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On Being All-In, and Why Pleasure Matters


Welcome to my blog, where you'll find substantive, well-researched articles that blend neuroscience, philosophy, poetry, personal reflection, and the latest life coaching tools in service of helping people engage their full potential. 


On Being All-In, and Why Pleasure Matters

Kirstin Hotelling Zona



Hello, Lovelies.

 It’s been a while since I’ve written, longer than I’d like, but that doesn’t mean you haven’t been on my mind. On the contrary, so many things have happened since I last wrote that I’ve wanted to write about (my daughter graduating from high school and heading to college imminently, my 15 yo son stepping onto the Long Trail in Vermont for a 273-mile solo through-hike, my ex-husband getting married, and … me falling in love with a beautiful new man!)—but doing so would’ve meant stepping out of the roiling stream of now onto dry land where distance and perspective can be found. I wanted to stay right where I was, feet squared smack-dab in the center of life’s swollen river. I wanted to feel it all. To savor every sensation without losing my balance, which meant giving way to the rush just enough to secure my footing on the unshifting ground beneath.

 All my life I’ve been pulled to aliveness—to experiences, encounters, people, and places that catalyze the astonishing sensation of living that, at its most elemental, brings us home to that sense of inviolable belonging, of oneness with the source that endows the tiny ant with her shocking strength as well as the human heart its capacity to love so hard that it aches.

It’s a way of living that feels both intentional and involuntary, and just as it’s fueled my accomplishments and nurtured my creative and spiritual evolution, it’s also provoked, from as far back as I can recall, displeasure and disapproval, and sometimes (like when I was expelled from high school, or told by an ex I loved deeply that I’m “dangerous”) outright rejection.

As a little girl, I was often described as “energetic.” My dad called me “Springs” because I rarely sat still. My teachers noted my curiosity, my mother celebrated my creativity. But I was also scolded and punished, explicitly but more often subtly, for being “too much”—for asking too many questions, for “always wanting more,” for “pushing too hard,” for talking too much, for being too sexual, for being “too angry,” for being “defiant.”

 Now, I don’t doubt that I was sometimes trying—stubborn, seemingly oblivious to basic protocols that we humans have chiseled over time in service of living together. I’m a mom, and I get it. And nor do I harbor resentment or blame towards my mother and father, or towards the teachers who punished me for refusing to say the pledge of allegiance or for secretly flying to NYC instead of showing up to the class camping trip my sophomore year.

 But what I’ve come to understand, both from decades of my own work and from coaching and teaching hundreds of clients and students, is that the number one impediment to living one’s full potential is shame, and that shame is rooted most deeply in some version of “I’m too much” or “I’m not enough,” two sides of the same story whose moral—being yourself is a liability to love—we internalize then express by walking through life hobbled by holding ourselves back.

 For women, this is especially the case, and one of the reasons I’m writing you right now is because I’m seeing the costs of this internalized shame show up in my client’s lives with particular force these days. Here’s a sampling of what it looks like:

 • Numbness, indifference, or dread of and around sex (bolstered by the highly profitable myth that pre- or post-menopausal women don’t enjoy sex)

 • Fear of telling the truth (about our history, about deep desires, about hopes, frustrations, angers, or pains) to those closest to us because we’re afraid we’ll hurt, disappoint, or otherwise turn them off

 • Inability owning one’s accomplishments and gifts and therefore stepping fully into one’s purpose or passion for fear of “failing” or appearing selfish, naïve, or “irresponsible”

 • Chronically undercharging for one’s services, or not asking for a raise or negotiating a higher salary from the start

 • Fear of disappointing others by giving up what doesn’t serve us (drinking, sugar, unhealthy relationships, compulsive shopping, etc.)

 • Entrenchment in addictive behaviors (emotional eating/eating disorders, over-drinking, love and sex addiction, difficulty leaving abusive relationships, compulsive “productivity” and overworking, etc.)

I’ve experienced both the agonizing grip of and the arduous journey of healing and recovering from many of these struggles myself; I don’t write this list lightly, and the very last thing I want to do is trigger more shame because you’re suffering under its weight and just can’t seem to shake it off. Healing one’s deep-rooted shame is a process, one that requires patience, support, healing (often of trauma), and resilience. If you’re reading this email, you’re likely already on your way; honor this and celebrate what you’ve done, and accept where you are right now with an exhale of compassion for yourself: this work is hard. It is. There’s no other way to put it.

And then, consider this: the number one common denominator I witness among those who are struggling with any or all of the above is a deep, often hidden, usually normalized (as in “this is the least of my worries!”) aversion to one’s own pleasure, as if the experience of pleasure is frivolous, at best window-dressing, a luxury, and at worst an indulgence, a selfish pursuit, somehow dirty or shallow or both.

