Self-denial is a learned facility and has its positive and negative sides. In order to function well in society both personally and professionally, we naturally need to say no to ourselves. For example, it’s not okay to break into a jewelry store and grab a Rolex watch even though you may want one more than anything else in the world. It’s also not cool to steal your best friend’s boyfriend or acceptable to believe that you must have every little thing your heart desires. Denying pleasure or gratification in service of a different or higher goal is a valuable skill that is learned through the maturation process.
However, being unable to say yes to your desires in balance with saying no is self-denial run amuck. As with anything else, withholding from self can become a bad habit, a rigid, one-note approach, a practice that feeds on itself and generates a life of its own. Rather than serving your well-being, self-denial can become a dangerous end in itself. When it becomes a goal and not one ability among many, you have moved into an unhealthy realm of thinking and behaving.
We first learn about self-denial in childhood. If our parents maintained a healthy balance of giving into and denying themselves and encouraged us to do the same, we’re probably comfortable saying both yes or no and understand that many, but not all of our needs, must be gratified.
However, if you practice self-denial at the expense of self-giving, you may have had parents who rigidly restricted themselves. Perhaps they had to due to lack of money for material pleasures, or maybe they were brought up to believe that giving in to pleasure was selfish and indulgent. So you adopted their beliefs about self-denial being a good approach to life. On maybe your parents—or one parent—was excessive, hedonistic, or impulsive and said yes to every whim of theirs and yours. Maybe you observed in shame and horror the results of going overboard. If you were pained by their inability to say no to food, drink, drugs, pleasure, etc., you may have decided that saying yes only leads to trouble and that self-denial is preferable to being out of control.
When the habitual practice of self-denial orchestrates all your food choices, you place yourself at odds with your natural appetite. Try to understand where your adherence to self-denial comes from and experiment with stretching yourself to say yes to food more often. It will be difficult initially, but you’ll feel better in the long run. Being able to say yes and no to food in a balanced way is crucial to becoming a “normal” eater..