Here in the midst of the season of indulgence, let us pause for a moment to consider the testy relationship between pleasure and guilt. Rich eating, hearty partying and endless reruns of Seinfeld are wonderful releases in the dark days of December - but feeling guilty about these sensual pleasures can actually be a health risk. If guzzling eggnog while lounging on the couch makes you feel bad about yourself, you've lost the benefits of relaxation.
The classic signal that guilt is present is the phrase "Oh, I shouldn't," uttered as the dessert tray is coming near and just before the utterer reaches for the mocha fudge cheesecake anyway. That's when indulgence is more apt to bring on an attack of conscience than joy. Yet it's this very worry that can tip us into binging. There's nothing like self-punishment to fuel a craving for comfort and hence more indulgence.
It doesn't help that some folks around us may exacerbate our discomfort when we let go - particularly those who are righteous in maintaining their own rules. But those who never relax their diet and exercise regime are often motivated by fear rather than an alignment with vitality.
The middle ground between over- and under-indulgence is held by mindfulness - staying aware of what you need to keep your balance day in and day out. If you're super-stressed, that coffee with double sugar might not be a good idea. But if you're in a good space and feeling like a relaxed chat late into the night with a friend, an espresso might be just the ticket. If you stay in touch with yourself you can trust yourself to know on which side of the line happiness is to be found.
What the experts say
"A lot of people, especially women, think it's an indulgence to put themselves first, to do something that pleases them. They think that takes away from others. But if you're not taking care of yourself and getting your needs met, you cannot give fully and completely to others. You become a martyr, with strings on your giving, and nobody likes a martyr. If you're feeling upset or depleted, ask yourself, without taking time to think about it, 'What do I need right now? What will give me energy right now?' Indulgence can tip into overindulgence when we develop a habitual answer to these questions rather than tuning in in the moment and sensing what we really need."
GRETCHEN SUNDERLAND , life coach, Lake George, New York
"My own take is that guilt (about indulgences) is worse for us than the chocolate, alcohol or whatever. Moderation - without guilt but with compassion - is a very difficult path to follow. In some ways, it's easier to totally abstain or to binge. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says that right is just as extreme a position as wrong. We're either acting out of love or out of fear, and a lot of rigid, unhealthy behaviour is motivated by fear. (If you think you're too rigid), it's good to purposefully fail. Practise an indulgence, and try to do it guilt-free ."
KALEB MONTGOMERY , practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, Toronto
"A healthy relationship to one's indulgences occurs when you can have that box of chocolates, for instance, and not have to have it the next time you need to reward yourself. When you're in control of whatever you want to eat, drink or do, when you're the one who masters that, that's when your life is good. If you want to do what you think you shouldn't want to do, then at least have peace with it. If I say, 'I shouldn't eat this chocolate,' then do so and beat myself up for having done it, it's very likely that I'm going to eat even more in order to soothe myself."
CATHRINE MOLLER , certified hypnotherapist, Toronto
"I believe red wine is not an indulgence, it's the food of life. I think it's a necessity. Studies indicate over and over again that moderate consumption (4 to 8 ounces a day) lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. I believe red wine should be shared with friends and family, and I believe the social aspects of sharing good food and good wine are good for psychological health. I believe that when you're happy and socially active, you're on the road to wellness."
NORA JANE POPE , naturopath, Health Quest Wellness Clinic, Toronto
"Capitalism needs disciplined workers, but also consumers ready to indulge. So there are tensions, and they get played out in our health. We do things now so we'll be healthy in the future, but we also need moments of excess. For a different view you'd have to look to non-capitalist societies - they don't have the same dualities we do."
ELAINE POWER, assistant professor, health studies, Queen's University, Kingston