Just Deserts

Do I deserve this?

I’ve not been following the not-crazy diet very well the past couple of weeks. When presented with a cupcake or a martini, I think, “I’ve worked hard. I’m stressed out. I deserve this,” and scarf it down.

Others in my life seem also to have internalized this idea that we either deserve or don’t deserve certain things. The day I started the not-crazy diet was the day my husband was laid off. Friends suggested that I postpone the diet a day, that because of our situation, I deserved a cupcake or a cocktail.

Thing is, I feel like crap when I eat sugar or drink alcohol. I enjoy myself (a lot) while I’m consuming the treats, but then I feel surly and bloated. I get a headache and cold sweats and end up feeling worse emotionally than I did before.

So if I say I deserve a cupcake or a cocktail, I’m kind of saying that I deserve to feel like crap. That’s rather an unpleasant thought, although the possibility that I make choices based on self-loathing has crossed my mind. And who knows? Maybe I do deserve to feel like crap. If it’s possible I deserve a treat, it’s just as possible that I deserve to feel awful.

Who decides what we deserve and what we don’t? When I was a kid, they had that “You deserve a break today at McDonald’s!” ad campaign. Where does this idea come from, that if we work hard or are feeling stressed we deserve some kind of treat that won’t actually help our basic stressful or overworked situation at all and will just add more stress when we see our food bill or the reading on the scale or our cholesterol level?

Doesn’t this imply that if we’re feeling good and happy with our lives, we don’t deserve a treat?

And then you have programs like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, in which people who are down-and-out send in videos about themselves (or friends and family send in videos about them) telling their sad tale and why it is they deserve to have a house built for them. What does one do to deserve an enormous brand-new home that’s built for and revealed on national television? Does this mean that someone who’s down and out but rents their home doesn’t deserve a new house?

It all comes back to the idea of punishments and rewards. If we do the right thing, we deserve a reward. If we do the wrong thing, we deserve to be punished. My parents made a concerted effort to not attach rewards or punishments to food, but they certainly used that model (as most parents do) with the rest of us kids’ lives. I think what that translates to for me as an adult is that if good things happen to me, I must have been good, and if bad things happen to me, I must have been bad. To avoid the feeling that I’m a bad person, I tell myself that I deserve the cupcake or the cocktail or the new pair of shoes.

In reality, “deserve” doesn’t even enter into it. Do I want a cupcake? How will I feel when I eat the cupcake? If I’ll feel bad, is it still worth it to eat the cupcake? I don’t get a cupcake because I’m good, and don’t not get a cupcake because I’m bad. I get one or not because I’ve made the choice to eat one or not. I don’t have a headache because I’m bad, I have it because of the spike in my blood sugar brought on by the cupcake. I could have prevented the headache had I avoided the cupcake, but that doesn’t mean I was bad for eating it.

The lessons of childhood and of our culture are so pervasive I can’t even eat a meal or spend an afternoon in the sun without judging myself worthy or unworthy. Do I deserve to feel good? Do I deserve to be happy? If I’m not happy; what am I doing wrong? How can I be a better person so I’m happy all the time? How can I be happy all the time so I feel like a better person?

I think the answer is to replace “just deserts” with compassion.

If we can love others especially when they’re doing “wrong,” maybe we can learn to love ourselves even when we’re bad. Punishing ourselves doesn’t make us better people. Punishing others doesn’t make them better people. Loving ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t want to make changes in our lives. Loving someone doesn’t mean we agree with them or even let them continue what they’re doing, if it’s harmful.

And rejoicing at the misfortune of our sisters and brothers, even if they’ve wronged us, makes none of us feel better, not in the long run.

The only thing anyone—friend, stranger, or enemy—deserves is compassion.

It is not because that person is of the same religion or has the same color skin as we do that we love them. It is not because a person loves us that we love them. We love our brothers and sisters because they are suffering and need our love. It is as simple as that.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

12 Replies to “Just Deserts”

  1. “Punishing ourselves doesn’t make us better people. Punishing others doesn’t make them better people. Loving ourselves doesn’t mean we don’t want to make changes in our lives. Loving someone doesn’t mean we agree with them or even let them continue what they’re doing, if it’s harmful.”

    So simply put. How we treat ourselves really does inform the way we treat our children. It’s easy to forget to treat ourselves with the same love and gentle discipline we seek for our children, but it’s not only detrimental to ourselves but to them as well.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Jamie. I think this is especially important for those of us who didn’t grow up with a gentle discipline model. Years ago I watched some daytime talk show and the guest talked about how if we were missing some kind of nurturing in childhood, we would be stuck (from an emotional development standpoint) at the age at which missed out on that growth, at least for that particular part of our character. He assured the audience that we could give the missed nurturing to ourselves as adults by imagining that inner child and nurturing her as her parent. I still think that’s a fairly corny idea, but it has the ring of truth to me, too. Or at least I hope it’s true.

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  2. I just have to say – WOW. You have expressed this so amazingly well…my brain was just clicking things in place as I read this post.

    I totally do the same thing and it’s just about near impossible for me sometimes to say no to something I feel I ‘deserve’ (usually when stressed) and I always feel bad about it afterward. I don’t think I realized – consciously – the extent of that mentality.

    This is also like, the best argument against reward/punishment discipline I have ever seen. Thank you so much for this post CJ…

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  3. Thank you for this! I’m currently struggling with this on my journey to a healthier diet; I start saying, “I’ve been so good for a few days, I deserve a treat”, and just like you said, the treat makes me feel gross.

    And I love your Thich Nhat Hanh quote; he is amazing!

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    1. You’re quite welcome! It’s surprisingly difficult to even recognize those inner critics much less stop internalizing the messages.

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    1. Not missing an “s”. I was wondering if someone would ask! The expression, though it’s pronounced like “desserts” the food rather than “deserts” the geographical areas of perpetual drought, actually originates from another word: deserve. “Deserts” in this context are things that are deserved. Here’s one site that explains the difference: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/just-deserts.html

      And you’ve just hit upon something even more satisfying to me than cupcakes and martinis: the exciting origins of English expressions. This kind of thing just tickles me no end!

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  4. Food really brings out the issues doesn’t it? There is so much attached to relationship with food. It is fundamental to who we are and how we view the world. Are we safe? Are we loved? Are we fed the “right” things to thrive?

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    1. Have you read Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection? I found it incredible (and I wrote a few blog posts about it in October/November 2010).

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