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Watch Out for Guilty Pleasures

Watch-Out-for-Guilty-Pleasures

What is it about “guilty pleasures” that make them so enticing to some people? To both improve mental health and enjoy life, it’s time to stop engaging in this self-abusive concept. Guilt and pleasure are miles apart, at either end of a spectrum, and don’t belong together. Guilt makes us feel bad, inadequate, and selfish because we think we’ve done something wrong. Pleasure, on the other hand, makes us happy, even joyful, and often gets our dopamine popping because something feels so right.

One of my clients is the king of guilty pleasures, often starting a session by asking with a sly grin: “Can I tell you about my guilty pleasure weekend?” It almost always involves dining at an upscale restaurant (which he can barely afford) and eating too much. In fact, most weekends, he does just that—with friends, his significant other, or alone. He tortures himself: if he eats at home and forgoes the gourmet experience, he feels deprived. If he dines out, he feels as if he’s being extravagant and naughty, aka guilty.

Guilty pleasures abound. A client who’s a single mother spends weekends reading romance novels rather than house clean. Another collects and trades old records though he has no cash to spare what with a spouse and two children. Yet another stays up late binge-watching old westerns and goes to work the next day bleary eyed. 

What are your guilty pleasures? What emotions do you feel about them? My guess is you feel bad about yourself and maybe even ashamed. Your guilt is due to engaging in activities you believe you shouldn’t be doing. If so, why do them?

Engaging in guilty pleasures is a way of resolving internal conflict: You do the thing you desire and punish yourself at the same time, ruining the pleasure. Justice is served. Somehow, this duality makes you feel better about having the pleasure because you’re not fully enjoying it due to the guilt and shame. Doesn’t that sound a bit crazy to you? 

A saner approach is to recognize that guilt is telling you an activity may not be in your best interest, not doing it, and finding another pleasure which generates no guilt. Alternately, why not fully enjoy an activity while ignoring the guilt because—guess what?—you’re allowed pleasure with no strings attached. 

In order to take care of yourself and enjoy life, you’ll have to get rid of both inappropriate guilt and doing things that may harm you. You can start by not using the term guilty pleasures because implicit in it is that you’re knowingly doing something wrong which makes the pleasure more desirable on the one hand and less desirable on the other.