I recently sampled not one but two of the richest, thickest, sweetest, most stratospherically satiny ice creams I've ever tasted.
No sooner had I swallowed my first spoonful of each than two familiar feelings swept in.
First came joy. Nanoseconds later came the other, which was neither satisfaction nor desire but panic, swirled with shame and sprinkled with guilt and regret. I was raised with this rabbit-punch. I know it way too well.
Because on beach vacations as a child she was called fat, my mother barely ate. Pinching her flesh, she hissed at herself, Who said you needed a brownie, Tubby? Driving home from restaurants, she growled: We ate like pigs. I learned while young that enough was too much. Sweet things, delicious things, were dangerous. They made us hate ourselves.
Today, all pleasures make me hesitate. Self-loathing triggers self-denial. Believing oneself inferior means believing oneself unworthy. When we ask: Do I need or desire this object or experience? We really mean: Do I deserve this object or experience? In saying no, we feel oddly victorious—because what we think we really deserve is punishment and that, in punishing ourselves, we've beaten others to the punch.
Self-denial manifests most visibly in our relationships with food, perhaps because our species eat several times daily; food is tangible; our choices are allegedly our own: Thus whatever we do, we can do wrong at breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack time too.
What else do we deny ourselves? What else do we talk ourselves out of automatically, without even a faint debate?
Self-denial is virtuous, epiphanic and healing when chosen for the right reasons: to appreciate the small and simple; to share limited supplies with others; to enhance anticipation; to conserve resources while enduring an ordeal or working toward a goal. We need not become greedy, selfish or acquisitive in re-examining our ingrained self-denial. We need only to wonder why we so quickly say no, no, no.
Mom's self-denial never stopped. During our phone calls in her final years, she often said she craved Chinese food, but could no longer drive to restaurants. I urged her to have some delivered. It would cost just ten dollars and take just ten minutes, I said. To which she always scoffed: I can't do THAT.
By this she meant: I don't deserve such luxury because I'm fat. (At 5'8", she weighed 100 pounds.) I'm stupid. (Diploma from NYU.) I was never a perfect daughter. (But she was, and her parents died in the 1970s.)
Seeing how slender she was, and seeing how she never ordered anything in restaurants but coffee, her friends often gave her canned smoked salmon, thinking she was destitute. I found these still-sealed cans stacked in her house after she died.
What's your "smoked salmon"? Why do you believe you don't deserve it? List the reasons, not just in your mind but written in your finest script. Add flourishes: flowers, dots, hearts. Read your reasons aloud. Hold them under the light. How silly do they look?