I want to name this out loud and shine light on it because I’m seeing that denial or dismissal of one’s (relationship to) pleasure—which so many women I know, including a younger version of myself, unconsciously practice—is often the very thing, that last frontier, that holds women back from finally overcoming the shame that, regardless of how it presents, we’ve spent years, sometimes a lifetime, barely (at best) outrunning.

The women I work with are incredible humans—committed to making a difference in this world, awake and alert and dedicated to their fullest becoming. They’ve taken on huge challenges in the course of our coaching together—contending with long-buried grief, reckoning with heart-wrenching regrets and guilt, re-parenting of their inner children who were abused and neglected, feeling and healing traumatic wounds. They’ve made massive progress. And yet, what I’m seeing enough now to call it a pattern is that these same women often stall out just inches from true recovery or freedom because they’ve relegated pleasure to the non-issue pile. Over and over this non-issue somehow rears its head, can no longer be ignored; suddenly, what felt ancillary becomes primary: the tamping-down of one’s pleasure (often sexual pleasure, but not always and not only) emerges as the final (most normalized, and therefore most intractable) hurdle in one’s journey to a life fully expressed and deeply lived.     

When my clients become conscious of their fraught relationship to pleasure, the first thing they usually feel is not a sense of relief, but a fresh watershed of shame; they feel “broken,” “beyond repair,” or “frigid” (these are actual quotes from clients). They feel embarrassed: “I’m a progressive, modern woman, so why haven’t I figured this out?” They “believe” in pleasure, but they have a hard time believing that gratifying their desire for pleasure is a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, they tend to assume that doing so would be a weakness of some kind—selfish (in the bad sense), morally depraved, impulsive, or hedonistic. 

But what I tell them, and what I want to tell you, is that a rocky relationship to your own pleasure—whether sexual or otherwise—is not about pleasure, but pain. So-called “frigidity,” or difficulty embracing or pursuing pleasure is generally not a symptom of self-hatred or some deep-rooted aversion to feeling good. Rather, it’s a fear of pain—namely, the fear of re-experiencing some version of rejection that we experienced in our past, one (or a series of ones) that left us feeling embarrassed, humiliated, isolated, or otherwise insufficient—that is to say, ashamed.

Clearly, I’m not talking about an aversion to short-term “pleasures” like sugary foods or excessive shopping or another drink, distractions that in fact diminish our capacity for genuine pleasure by fortifying our resistance to discomfort. I’m talking about an aversion to the deeply embodied sort of pleasure that comes from being all-in without apology or guilt.

The sort of pleasure I’m talking about—the pleasure we often learn to deny, a denial we then inadvertently learn to justify with any number of cultural myths that demonize women’s non-(re)productive pleasure—is the pleasure we feel when we show up to a given experience unfurled, authentic, available, and open, inhabiting our sensory faculties (literally, our ability to feel, physically and otherwise) fully.

Such is the pleasure of deep intimacies—of kissing while gazing at each other with eyes slightly open, of stroking and massaging your own body—all of it—with a feather-light, loving touch, of dancing by yourself with abandon at a party or concert while everyone around you is coupled.

It is the pleasure of creative expression that’s more concerned with authenticity than it is with being accepted—the trembling vulnerability in the tips of Van Gogh’s irises, the gravel-y reach of Janis Joplin’s highest notes, Whitman’s incantatory love-note lists to the world.  

Such pleasure is born of a devotion (which is, importantly, not the same thing as consistent success) to feeling fully the range of one’s human experience over and above an addiction to mere happiness or comfort.

 Such pleasure can therefore be messy, unnamable, disorienting, and scary.

It is the opposite of holding-back.

It is the stance of all-in.

It is standing in that roiling river of now, a commitment that sometimes demands all the concentration we can muster.

It is the reward of sharing (one’s creativity, one’s love, one’s body, one’s beliefs, one’s service) without expectation of reciprocity or guarantee of success.

To practice one’s pleasure (I do believe pleasure, like love, is a practice we can and must cultivate) in service of a life that’s all-in is above all an act of exquisite vulnerability, because at the heart of what’s pleasing about pleasure is honesty; pleasure is not something we can fake. It’s not a performance. When we inhabit our pleasure we exhale into our authentic selves. We are laying aside self-consciousness and worries about what others think, and we are, for however brief a moment, suspended in oneness with life itself. We are bared. We are open.

This is why nothing hurts quite like being rejected while inhabiting our pleasure—nothing, that is, except living in fear of such rejection and therefore deciding over time that our pleasure doesn’t matter, or worse, that it’s a contagion.

Because here’s the thing: when we decide (however unconsciously) to hold back, to move through life half-in as a way of protecting ourselves from pain, what we sacrifice is the kind of pleasure that brings us home to ourselves and the source (call it God, the universe, the way, nature, etc.) from which we come and by which we are all interwoven. We sacrifice our full expression, and in doing so we amputate the possibility of pure belonging, the ecstacy of aliveness that is our collective birthright and salvation.

