In his study of human behaviour, Wilhelm Reich paid close attention to the physiology of our emotions. What is going on in our bodies when we feel pleasure, anxiety, and rage? More critically, what is going on when we prevent ourselves from feelings them?
Reich positioned himself against his teacher Freud, who argued that humans’ self-destructive impulses are primary biological drives. Instead, he found pleasure and anxiety to be the most basic. Simply stated, pleasure results when energy flows to the skin’s surface (expansion); anxiety results when energy flows to the internal organs (compression), and aggression results when energy flows to the muscles (contraction). The relationship between these emotions follows: we feel pleasure when we reach out toward the world in desire; we feel anxiety when inhibitions challenge our ability to fulfil this desire; finally, our natural capacity for aggression transforms into destructive drives as a function of sexual denial on the one hand and the avoidance of anxiety on the other (Reich, Sexuality and Anxiety, 38). By chronically contracting our muscles to prevent ourselves from feeling pleasure or anxiety, we effectively armour ourselves against feeling the full impact of life. The result is that when our organism thereafter attempts to reach out towards the world in love, its energy gets bound in our muscles and can no longer reach the surface of the skin in pleasure. Instead of finding ourselves in a loving embrace, we find ourselves armed and dangerous.
In Reich’s words:
If one cannot move lovingly towards the world, one tries to destroy it. Or to put it differently: a destructive act is the substitute for unattainable gratification in love. The antithesis common to both these impulses is anxiety, which can be seen as a flight away from the world, a withdrawal into the ego. This flight can be caused by an external obstacle to the gratification of a drive, or by an inner inhibition about approaching the outside world. In both cases, anxiety tends to develop, at least incipiently. Thus, the direction “towards the world” (sexually or destructively) is fundamentally opposed to the direction “away from the world) (Reich 38).
Reich’s understanding of emotions allowed him to meet the destruction and anxiety that surfaced in the therapeutic context with confidence. He knew that the softening of muscles and the dissolution of chronic armouring opened people up to feeling more anxiety and that rage would inevitably be released in the process. While these experiences in themselves are certainly not pleasant, Reich assured us that they were nevertheless life giving. Based on extensive experience, Reich deemed it necessary to open ourselves up to anger and anxiety in order to live more pleasurable lives.
Listen here to learn more about the relationship between pleasure, anxiety, and aggression and how to allow these vital feelings into our lives: