Coaching is rich with psychological nuance and complexity. This complexity invites a wide range of theoretical lenses through which coaching dynamics can be explored and understood.
One such perspective derives from the work of Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalytic theorist known for his compelling, albeit challenging, and often ambiguous, concepts.
Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, made profound and influential contributions to psychoanalysis, reframing and expanding upon the work of Freud through his unique structural approach.
Known for his concept of the ‘mirror stage’ and his triadic structure of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary, Lacan emphasised the significance of language, desire, and the unconscious in shaping human identity.
His conception of jouissance, a pleasure that transgresses into pain, further deepened the understanding of human desire and motivation.
Lacan’s teachings, characterised by his distinctive linguistic style and philosophical depth, revolutionised psychoanalysis, profoundly influencing not only psychology and psychiatry, but also impacting fields such as literature, philosophy, and cultural studies, making him a seminal figure in 20th-century thought.
However, despite his significant contribution, it is specifically to his concept of jouissance that I want to turn in this article.
Whilst not well-known within the coaching field, the concept of jouissance has a lot to offer. Dr Simon Western has been instrumental in bringing this to the fore through his Analytic Network programme and books and I’m grateful to him for having introduced me to the concept which has, for some, as yet unclear reason, gotten under my skin!
I am also extremely grateful to the introduction to jouissance provided by Derek Hook in his exceptional YouTube series as well as Darian Leader’s book on the topic, “Jouissance: Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction”.
I hope through this article to introduce and explain this concept and to consider its implications in the context of coaching. I do, however, want to stress that I am no expert on this and this article is, in a sense, my own way of making sense of the concept of jouissance when applied to coaching.
Overview of Lacan’s Concept of Jouissance
Jacques Lacan holds a unique and significant position within the landscape of psychoanalytic theory.
Among his many contributions, his concept of jouissance is particularly notable.
Jouissance, a French term without a direct English equivalent, refers to a paradoxical blend of pleasure and pain that extends beyond mere satisfaction or enjoyment.
Lacan’s jouissance brings into sharp relief the dual aspect of human experience – that which is blissfully transcendent yet simultaneously painful.
This concept may offer coaches profound new ways to think about and understand human desires and motivations.
What is Jouissance?
Jouissance is difficult to translate directly into English, but it roughly corresponds to the idea of “extreme pleasure” or “enjoyment”. It has particular significance in Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory due to its paradoxical and complex nature.
Jouissance in Lacan’s theory extends beyond the boundaries of pleasure as ordinarily understood. It represents a form of pleasure that is so intense that it becomes painful.
This notion highlights the paradoxical and dual aspect of human enjoyment, in which the pursuit of pleasure can transcend into a form of suffering or discomfort.
In Lacan’s concept of jouissance, one moves beyond the ‘pleasure principle’ – the instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain – towards a state where pleasure and pain blur and intermingle.
This experience can be both deeply fulfilling and profoundly unsettling, reflecting again the complexity of human desires and motivations.
Examples of Jouissance
There are limitless ways in which jouissance might reveal itself but to offer a few practical examples, we might think about the following.
The Marathon Runner: Consider a marathon runner who consistently pushes their body to the limit. The training is gruelling, the races are physically punishing, and yet, they persist. Here, the jouissance can be seen in the strange enjoyment they derive from the pain and exhaustion. They push beyond the comfort zone, beyond the simple pleasure of running, to a place where the pleasure and the pain converge, and the boundaries blur. An extreme example of this can be seen in David Goggins, author of “Can’t Hurt Me” whose ambition is to be the “baddest m*fr on the planet”! (His words, not mine). Any reading of Googin’s life cannot help but see jouissance at its highest level.
The Perfectionist Artist: Imagine a painter or author who spends countless hours in their studio, working meticulously on every detail of their artwork or book. The process is agonising and often fraught with dissatisfaction, yet they feel compelled to continue. They take a certain kind of pleasure, a jouissance, in the very struggle and dissatisfaction of their creative process, in the pursuit of an ideal they might never attain. It might be possible, of course, that it is the jouissance that is the true goal here rather than the finished piece of work.
The High-Pressure Executive: Consider a high-ranking executive in a demanding corporate environment. They often work long hours under high stress, pushing themselves to exhaustion. Yet, they continue to seek more challenging projects and greater responsibilities. The jouissance is seen in the way they find enjoyment in the very stress, strain, and overwork that goes beyond the pleasure they derive from their professional accomplishments. They pride themselves on their ability to survive on little sleep, no breaks, no lunch and unending pressure.
