The Delicious Irony of Denying Our Culture of Self-Denial

Posted on Aug 1, 2013

There’s this scene from the movie “The Truth About Cats and Dogs” where the two lead characters, played by Uma Thurman and Janeane Garofalo, are sitting in a café having coffee and dessert. Janeane inquires whether Uma is going to eat the dessert still sitting in front of her. Uma replies, “ Oh no! I just order. I loooove ordering, but I don’t actually get to eat it.” As a model, Uma’s character lives this constant self-denial to keep her figure.

This humorous and superficial example is an illustration of a greater thread of self-denial that weaves through American culture. Finding its roots in the Protestant or Puritan work ethic, the concept of self-denial in American culture has escaped the contemporary counter current of the need for instant gratification. We live so steeped in this all-work, no-play, abstinence-only, rationed-pleasure culture, it is hard to recognize its effects on our behavior.

One way I perceive myself, and women as a whole if I may generalize, internalizing this culture of self-denial is through the compromised ability to experience pleasure.

We spend so much time pursuing “bikini bodies” by saying no to dessert or that glass of wine pursuing a false ideal female image. (A topic for a number of later blogs, I guarantee!) We are accustomed to sacrificing for our families happily willing to be the last in line to get what we need – whether that is sleep, time for our personal priorities or just a moment to be still for a while.

The effect of these accumulated life experiences creates a tainted ability to enjoy pleasure: “Good evening, ma’am. Tonight we are serving a gorgeous death by chocolate flourless cake with a heaping side of guilt. We hope you sort of enjoy it now and mentally flog yourself mercilessly later. Bon appetit!”

Reflect on your own experience: even when you have been offered a break, a decadent dessert, a play date for your kiddos, the chance to get a workout or head to the spa with friends or someone else to cook dinner for the night, are you able to graciously accept and revel in the pleasure of the experience? If you are, fantastic! If not, then we should practice reveling in pleasure. Don’t you think?

Before we dive into some practical ways to revel, let’s explore the concept of pleasure simply for the enjoyment of it. tells us that pleasure is: 1. desire or inclination, 2. a state of gratification, 3. sensual gratification, 4. frivolous amusement, and 5. a source of delight or joy. Wow! It all sounds fabulous to me!

Of course, Freud gave us the pleasure principle as did Janet Jackson. Although Freud juxtaposed his pleasure principle with the reality principle making it clear that those of us who have matured should be able to delay our gratification in deference to reason and reality. Even given the reality principle, Freud’s pleasure principle advances the notion that we humans all seek pleasure and avoid pain.

A number philosophical theories, including utilitarianism and hedonism, take up pleasure as a measured end by which our means are tested as right or moral. In other words, maximizing pleasure is a good thing. Of course, philosophers over time have quibbled over what pleasure is better pleasure and what are the consequences on others of maximizing one’s own pleasure. To maximize my pleasure right now, I leave the quibbling to the philosophers.

So etymologically and philosophically, we have a handle on pleasure. How about physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually? The reality is experiencing pleasure is an integral part of our life balance. With the challenges comes pleasure, with the 1’s come the 10’s. After enduring the challenges that are a part of life’s balance, you deserve wholehearted, untainted pleasure! Herein lies your mission if you choose to accept it.

Practice being mindful of seeking, or at least simply accepting pleasure, this weekend (. . . or this week or month. Hopefully, it becomes a trend and a habit!) Here are some suggestions:

  • Order dessert with abandon and eat every bite.
  • Get an extra long workout doing something you love to do.
  • Enjoy an uninterrupted shower or bath and be mindful of the glorious feeling of the water.
  • Sit quietly outside and experience the sacredness of nature and your place in it.
  • Read a stimulating book or article and ponder and discuss its meaning.
  • Head to bed early or spend extra time in the morning in bed with your partner and revel in each other.
  • Make or listen to spectacular music.
  • Your pleasure-filled experience of choice here.

After each and every pleasure-filled experience, reflect upon your ability to receive and experience pleasure. Cultivate and foster that ability by receiving pleasure and denying guilt. This is not a weekend-warrior type of mission. Attempt to be mindful in the moment of the little pleasures and fully accept the big pleasures that come your way. Remind yourself that you deserve it. Revel in the irony of denying our culture of self-denial! I raise my wine glass to you. Cheers!