Find Pleasure in Life’s Painful Moments: It’s Time to Embrace ‘Existential Kink’

This unusual tactic transforms wallowing into a powerful mental health exercise

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

Given frustrations, anxieties, and fears coming up during Covid-19, you may have been searching for coping methods that don’t include TV bingeing or reaching for another glass of wine. One you may not be familiar with is “existential kink,” a term coined by author and expert Carolyn Elliott, PhD. Based on concepts like Freud’s pleasure principle and Jung’s shadow, existential kink (EK) allows us to process difficult or “don’t like” emotions by consciously enjoying them.

What does that look like? Let’s take the example of sadness. With EK, you would open the floodgates and really let the emotion expand, taking on mythical proportions, like a profound and beautiful tragedy. You might feel the sadness swelling through your body or pinning you with its weight. Maybe you’d relish the absolute desolation enveloping you and would picture yourself in the company of the saddest poets who ever lived, conveying their despair like a beautiful jewel. With anger, you might feel your rage crackling through your body like electricity and then exploding in lightning that lights up the whole sky. Or you’d envision yourself as an infuriated monster, 50 feet tall and swiping out empty buildings downtown, savoring the absolute power and righteousness.

Sound strange? Maybe even counterintuitive? As a therapist, I see and work with clients’ don’t-like emotions on a daily basis. And I can confirm that there’s a reason why enjoying don’t-like emotions can work. It’s because — oddly enough — our unconscious might already be doing exactly that. Let’s take Carolyn as an example. During a difficult time, when she was struggling with financial scarcity (the idea of EK actually came to her in line at a food bank), she realized a hidden part of her actually enjoyed the game-like intensity of trying to cover her bills. Once she consciously enjoyed the “electric pleasure” in the excitement, she regained a sense of agency. This allowed her to become curious about how it would feel to experience abundance instead.

Maybe you’d relish the absolute desolation enveloping you and would picture yourself in the company of the saddest poets who ever lived, conveying their despair like a beautiful jewel.

Of course, not all suffering and hardship can be attributed to the individual. A good rule of thumb is to notice if you’re stuck in patterns that other people with a similar background are not experiencing. Carolyn noted that when she was financially struggling after graduating from school, other women from her class were “doing just great.” This showed Carolyn that her problems couldn’t necessarily be attributed to larger systemic issues (like sexism, for example) — the issues were with her. While this realization wasn’t easy, taking agency and ownership allowed Carolyn to work with the situation and, through EK, even enjoy it.

I spoke to Carolyn to find out how to use EK to handle and process don’t-like emotions coming up for us during this time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Is it possible to find surrender and even pleasure in don’t-like emotions during Covid?

It is 1,000% possible. I think we’re all experiencing a bigger dose of scarcity and frustration than we may have experienced ever before. Of course, there’s tons of people experiencing injustice, and they have truly been victimized. But it’s also so fashionable to see oneself as a victim, to the point where the president of the United States — the most powerful person in the world! — sees himself as a persecuted victim. What I’m interested in spreading is a way of being in relationship with our experience where we acknowledge our pain while also being able to say I’m larger than that.

The major choice we have about our life is our attitude towards it. So, do we want to feel victimized and burdened and go into self-pity and rail against cruel fate? Or do we want to attempt to broaden our perspective and receive all the sensations in a way where we can take some playful enjoyment in that intensity? It’s an attitude of seeing oneself at a deeper level as the creator of one’s experience, and not in a cheesy The Secret sort of way.

Are there times when EK is not the best solution?

EK is best for long-term frustration in money, love, creativity, blocks, and recurring patterns — things that have an underlying feel of tension to them. EK is not the best process for really acute, intense emotions and ongoing depression. For those I might recommend traditional therapy — I had weekly therapy for 10 years and it certainly saved my life. Likewise, things like EFT tapping, deep breathing, being present, and inquiry process, the work of Bryon Katie, are all helpful.

I also like to give the caveat that grief and pleasure are on a spectrum. I would never suggest that anybody attempt to apply EK directly to a trauma or loss, or at least not without lots and lots of deep and supported grieving first.

“Do we want to go into self-pity and rail against cruel fate? Or do we want to attempt to broaden our perspective and receive all the sensations in a way where we can take some playful enjoyment in that intensity?”

How can people start to get a feel for EK?

One thing that I like to invite people to do is remember times when they took some pleasure in something painful. For me, I can remember being six years old and having a loose tooth. It hurt to press on it with my tongue, but it also felt good! You could also remember times you’ve watched scary, upsetting shows where terrible things happened to characters you identified with, and yet there was a certain deep pleasure in going through that sympathetic experience.

You could also think about the times you’ve been on the phone with a friend who was saying, Let me tell you this thing about my boss and it was so horrible, and then I want to tell you what awful thing my boyfriend did! Some part of you is like, You know, I think you’re enjoying this! You can tell there’s a certain zest there. So it’s helpful to recall those types of experiences and make the connection that pain and pleasure are very slippery and can bleed into each other rather easily.

How can I start to practice EK?

There are specific meditations and practices in my book to work with EK. But to start to tap into the part of you that actually enjoys and gets off on don’t-like situations, I can offer a few ideas. First, set a timer for 15 minutes and lie down somewhere quiet in order to give yourself a space and time container. Gently put your ego aside, along with the judgments about who you think you are, or who you think you “should be.” You can imagine that the don’t-like situation will suddenly disappear in a month, and that can be helpful in letting you relax and enjoy this taboo feeling in the present moment. You can also use statements like “It’s okay for me to feel my forbidden enjoyment of this don’t-like situation without having to judge it or shame it,” to really give yourself permission to let it out. And finally, you can use a playful, teasing approach by saying something like, “Oh no, not feeling that, anything but that! It’s just so naughty and wrong!” I know it sounds a little silly, but it can really start to facilitate those feelings of enjoyment, whether they’re physical or emotional.

Therapist at Mindful Psychotherapy. Author of My Pleasure: The New Psychology of Sex, Dating, and Self-Care.

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