In all these examples, the situation is relatively unusual. Not many people (in the scheme of things) are marathon runners, struggling artists or high-powered executives!
So, can jouissance show up in more mundane, everyday life?
Jouissance in Daily Life
While the concept of jouissance is often associated with intense or extreme experiences, it can also manifest in less extreme ways in our daily lives.
Here are a few examples:
Workaholism: People who habitually work late hours, even when it’s not required, may be experiencing a form of jouissance. The pleasure they derive from their work becomes so intense that it crosses into the realm of discomfort, manifesting as physical exhaustion or social isolation.
Binge-Watching: The modern phenomenon of binge-watching TV shows can be seen as a form of jouissance. The viewer takes pleasure in the immersion and continuity of the narrative but pushes beyond the comfort zone into sleep deprivation or neglect of other responsibilities.
Comfort Food: Overindulging in comfort food, even to the point of physical discomfort, can be an example of jouissance. The pleasure derived from the taste of the food transcends into discomfort when the individual eats beyond their capacity or dietary needs.
Exercise: Many people engage in rigorous daily workouts that leave them physically drained, yet they continue to push themselves. The satisfaction they find in the intensity and challenge of their workouts – even when it involves pain or exhaustion – can be seen as jouissance.
Procrastination: Someone procrastinating may experience a form of jouissance in delaying tasks. There is a discomfort in the anxiety and rush to meet deadlines, yet they find a strange pleasure in the thrill of the last-minute completion.
Perfectionism: Everyday perfectionism, such as spending excessive time organising, cleaning, or tidying, can also be seen as a form of jouissance. The pleasure derived from the act or the result of the organisation blurs into discomfort when it interferes with other activities or becomes excessively time-consuming.
In all these ways, jouissance can surface in our daily routines and behaviours, highlighting the nuanced and complex ways in which we experience pleasure and discomfort.
These are particularly useful to note as we start to look at jouissance in the coaching context.
The Jouissance of Moral Rightness
Another manifestation of the drive to experience jouissance may occur in expressions of moral rightness, self-righteousness, offence and many of the, seemingly fracturing norms of current discourse.
In this case, the moral outrage or righteousness may be seen as not only an expression of emotion around the specific issue but also as the joy of being outraged or offended. This does not discount the importance of what the moral outrage is about but it does, at least, give us pause to question what else might be going on.
Strong Ethical Positions: Individuals might experience jouissance when they strongly adhere to and advocate for their ethical convictions. This can be seen in the pleasure derived from upholding moral principles and from being perceived as virtuous or righteous. However, this can also veer into discomfort when their ethical stance leads to conflicts, social alienation, or personal sacrifices. Their pursuit of jouissance may thus manifest as an unwavering commitment to ethical values, even when this commitment results in adversity or challenge.
Taking Offence: Taking offence can be a manifestation of jouissance when the feeling of being wronged or insulted incites a potent mix of displeasure and satisfaction. The displeasure arises from the offence itself, while the satisfaction comes from the opportunity to assert one’s values, gain sympathy, or assume a moral high ground. This duality—experiencing pleasure in the act of taking offence—reflects the essence of jouissance.
Self-Righteousness: Self-righteousness can be a fertile ground for jouissance. People who are self-righteous often derive deep satisfaction from seeing themselves as morally superior or more virtuous than others. They enjoy the pleasure of being ‘right,’ but this can lead to discomfort when their self-righteous attitudes cause social friction, isolation, or resentment. The paradoxical intermingling of pleasure and discomfort in self-righteousness mirrors the characteristics of jouissance.
In all these scenarios, jouissance is reflected in the simultaneous experience of pleasure and discomfort, as individuals derive satisfaction from asserting their moral convictions while also experiencing the challenges or conflicts that these convictions might provoke.
The key here lies in the transgressive nature of jouissance, pushing beyond the pleasure principle into realms of discomfort and even pain.
Dangers of Jouissance
Pursuing jouissance too far can entail various risks, given its inherently transgressive and paradoxical nature.
