The common belief is that Valentine’s Day is the day to celebrate love, especially romantic love. In reaction many people get anxious, or feel insecure or angry, or become critical of the day. “Singles appreciation day”, “a Hallmark holiday”, and “It’s just about obligation” are things we have all heard. I want to offer you a different perspective on how to observe this day that has nothing to do with your romantic relationship status and everything to do with yourself.
Think of all the traditional gifts we give those we love on Valentine’s Day: beautiful flowers, sweet treats, a delicious meal, a soft teddy bear. All of these gifts involve the senses. The tokens exchanged on Valentine’s Day are not about love but are instead about sensuality.
Valentine’s Day can be a day to celebrate indulgence and sensuality - two things us Americans don’t seem to do well. You may be thinking “You’re right we have a problem with overindulgences! We overeat, drink to excess, over spend, and binge watch.” But I would actually argue that those activities aren’t about overindulging, at least not the way many of my clients tell me they do them; they’re examples of consuming a luxury without mindfulness.
I’ll paraphrase a French philosopher: the excess of pleasure without savoring is debauchery. Unfortunately this is what many of us do: we don’t savor a sensual experience. To savor something means we slow down, notice all the many facets and nuances of it, experience it fully, and appreciate it. If you’ve ever been to Italy, you understand what I’m talking about. Italians know how to savor - a glass of wine, a carefully-prepared meal, a beautiful piece of art, music, or fashion. We could learn something from them in this regard. Americans deprive ourselves of sensual pleasures over and over which creates a sense of scarcity about the very thing we are denying ourselves. So we end up devouring it because we think it’s scarce…only to then feel guilt and shame about devouring it. When given the opportunity to indulge our senses after a period of self-denial, we can easily go overboard.
Old habits die hard and our culture’s history of denying the self for virtuous reasons that lead to attaining one’s moral and spiritual goals is still there under the surface. I know: I often bump up against these hidden beliefs with my clients. To fully enjoy a sensual experience is a scary prospect to some because of the intensity of their self-denial behaviors and their anxiety about pleasure. Some folks swing back and forth between self-denial and overindulging, creating an emotional seesaw. I believe it’s this seesaw, not the pleasurable sensations themselves, that cause an individual’s pain and suffering. No wonder we have such mixed messages about the pleasures of Valentine’s Day and end up making the day about love instead. Love, even in all its enormity and complexity, seems more manageable than individually savoring sensual pleasures.
When I talk to my clients about the need to build a better appreciation for sensuality in their daily lives, I can tell they don’t really understand what I mean. Many people confuse sensuality with sexuality so let me explain. Sensuality is the use of one’s senses to notice and experience pleasure whereas sexuality involves sexual feelings. For example, receiving a massage is a sensual experience — the dimmed lighting, the warm hands on our body, the smell of the massage oil — without it necessarily involving sexual feelings.
Today is a day you have permission to slow down and savor sensuality so I hope you will go home tonight and enjoy the fuck out of those flowers, that chocolate, or your dinner. Notice everything you can about it. You might find that you not only experience a deep sense of pleasure and relaxation but that you also feel really fulfilled doing so. You might even learn a thing or two about yourself. And none of this has anything to do with your romantic relationship status.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.