The Self-Denial Diary

The Self-Denial Diary


This exercise illuminates our motivations, good and ill, which might help us avoid self-destructive extremes.

Having been raised by parents who grew up during the Great Depression — Dad's family's apartment didn't even have a toilet — I came to believe when young that saving money marked someone as virtuous and smart. Savers knew how to delay gratification, resist temptation plan ahead.

So saving raised my self-esteem, which was otherwise low. I prided myself on almost nothing but this.

Classmates teased me for plucking pennies from the sidewalk, and for always choosing the cheapest but biggest candy bars. They called me a cheap Jew. Despite their mockery, saving seemed sacred: not the money itself so much as the saving, which denoted sacrifice.

It still warms my heart with a depression-defying sense where Somewhere down the road we will know what this money should buy. Why waste these pennies now when someday they might buy not fleeting sparks but whatever I'm truly waiting for?

So, to this day, saving gives me a frisson of accomplishment, prudence and hope.

One of my best friends, who also had gutter-level self-esteem, saw money the opposite way.

She had little and spent too much: mainly on pretty coats, which she stockpiled, pleading with her wealthy parents for reluctant, scathing loans.

I made a mission of teaching her how to save. Just set aside a certain amount every month. Use coupons when you shop. Make lists.

But most importantly: Assess why you buy what. Assess whether you really need another coat. Assess how you would feel with one less coat but not having to call your folks.

My mission failed. She was very intelligent, but always chose the extra coat because without it, she said, I would feel deprived.

So, regardless of the actual and emotional costs: Spending money raised her self-esteem. She hated herself less when she bought treats — which I saw not as treats but traps.

She said (in kinder words) that, with my thrift-shop rags and anorexia, I was addicted to self-deprivation. My frugality fueled my not-well-hidden masochism.

That was when I realized: Both of our approaches — Treat yourself! Save up! — were good in principle. But both could become toxic.

We who tend to hate ourselves wander a razor-edge between reward and punishment. Some of us grew up seeing our every action, word and even thought as a performance for others to judge — and to accordingly deliver jewels or jabs. Some of us grew up thinking we did not deserve good things. Or that we had to sneak or steal them.

Ponder this — in your journal or meditation, or talking with those who can relate:

Over the last 24 hours, in what ways have you punished and rewarded yourself? When, how, why? Not accidental punishments and rewards such as seeing flowers or catching colds, but conscious acts. Maybe you paid extra for double cheese. Maybe you walked instead of driving. Money is sometimes only a metaphor. Maybe you spent ten minutes watching birds. Maybe you wore your least comfortable shoes. Maybe you declined an invitation. Maybe you took a nap.

What counts, to you, as jewels and jabs? What triggers you to give yourself one or the other? How did this day's punishments and rewards make you feel — in the short-and long-term? What were their overt and covert costs? What were their "strings attached"?

Get meta. What histories lie behind your definitions of reward and punishment? Does ice cream seem a treat because your tormentors allowed it (or forbade it) or because it symbolizes summer, which you love? Does staying late at work feel like a penalty you merit — or a relaxing respite from rush hour?

This exercise, which might boil down to a self-denial diary, illuminates our motivations, good and ill, which might help us avoid self-destructive extremes.

I will still save pennies. But I will not intentionally starve.

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