on self-denial

I can’t buy those flowers just for me – I don’t deserve them“; “I’m a failure – I don’t deserve his support“; “I’m tired but I don’t deserve to rest – I have work to do“. The way I see it, many people today partake in a ‘deserving culture’ where any positive thing in your life must come from graft, even from necessity, to justify its place there. We seem to project our ideas about right and wrong onto non-moral features of the world, which come to embody our vulnerability, our profound insecurity and leave us with a negative view of the self and our personal worth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of women, who are praised for actively denying themselves things that bring them pleasure or joy, as this allegedly speaks of their strength of character. For decades, we have been living in a diet culture where the expectation is for women to cut out certain foods that might derail their progress in weight loss or fitness, the result being that the food you chooses to eat becomes an issue of personal virtue. It’s not difficult to see this if one is only to look at the way that so-called ‘bad’ foods are labelled and marketed, companies using words such as ‘indulgent’, ‘naughty’ and ‘sinful’ to attract guilt-ridden customers. The implication here is that people – particularly women – should generally be abstaining from such treats as they are one manifestation of a kind of moral weakness, that they might only be consumed as part of a ‘cheat day’ or if they go on to spend three hours at the gym. In a similar way, those that work excessively and leave little time for themselves or their personal life become the object of admiration, of approval, as the phenomenon of “busy bragging” clearly suggests. It is thought that these people have their priorities ‘right’, that choosing to eat a donut on the way home or have a couple of hours to yourself at the weekend is somehow a failing, a moral shortcoming. As far as I can see, this affects most people that I know and extends to all areas of life, money being only one other example. My personal philosophy is that I should save every penny, only spending anything when absolutely necessary or for the benefit of someone else, an attitude shared by many I know that is only conducive to guilt and self-punishment.

On the surface, it seems as though this lifestyle promotes hard-work, self-restraint and abstemiousness – undoubtedly a positive thing – though it’s not difficult to perceive how this might feed into an unhealthy outlook on life as well as the perception of your self-worth. If we are constantly telling people that they must deny themselves that which gives them pleasure, that which brings them joy – however fleeting or superficial – we instill them with the idea that they must deserve these things to justify having them, the implication being that they are intrinsically undeserving or unworthy.

This phenomenon is nothing new, however, discernible in many philosophies and religions of the past which have certainly had an impact on the attitudes of people today. Inscribed at the Ancient Greek Oracle of Delphi, however, is the phrase Meden Agan or ‘Nothing in excess’. Rather than punishing ourselves for feeling or desiring certain things, we ought to embrace these desires and cut ourselves a bit of slack, as long as we retain the right balance or equilibrium. This is when self-affirmation becomes so important in bolstering the way one feels about oneself, it being essential that this self-denial does not come to dominate the way we see ourselves. Rather than making ourselves feel lesser or not good enough, we ought to treat ourselves with the respect and dignity that we would give to others, requiring both thought and action. Eat that donut if it’s what you fancy, as long as you have an otherwise balanced diet. Actively try to carve out a few hours jut for yourself within the week, whatever you can, as some respite from a hectic work life. Get enough sleep. Drink enough water. Sometimes, be selfish. Such an attitude is imperative to maintain a healthy and sustainable work/life balance as well as mental and physical health. Make an effort to incorporate small things into your life that oppose the mentality that you are undeserving and do things, however small, that bring you joy.

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