What is Emotional Play
Emotional play is a type of BDSM play which explores using situations which will make a submissive feel uncomfortable in an emotional sense. As with anything, it is important to see this play within the context of a safe and caring relationship. With any play which can cause discomfort there are risks, but when done properly these risks should be minimal. Often the feelings explored during emotional play are negative ones such as fear, humiliation and shame, but the sub is exposed to these in a careful and controlled way so that the experience is cathartic rather than harmful.
Because of the risk of causing long term emotional hurt, emotional play is often considered to be edge play. For this reason it is always important to communicate fully before and during any scene which involves emotional play. It is vital that you are aware of your partner’s boundaries and limits and that you are able to cause the ‘right type’ of pain. Having a safeword and using good aftercare is also an important thing to consider when practicing emotional play. Safety is the responsibility of both parties.
Those who enjoy or use emotional play as a tool would often see themselves as emotional masochists or emotional sadists. This is because when these negative feelings are explored within the context of the play, it arouses them. There is a feeling that the pain is enjoyable in some sense. This is not to say that it isn’t painful for them. But in the same way that physical pain can be enjoyed by masochists in a BDSM context, so can emotional pain.
Clearly this doesn’t mean that outside of this agreement the same things would be ok. The pain of being spanked can be incredibly erotic and exciting, but stubbing my toe or burning myself on the oven is not. In the same way, feeling the humiliation of being exposed and commented on in an erotic sense will turn me on, but being criticised publicly for my appearance would just hurt me. Essentially, as with physical pain, it need to be the right sort.
At the heart of emotional masochism lies cognitive dissonance. I have written about cognitive dissonance before but essentially it arises from an inconsistency between our thoughts and beliefs. This inconsistency can lead you to feel uncomfortable, especially if the contradiction is a big part of your sense of self. Wanting to behave in a way which doesn’t fit with your traditionally held self view can trigger the feelings of dissonance, and this will only grow as you make the choice to follow the desire for that behaviour.
Basically, behaving in ways which contradict your values and beliefs can cause intense feelings of discomfort and this is the sort of pain which an emotional masochist can thrive on. Consciously choosing these behaviours can add to that pain, especially if you are made to acknowledge it. Often during a scene the submissive will sit with the feelings of dissonance, avoiding the inevitable. They will seem to string out the discomfort until they give in, put their beliefs aside, and do whatever the thing is which is causing the unease.
But what is pleasurable about feeling cognitive dissonance?
For me, there is a notable point in emotional play where I feel conflicted like this. In fact, often in a scene there will be more than one and it will feel that I am being pushed deeper and deeper into these new behaviours. The battle within myself causes confusion and my world becomes smaller and totally focussed on this one thing. It is a marked feeling of loss of control. I am choosing to leave one set of behaviours behind in order to embrace another. It feels confusing and overwhelming.
Again, these are not usually positive emotions but when brought about by someone you trust and care about, there is a safety in just going with it. I leave myself behind and put myself into their hands, embracing the things that I would usually try to hide from. This leads to an intensely submissive feeling and allows me to access my submissive headspace. The more I am pushed and bend, the deeper into submission I fall.
Confronting my demons
Often the things that can hurt us most come from our biggest fears. This means that using them as part of emotional play in this way, allows us to confront our own demons as it were, in a space which is safe for us. For me these feelings are based around fear of rejection, of feeling unworthy and of being judged and viewed in a negative way. The play allows me to explore these feelings in an environment where any of the above could happen. However, because of the situation, it is unlikely.
My shame around some of the things that I like motivates the feelings. My ideas of myself are challenged because a nice girl wouldn’t agree to do these things, never mind want to do them and enjoy them. The years of feeling that I will be judged harshly and negatively for them mean that to open myself up to these things happening is excruciating. To be seen embracing them and enjoying them forces me to let go of the defences I usually use.
Being seen and acknowledged
In that moment I know that it is too late. I know that I have been seen for what I am and I have nothing more to lose. I let go and drop. Once this has happened, I can experience these things on a different level. I have released myself from the self imposed pain and can run with the freedom that allows. I can go no lower I suppose. The intensity of the pain gives in to pleasure which is derived from an overwhelming sense of abandon.
Although I know that the person I am with is unlikely to reject me or judge me harshly (provided I have chosen correctly) it doesn’t matter because my own negative narrative is so strong and so firm. These are not beliefs that can be challenged as they have been accepted for so long. What is important is that in that moment when they see the truth, they still accept and want me. They are still there. This allows a temporary escape and a release of the emotions these thoughts cause me to feel. In that sense it is cathartic.
Facing fears together
According to dissonance theory the underlying psychological tension created when an individual’s behavior is inconsistent with his or her thoughts and beliefs motivates an them to make an attitude change that will produce consistency between thoughts and behaviors. Within a scene this works differently because the shift has been caused and supported by your partner. This means that the change is only temporary and following the scene, the sub reverts back to their previously held ideas.
However, because the Dom has seen their truth, they are still vulnerable and the submissive space can be retriggered easily by referring back to what happened. This can be a powerful tool as it allows the scene to be prolonged and even carried into usual daily life. Again, there should be caution in using this and it should only be done where it is safe to do so. Triggering a deeply submissive space at the wrong time could have a negative effect rather than a positive one.
At the end of the day, emotional play is not something that is enjoyed in a mainstream sense. Even in kink circles, people shy away as there is the perception of emotional abuse. This is unfair as it really isn’t the case at all. Often emotional play sits with humiliation, degradation and objectification – other kink based activities which cause emotional discomfort and a sense of unease. While there may be elements of these things in a lot of BDSM play, the sorts of feeling I describe here would probably come from something more intense.
It has taken me a long time to come to the understanding I have now about what drives these feelings and how they can best be applied. Even then, I think with further exploration I will learn more. The main thing to note is that what works and doesn’t will be highly personal and for an emotional masochist it will probably be difficult to explain or ask for, due to the nature of it. Giving someone the key to unlock your darkest fears is not something that can be given lightly.
It might also be interesting to note that this sort of cognitive dissonance occurs when a truth is challenged – so something you know to be true, but hope that it isn’t, or something you hope to be true, but know that it isn’t. For this reason, mind-fucks can also work well. You don’t actually have to do whatever it is to trigger your mental space, but you have to believe that you are going to have to do it.