And yet, in the wake of trauma, of abuse, of harrowing loss, of radical pain, we often intuitively reason that such a choice is not only wise, but necessary: we don’t want to experience such pain again, so we share a little less of ourselves, we show up more cautiously, we trim our ambitions and our dreams, we dull our desires in the name of “playing it safe.” We relegate our pleasure to the non-issue pile in hopes of healing and feeling better.

But what I know to be true is that holding back as a response to once-devastating pain only reopens the original wound of rejection or violation because we betray our own vitality in the process; we preempt abandonment by abandoning ourselves first.

Instead of pulling back in the wake of loss or hurt, I urge you, then, to do the opposite: rather than choosing each day to live in service of avoiding pain, I invite you to live each day in pursuit of your deepest pleasures. Instead of holding back, decide to show up more honestly to yourself and others than you ever have before. Seek situations on purpose wherein the stakes of self-betrayal are costly, not cheap: a new or newly dedicated devotion to your creative work; an investment (financial and/or emotional) in a cause,  project, or venture; a decision to pursue your own best life with the support of a mentor or group of like-minded others; a new job or career; more intimacy in your existing relationship, or the choice to end the relationships in your life that, on the balance, suck you dry and leave you weary and doubting; a conscious embrace of being single or a conscious decision to date and to once again fall in love. 

If what you want is to rise from your bloody knees with dignity and a more capacious heart than ever, give more of yourself, not less. Aim higher, not lower. Such is the stance of being all-in, a state of existence that some will call hedonistic or impulsive, but which is in fact anything but: to be all-in demands discernment over distraction, acceptance over addiction, feeling over fear, and healing over avoidance. It also means you’re willing to incur the pain of rejection in order to make possible the pleasure of being fully seen, a pleasure that begins only when you’ve chosen to see and be with yourself in all of your glory and imperfection without shrinking from your truth. To be all-in is a practice of reclamation and healing, hardly an expression of arrogance or indifference.

Sometimes, being all-in means full immersion—living all up inside of the thing rather than reflecting upon it. This is where I’ve been for the past couple of months, what I described at the start of this email as standing smack-dab in life’s roiling river, steadying myself by surrendering just enough to the flow so that I wasn’t pulled under.

This spring my first-born graduated from high school, and now we’re preparing for her move to NYC for college in a few weeks—the formal end of her childhood, an era complete. Shortly thereafter, my 15-year-old son set out to solo hike the 273-mile Long Trail in Vermont. A week later, my ex-husband got remarried. In the midst of it all, I met and fell in love with an extraordinary man, an experience by itself that’s turned my world upside down in the best of ways (and about which I will write in a later essay when I have steadied a bit and found my words!).

In sum, it’s been a spring full of thresholds and flung-open doors, roofless houses and walls that turn into windows as I approach them. I’ve not wanted to miss a moment of it; I’ve felt many times in the past few months that the moment I’m inhabiting is an aperture I want to open wider by climbing inside of it entirely. I’ve been acutely conscious of important endings as well as beginnings, nodes on the timeline of my life that I want to memorialize by absorbing them fully.

As you head into these sultry last days of summer, I invite you to pause, and to ask yourself where you might be denying yourself the pleasure of being all-in. Is there an area of your life that calls to you, that yearns for more attention? Is there a relationship, a creative pursuit, an old pattern of behavior, a state of physical being, or perhaps a hard-to-name feeling of disconnect and dissatisfaction that burbles to the surface the minute you slow down—an important slice of your precious life’s spectrum that’s been numbed by avoidance, confusion, self-doubt, shame, or fear?

If so, be kind to yourself. Give yourself some compassion and understanding.

Then, allow yourself to set aside those voices of caution, and take a leap. Give all of yourself to whatever it is you want more of in your life. Because what’s the worst that can happen? Rejection? Failure? Loss? All of these are inevitable, and all are opportunities to become more of who you are and less of what you’re not. Rejection hurt, sure. Failure is disappointing, yes. But not having tried? That’s a pain that haunts us forever.

Let’s do it. Let’s be all-in. Together.



P.S. Stay tuned for a new Facebook Live video series I’ll be starting next week, in which I invite you into my life up-close and share my thoughts about being all-in… It’s gonna be unfiltered and raw J

P.P.S. My next women’s retreat will be held this September in central Illinois; I’ll be sharing the juicy details soon!

P.P.P.S. If you’d like to receive coaching about your relationship to pleasure, your body, shame, or anything else this email brings up for you, I’d love to offer you a free Breakthrough Session. These are 60 – 90 minute sessions of coaching, during which I honest-to-god provide you with my very best coaching for free. No expectations. For real. Click here to schedule.


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