Stop feeling guilty about “guilty pleasures”

My mom adored rich desserts like shortcake, Dove bars, and her very favorite, pecan pie. And yet, she always felt guilty when she ate them, like she was doing something wrong. “Only about a thousand calories,” she used to say ruefully, even as she took the first delicious bite.

Mom struggled with her weight in a culture that prized thinness and self-discipline. I get why she felt so ambivalent about allowing herself the “guilty pleasure” of a slice of pie or a scoop of ice cream. But, looking back, I wish she could have stopped beating herself up and just enjoyed something that brought her so much pleasure.

I see that dynamic in myself too. Not so much with food, but with books? You bet.

Confessions of a former English major

I was an English major in college. I used to love reading George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf–even Chaucer in the original Middle English! Heck, I wrote my senior thesis on Henry James, one of the densest, most highbrow novelists in American literary history.

Over the years, things changed. These days, I have almost no interest in reading serious literature. Like, zero.

Instead, I’ve discovered I love, love, love cozy chick lit and urban fantasy. Give me a shapeshifting werewolf romance-adventure story and I’m sold!

I used to tell people, those fun books are my “guilty pleasure.” And I would indeed feel guilty for straying so far from my former elegant literary tastes.

But today I see it differently.

A waste of time?

So many times, I’ve seen clients show up for a session feeling bashful, because the thing that’s on their mind that day seems really small and silly. Maybe a guilty pleasure they’re embarrassed about but can’t seem to set down.

Take Jean. (To protect the privacy of my clients, this story is a composite and all identifying details have been changed.) Jean showed up one day feeling guilty because she’d been obsessing about redecorating her living room & had spent hours that week on the search for just the right throw pillow.

Jean had plenty of things on her plate. She was a professional with serious responsibilities at work. Her family also needed a lot of her attention. And she cared a lot about the state of our society and our planet. With so many urgent issues clamoring for her time and energy, how could she be wasting time shopping for throw pillows?

The deeper meaning of our guilty pleasures

When someone shows up feeling embarrassed and self-critical about a guilty pleasure that’s occupying a lot of their attention, that’s a cue to dig deeper. What’s the underlying meaning of that apparently trivial thing?

So Jean and I delved into what it would mean for her to find the right throw pillow for her living room. I posed a simple question: What it would be like for her if she found that just-right pillow?

She sat quietly for a minute or so, then started talking, quietly at first.

“It would make the room sing,” she said. “Like everything in the room went together, like everything was peaceful and restful and complete.”

She added, “I guess I would feel that way too. Like I could rest.”

Tears came to her eyes then. “I’ve just been so tired,” she said. “It’s all so much these days. It feels like everybody needs me, and sometimes I just need to sit and rest.”

“Guilty pleasures” help us meet our soul-deep needs

Oh. There it was.

That dreamed-of throw pillow wasn’t a small thing at all. Certainly nothing to feel guilty about. It embodied Jean’s weariness, her desire for peace and rest, and her hope that she could have those things in her life. Soul-deep needs.

It’s that way for me too. Those fun, “guilty pleasure” novels are feeding me on a soul-deep level too. They give me stories of adventure and courage, faithful friendships, and painful rifts repaired, and a joyful, well-deserved happy ending—exactly what my soul longs for, not just for myself but for everyone, in spite of all the confusion and pain in our world.

So today, I believe the things so many of us call guilty pleasures, no matter how small and silly they may seem, have come into our lives to soothe our souls’ yearnings for beauty, for peace, for delight and deep joy.

And don’t forget: “silly” comes from the German word selig, which means “blessed.” So why not let your soul be blessed by whatever brings you joy, no matter how small?

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