When I hear the term guilty pleasure, I immediately associate it with reality tv shows like The Bachelor. The term quite literally means, “I feel guilty over something that brings me pleasure.” As someone who watches a few of these reality shows, I often feel the need to defend myself or provide some rationalization such as, “I know it’s stupid, but it’s just entertaining” or “I don’t watch it too regularly.”
But why do we need to defend the things that bring us pleasure?
It’s not like I’m saying that I like to steal peoples’ underwear (something to probably feel guilty (and weird) about), but for some reason I am self-conscious that I like a show that several other million people like? That’s dumb.
These feelings of guilt around pleasure extend far beyond cringe-worthy television shows and I think they contribute to a lot of the anxiety that we face in our daily lives. We often feel guilty for going out instead of staying in and being productive. But then on the flip side, we feel guilty when we pass on social opportunities for a night in — feeling like we might be missing out, wasting the weekend or disappointing friends. We doubt ourselves if we’ve made the right choice and often feel bad about it, even if it’s what we really wanted to do.
In my current befuddled state of life, I have turned to the cliche but nonetheless entertaining book Eat, Pray, Love. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Liz Gilbert recaps a conversation with her Italian friend, Luca Spaghetti. She expresses that she is feeling guilty about her travels and unworthy of such pleasure. He tells her that she feels guilty because she’s an American. Americans work too hard and only know entertainment, not pleasure. Luca says that we have to be told we’ve earned a break or time to indulge. This may sound obvious to some, but a lightbulb kind of went off in my brain when I read this. This is not to say that Americans are harder working than people in other countries or that every American works 80 hour weeks, but from my limited working experience in America it holds true.
Going into advertising, you hear horror stories of terrible clients and insane hours — much like many careers I’m sure. While I had a few of these long weeks, I fortunately did not have too many of those experiences. Most of the time I could leave by 6pm fairly confident I would not need to do much work later. But knowing that other coworkers at my company or even friends in completely different industries were working later or more hours, I would feel guilty walking out the door at 6pm. It’s kind of insane if you think about it, feeling guilty for accomplishing everything you needed to do in 9 FREAKING HOURS? That’s already a pretty damn long day. It’s not like I hand-picked the easier clients or projects to work on, but nonetheless — guilt guilt guilt guilt guilt.
In my work experience in America, there tends to be a Darwin Survival of the Fittest attitude where people feel the need to prove themselves the hardest worker. We answer unnecessary emails at midnight, eat lunch at our desks and one up each other with “I had to work all weekend,” “I was here until 11pm” or “ I had 10 unused vacation days this year.” As someone who took advantage of every PTO day possible, I would feel guilty after coworkers made these comments, as if I had done something wrong by taking them. We all know that no one is productive on a Friday after 4pm, yet we would rather sit around and pretend to be working for the final hour than feel guilty leaving the tiniest bit early to refresh for the night or weekend. It’s a kind of game in a way, where we can’t enjoy ourselves until we’ve shown we worked very hard, even if we’re not actually working….
Which brings me back to Luca Spaghetti’s insightful words, we don’t feel like we deserve a break, vacation, or pleasure unless we’ve basically been through hell and back. I’ve certainly experienced this as I am about to embark on a 5 month trip to Asia. There have been many times where I have felt extreme guilt associated with the privilege of being able to take this trip and whether or not I deserve it. While I want to be conscious of how fortunate I am, I don’t want guilt to take away from moments of joy and pleasure I’ll experience.
As I’ve told a lot of people about my upcoming travels, I am immediately met with questions about making an income while I’m traveling, what am I going to do when I get back, how can I afford this — essentially questioning (although unknowingly) if I have earned the right to take this trip. I take no offense to these questions because I know people are simply curious and that outside of study abroad programs, this type of trip isn’t extremely common for Americans. I imagine if we lived in Germany, people would probably just be like “Oh, of course you’re going to travel for 5 months because you can,” and that would be the end of it.
Someone made a snarky comment to me a few months ago saying, “So you need another 5 months off after 5 months off already?” as if my company layoff was my decision and that I was just laying around all summer. I dismissed the comment because while I realize I am extremely fortunate to be able to afford an experience like this, I don’t need to prove to anyone that I am deserving of it. I’m embarking on a life changing journey because I have put myself in the position where I can and I want to, not because I worked 100 hour weeks (those $16 haircuts really add up in savings).
So can we PLEASE stop feeling guilty for taking a vacation day that we are legally entitled to, leaving work at 5pm or just doing the things that we want to do? If you are judging someone for prioritizing their personal life, time, and health, then you need to take a long hard look in the mirror and see what your priorities are — and maybe change some of those.
In the end, who are we to judge what someone deserves or has earned. Pleasure is pleasure, if that means staying in when we feel like it and going out when we want to, so be it. I doubt anyone on their death bed has ever said “I wish I had worked more and traveled less.” Spend your time, energy and money on the things that bring you joy and don’t let other peoples’ opinions get in the way of that.
As for me, I’ll be channeling Liz Gilbert eating all of the carbs and starches Asia has to offer.