Here are a few potential dangers:
Psychological Risk: Jouissance involves pushing beyond conventional pleasure into realms of discomfort and even pain. When pursued excessively, this could lead to harmful psychological states, such as anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. The intensity of the experience may become overwhelming and distressing, leading to a sense of isolation, alienation or despair.
Physical Risk: In cases where jouissance is sought through physical exertion or endurance (as in the case of the marathon runner, or David Goggins), there can be significant physical health risks. Pushing the body beyond its limits can lead to injuries, chronic health problems, and in extreme cases, life-threatening conditions.
Interpersonal Risk: The pursuit of jouissance can have detrimental effects on personal relationships. As individuals push the boundaries of their own enjoyment and satisfaction, they might neglect their relationships, or their actions may cause distress or harm to others.
Addictive Behaviour: Given its nature, the pursuit of jouissance can potentially lead to addictive behaviours. The constant quest for that extreme pleasure may develop into an unhealthy dependency, much like addiction, where the individual is constantly seeking more despite the adverse effects on their life.
Ethical Risk: In some cases, the pursuit of jouissance may involve transgressing moral or societal norms. In such situations, ethical dilemmas can arise, which can result in guilt, social disapproval, or even legal consequences.
Despite these risks, there are clearly significant payoffs from experiencing jouissance. Let’s take a look at these next.
Benefits of Jouissance
While the concept of jouissance involves navigating the fine line between pleasure and discomfort, it does carry potential benefits and positive aspects.
Here are a few:
Increased Self-Knowledge: Jouissance often involves a profound exploration of one’s desires and boundaries, which can lead to increased self-knowledge and self-understanding. It can help individuals discover their true passions and explore the limits of their capacity for pleasure and discomfort.
Personal Growth and Development: The pursuit of jouissance often involves pushing oneself beyond comfort zones, which can promote personal growth and development. It can challenge individuals to confront their fears, to persevere in the face of adversity, and to cultivate resilience.
Enhanced Creative and Intellectual Output: Some people experience jouissance in the process of intellectual or creative work, often leading to impressive output. Many great artists, writers, and thinkers have described experiencing a form of jouissance in their creative or intellectual processes.
Depth of Experience: Jouissance can add a richness and depth to life experiences. The mixture of pleasure and discomfort can intensify emotions and make experiences feel more meaningful or significant.
Catalyst for Change: When jouissance becomes too intense or destructive, it can serve as a catalyst for change. It can motivate individuals to seek help, to make changes in their lives, or to develop new strategies for managing their desires and boundaries.
While the pursuit of jouissance is not without risks and challenges, when navigated with mindfulness and care, it can offer opportunities for self-discovery, personal growth, and deepened life experiences.
It will be cleat to any coach reading this that these benefits are often the crux of a coaching journey: Increased Self-Knowledge, Personal Growth and Development, Enhanced Creative and Intellectual Output, Depth of Experience, and Change! These seem to describe transformative coaching in a nutshell!
So now let’s turn to how jouissance may inform coaching.
Jouissance and Coaching: The Intersection
Having laid out the background to jouissance, I believe it’s clear that jouissance may have a useful place as a concept within the context of coaching.
Indeed, coaching relationships often witness the unfolding of jouissance as clients strive towards their goals. The identification of boundaries, the interplay between the pleasure principle and the ‘beyond,’ is a common outcome.
In the pursuit of personal or professional development, a client might repeatedly transgress boundaries, seeking a form of enjoyment that surpasses the limits of pleasure – a clear parallel with the Lacanian notion of jouissance.
However, this transgressive nature of jouissance also presents a challenge within the coaching context.
For instance, how can a coach support a client in their pursuit of goals when such pursuit is tinged with discomfort or self-destruction?
To illustrate these dynamics, we can consider several hypothetical scenarios where jouissance might play a significant role.
Pushing Personal Boundaries: clients often set goals around expanding their comfort zones and pushing personal boundaries, be it in their professional or personal lives. The enjoyment derived from overcoming challenges and the accompanying discomfort of navigating unfamiliar territory can be seen as a form of jouissance.
Achieving Peak Performance: Whether in sports, business, or personal development, peak performance is a common goal in coaching. The pursuit of this goal often involves intense discipline, focus, and effort, leading to a state where pleasure in accomplishment intersects with the discomfort of high demands, reflecting jouissance.
