We call it the pleasure guilt cycle.
And we’re guessing that you take a ride on this merry-go-round of indulgence and self-loathing most days. We certainly do.
The pleasure guilt cycle is what happens when two conflicting mental messages collide.
The first comes from the suffocatingly helpful zeitgeist of modern wellness influencer culture. It goes something like this:
Then there’s a second message, a message we receive daily that blatantly contradicts the first. It says:
Mash these two messages together in the confined space of your skull and the result is, well, you know: the pleasure guilt cycle.
Because here’s what happens when these two memes meet. The inner critic, hanging out in the recesses of the mind, goes from sounding like a color commentator on TV, delivering mildly negative feedback on the play-by-play of life, to sounding more like an angry drill sergeant on steroids:
You probably have your unique version of the pleasure guilt cycle. Chances are, you and your partner might even play a duet version of the cycle together. And it might be about something other than exercise, food, or social media.
But even if the content differs, the result is the same. Caught in the crossfire of these two messages, we end up waging a war of indulgence and guilt, a war against ourselves, a war against our partner, a war that’s making us miserable.
What’s the way out?
What’s that thing you wish you could do more? What’s the form of pleasure you resist? What’s the desire that’s immediately followed by you feeling horrible about yourself?
The first step is awareness. It’s seeing which pleasurable activities land with a residue of guilt.
The pleasure guilt cycle is fueled by unconsciousness. We do it without knowing it. And that’s part of why we beat ourselves up afterwards.
So see what happens when you set up a conscious indulgence experience. You can do this alone but it can be even more powerful to share it with your partner. Have the cupcake, glass of rosé, extra episode on Netflix, or late-night sexual adventure.
It might not be the healthy choice. Peter Attia and Tim Ferriss might see you as an undisciplined loser. But you might be happier for it.
Disclaimer: We’re obviously not advocating indulging pleasures linked to addiction, self-harm, or harming others.
During this indulgence experience, savor the pleasure. Be in the moment.
Notice when your mind gets seduced into that wild thought stream of guilt and come back to what’s actually happening right now: the taste of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey, the martini, the screen time, or whatever else you choose to indulge in.
Now for the most important step. In the aftermath of indulgence, when those guilt-ridden thoughts arise, which they will, reclaim your freedom to experience life’s pleasures now and then. Instead of believing these insidious mind-messages, answer back to them.
Here's what you can say, “Yep. I did that. On purpose. And it was awesome.”
That’s the way out of the pleasure guilt cycle.
And here’s the really crazy thing. You may, in the end, find that your inner critic was actually full of it this whole time.
You may find that when you consciously indulge in these pleasures, you don’t end up weighing 500 pounds, having a heart attack the next day, or spiraling into an undisciplined mess.
You may, paradoxically, find that the opposite is true – that by moving consciously toward indulgence, you have more, not less, freedom to make wise choices about balancing pleasure and wellbeing. And either way, you've at least enjoyed the experience.
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