enough for another. And so on. This trouble with pleasure can be lived with. What seemingly can’t, is the feeling that the basic laws that shore up our society are only just functioning — every day we face new evidence of how ruthlessly these are being undermined by those in power. As if to make up for this vacuum — while not really doing much about it — I think we now seek to impose rules on ourselves and shame on others. Who do we really want to control?
Once upon a time, America incorporated a diversity of religions and cultures into its vast nation, which multiplied, splintered, adapted, shattered, into a panoply. Each of these was an island with its own carefully constructed economy of virtue and vice. I think of 19th century spiritual fervor and 1960s cults of liberation. These were turbulent and unwieldy experiments that ran the gamut of prohibiting sexuality absolutely to enforcing its supposedly open expression.
Now, the internet has given us access to all of it, all at once, and none of it in its real, embodied, sensually lived and shared forms. It’s not making people feel any more optimistic. All the ways we now seek to manage ourselves deadens the little freedom we have, the possibility of exploring our wildest and worst fantasies in order to reconcile with them, and with it, take advantage of the minor pleasures we might achieve in life. In a world wrought with so much excess, I still believe this true for each and every one of us.
The feeling of transgression, framed by guilt, fascinated Sigmund Freud. For him, transgression was always tied to parental expectations or self-reproach for criticisms of those whom we once revered. Breaking taboos shakes you to the core. Hiding this personal affair under the collective judgments bandied about on the internet — dressed up in the language of therapy speak — isn’t bringing us closer to knowing what is in our own hearts. This new godlike, all-knowing, critic has us by the proverbial nose.
Listening to my patients, I’ve come to wonder if piety, an infinite demand for dutiful conduct and unthinking reverence, is what is being asked of us endlessly in the currently climate. Feelings of guilt and shame hover about like a thick fog. Even forms of defiant transgression — those of the online provocateurs, the proudly “problematic” comedians, the contrarian would-be intellectuals — seem an admission, compulsively flirting with punishment. We are failing to get at the real nature of our desires. A new sanctimoniousness is leaving us without a feeling for what is true or real; both thin-skinned and disaffected.
I’m reading Annie Ernaux. She published her diary, “Getting Lost,” about a torrid affair at 50, after a long, stable marriage that left her dissatisfied. “It’s obvious that nothing is more desirable and dangerous than losing the sense of self,” she writes, “at least in my case.” And later: “For five years, I’ve ceased to experience with shame what can be experienced with pleasure and triumph (sexuality, jealousy, class differences). Shame spreads over everything, prevents further progress.” She only discovered passion, and its likeness to writing, later in life. This was less the story of an erotic tryst than a tale of “how dearly we pay for happiness” and the principle, “wondrous and terrifying,” of desire.
Many of my patients are mired in a shame that flattens them, making searching for pleasure impossible. I always laugh when I remember a turning point for one of them. He kept repeating to me that one thing or another “just wasn’t working out.” Thinking about the ways he neglected feelings of exhilaration in his body, I said to him that every time he said that I kept imagining him going to the gym. A silly comment on the surface, it nevertheless touched him deeply. “Working out” was a heavy topic for his parents, embroiled in politics. He broke free for a short time through a different kind of labor — one more manual, athletic, tactile, erotic. In adolescence he took a job in an automobile shop, played with carpentry, started drawing, chased girls. Returning to these memories opened up a new intensity, exploring riotous sexual fantasies about me, questioning himself ruthlessly as a parent too easily frustrated by his children’s wants, and riding a motorcycle again.
Another patient, a teenager, asked me after many years if she could speak frankly about sex — was this the kind of thing I did? I smiled, and said, “Try me.” She told me about moments of intimacy in which she always felt held-back, behind a glass wall. “Even when I was caught in a rainstorm the other day, I couldn’t just enjoy it, like I was looking at the image of someone caught in a rainstorm but not actually in it.” She went on to express concerns I had heard before, about being damaged, or maybe autistic, or the kind of person who was too critical of others — like her parents. “Sounds like you want more pleasure than you’ve been able to experience yet,” I said. She laughed and told me at 12 she somehow had the courage to buy a vibrator. It surprised me. I saw her as so anxious and muted then, but already she was on the hunt! The dam broke between her and her girlfriend over the next few weeks. I’ll always marvel at the fact that speaking about wanting more in therapy, invites this elusive more.
Listening to patients, it feels to me like we’ve reached a real pitch of delirium regarding generalized advice, prescriptions, moral codes for behavior and images of some supposedly achievable balance. This infinite pedagogical universe was recently, and aptly, named the shame-industrial complex; poured out from every angle of life on social media, pushed by algorithms. In this vertigo we’ve forgotten that no one knows, or has ever known, what it really means to be an adult. Also that pleasure is hard-won, small, ephemeral; singular to each person. Wishes are historically overdetermined — meaning it really is your pleasure, and your pleasure only.
The more we could recognize the individuality and multiplicity of desires, Freud thought, the more judicious we would become as a society. There is no formula that fits all. There is no formula that even fits most. Our difficulty really letting loose — and even then, how conflicted we fundamentally remain about stretching our identities — should make us more empathic toward the fumbling, messy choices of others; without thinking we know what is best.
Having a second child was the most transgressive thing I’ve done in my life. From the outside, I know this sounds ridiculous. What could be less transgressive? There are no second-child police. There is no rule that prohibits this act. It’s a readily available option. Quite common, one might say. I know that only my psychoanalyst could really understand the fight with myself that I endured. The boundary was set in stone, one that spoke to a stillbirth in the family before my birth, a vague decree that having children was expensive and imprudent, some image of what it meant to be a “good” girl (i.e. not sexual), a criticism of my family where I was the only child, a feeling that I would jeopardize my career, and the necessity that I get behind this desire without cover.
What I found, after much work in analysis, is that there is no justification possible, no matter how hard I tried to find it. I want what I want because I want it. You have to live with your choices which are more-or-less inexplicable to others. The pleasure my daughter gives me is untold, sometimes even disturbing, as if I tempted fate and stole something precious from the gods. And, I confess, despite all this, I revived my occasional smoking habit again after she was born. I just wasn’t willing to let the feeling fade away — not yet.
We are contradictory creatures, wondrously and terrifyingly so.
Jamieson Webster (@jamiesonwebster) is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and a professor at the New School. She is the author, most recently, of “Disorganization and Sex.”
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