Personal Transformation: Goals revolving around significant personal change, such as a career transition, a lifestyle overhaul, or developing a new skill, can lead to experiences of jouissance. The pleasure in becoming a ‘new’ self is often accompanied by the discomfort of letting go of familiar habits and patterns.
Overcoming Limiting Beliefs: When clients aim to overcome limiting beliefs, they might experience jouissance in the process. They derive satisfaction from confronting and overcoming these barriers but may also face the discomfort of changing long-held views about themselves and their world.
Work-Life Balance: Striving for a perfect work-life balance is a common coaching goal. In this quest, clients might experience jouissance, finding pleasure in achieving this balance while also facing the discomfort of constantly adjusting and readjusting their priorities.
In each of these cases, the pursuit of these goals can stimulate experiences of jouissance, where the individual navigates the boundary between pleasure and discomfort.
Recognising this can offer a richer understanding of clients’ motivations and the challenges they might encounter while pursuing their goals.
How An Understanding of Jouissance May Benefit a Coach
Understanding the concept of jouissance can offer coaches valuable insights into their clients’ motivations, behaviours, and experiences, and thereby enhance their coaching effectiveness in several ways:
Informed Approach: Awareness of jouissance allows coaches to take a more informed approach when addressing the complexities of their clients’ experiences. Recognising when a client’s pursuit of an extreme form of pleasure might be causing discomfort can guide the coach in facilitating conversations around balance, boundary-setting, and self-care.
Navigating Transgressions: Jouissance often involves the transgression of limits. A coach familiar with this concept can help clients explore these transgressions in a safe and constructive manner, encouraging personal growth while also mitigating potential risks.
Deeper Understanding of Motivations: Jouissance can be a powerful motivating force. Coaches who understand this concept can gain deeper insights into what drives their clients, enabling them to provide more targeted and effective questions, reflections and support.
Handling Resistance: In some cases, clients might resist change because they are deriving a form of jouissance from their current behaviours or situations, even if these are causing them discomfort or harm. By recognising this, a coach can better address this resistance and facilitate the client’s journey towards positive change.
Facilitating Self-Reflection: Awareness of jouissance can assist coaches in guiding their clients towards greater self-understanding. It can serve as a lens through which clients explore their desires, their capacity for enduring discomfort, and their strategies for seeking pleasure and fulfilment.
Maintaining Ethical Standards: Understanding jouissance can help coaches maintain ethical standards in their practice. It can inform them when a client’s pursuit of jouissance may be leading to harmful or unethical outcomes, prompting them to take appropriate action.
Overall, a coach’s awareness of jouissance can enrich their practice by deepening their understanding of human desire and motivation, facilitating more nuanced and effective coaching interventions.
Limiting Beliefs and Jouissance
As a large part of a coach’s work is concerned with unearthing and exploring limiting beliefs, it is an interesting question to consider whether there is any jouissance to be had from holding on to those beliefs. Is there a painfully pleasurable outcome, for instance, from believing you are not worth success, or that you always come second.
Limiting beliefs, it seems to me, can be seen as an unconscious way of creating or reflecting jouissance.
In the context of jouissance, limiting beliefs can operate on two levels:
Creating Jouissance: Limiting beliefs may result in patterns of behaviour that enable jouissance. For example, someone may hold the belief that they’re only worthy when they’re working to exhaustion. This belief may lead them to work excessively, resulting in both pleasure (from the validation they receive) and discomfort (from the physical and mental strain). The belief acts as a boundary that they push against, and the transgression of this boundary into discomfort can create jouissance.
Reflecting Jouissance: Limiting beliefs can also be reflections of jouissance. For instance, someone who derives jouissance from being a ‘perfectionist’ may develop a limiting belief that they must always do things perfectly. This belief can lead to high stress and pressure (discomfort), but also satisfaction when they meet their own exacting standards (pleasure). The belief reflects the individual’s pursuit of jouissance.
In both scenarios, the limiting beliefs can maintain the cycle of jouissance by continually setting up situations where the individual derives pleasure that borders on discomfort.
For a coach, understanding this potential connection between limiting beliefs and jouissance can provide a valuable perspective when helping clients to identify and overcome their limiting beliefs.
Recognising the potential jouissance in these beliefs could assist in understanding why they might be difficult to change, and in developing strategies to address these deeply ingrained patterns.
Jouissance in a Client’s Language
The concept of jouissance, while largely considered a psychoanalytic phenomenon, can be subtly reflected in people’s language, both in the words they choose and in the ways they express themselves.
Here are a few ways that this can occur:
Describing Excessive Pleasure: When people speak of experiences that extend beyond ordinary pleasure into realms of extreme enjoyment, this can be an indication of jouissance. For instance, phrases like “painfully beautiful” or “exquisitely agonising” capture the paradoxical nature of jouissance, where pleasure and pain intertwine.
Expressing Transgression: Jouissance often involves a transgression of boundaries or norms. If someone describes a sense of thrill or satisfaction in pushing beyond their limits or breaking rules, this could suggest elements of jouissance. Phrases such as “I know it’s too much, but I can’t resist” or “it’s wrong, but it feels so right” may indicate this aspect of jouissance.
Identifying Obsessions or Addictions: If someone constantly talks about being drawn to something despite the harm or discomfort it causes them, this could reflect the dimension of jouissance. Language that suggests an addictive or compulsive quality (“I can’t stop myself”, “I’m hooked”, etc.) might indicate a pursuit of jouissance.
Signifying Discomfort with Enjoyment: Sometimes, people might express unease or guilt about the pleasure they derive from certain activities or experiences. This discomfort with their own enjoyment could potentially indicate an experience of jouissance.
Discussing Sacrifice for Fulfilment: Language that suggests a willingness to suffer or sacrifice for the sake of a fulfilling experience may also point towards jouissance. Expressions like “No pain, no gain” or “It’s a tough journey, but the destination is worth it” could be seen in this light.
Language can be a powerful tool to reveal subconscious experiences, and paying attention to these subtle cues in people’s expressions could provide insights into the presence of jouissance.
However, as a coach, it’s crucial to remember that we are not doing the interpreting – we are facilitating the client to their own conclusions. As a result, one of the most powerful tools at our disposal is reflecting what we hear and then building on this with questions that help the client explore it further.
Challenges of Working with Jouissance in Coaching
As facilitators of growth and change, coaches often find themselves navigating the nuanced dynamics of their clients’ experiences, including those related to jouissance.
Addressing jouissance can indeed present significant challenges for coaches. Here are some of the ways coaches might grapple with jouissance:
Understanding and Recognition: The first challenge for a coach is to comprehend the concept of jouissance itself, given its complexity and paradoxical nature. Recognising signs of jouissance in a client’s behaviour or experience requires a deep understanding of this psychoanalytic concept and an ability to read nuanced emotional cues.
Managing Transgression: Since jouissance often involves the transgression of limits—pushing past the pleasure principle into realms of discomfort—it can bring the client into risky territories, both emotionally and, in some cases, physically. Coaches face the challenge of exploring these transgressions in a manner that respects the client’s autonomy while also ensuring their safety and well-being.
Ethical Considerations: Coaches must operate within ethical boundaries and professional standards. If a client’s pursuit of jouissance threatens to violate these standards—for instance, if it involves harm to self or others—the coach faces the challenge of how to respond appropriately and ethically.
Navigating Dualities: Coaches may find it challenging to support a client in managing the dual nature of jouissance—the intermingling of pleasure and pain. They must provide support and encouragement for the client’s goals, while also helping them navigate the discomfort or distress that may arise from their pursuit of jouissance.
Self-awareness: Coaches, too, can experience jouissance in their professional pursuits. The challenge here lies in maintaining self-awareness and reflexivity, ensuring that their own jouissance doesn’t interfere with their ability to effectively support their clients.
In all these ways, coaches may be challenged by jouissance within the coaching context. It’s a complex area to navigate, requiring skill, understanding, ethical judgement, and self-awareness.
As I conclude this, I am painfully aware of how it scratches the surface yet I experience pleasure in its completion!
I believe Lacan’s concept of jouissance offers an insightful perspective into many dynamics that enter the coaching conversation and that whilst, as coaches, we are not analysts, we can be more tuned into the paradoxical nature of jouissance that may be driving a client’s behaviour.
While it presents challenges to work with, it also opens up new avenues for understanding client motivations and behaviours.
This exploration underscores the need for coaches to engage with psychoanalytic concepts, not only to deepen their practice but also to navigate the complexities inherent in their profession.
Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text – Dr Simon Western
Jouissance: Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction – Darian Leader
Derek Hook – YouTube series on Jouissance: https://youtu.be/mCs_WJ3YA5k