Why You Should Stop Calling Things You Enjoy ‘Guilty Pleasures’

The language we use can affect how we feel about ourselves.
Image Credit: FG Trade/E+/GettyImages

We all have our "guilty pleasures:" Trashy reality TV shows, cheesy pop songs, celebrity gossip mags, pizza with pineapple topping, Nutella straight from the jar — you get the picture.

Basically, these are things we secretly enjoy but feel embarrassed to admit in public. And whenever we do confess our guilty pleasures, it's always served with a hefty side of self-deprecation.

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But why should we feel badly about something that makes us feel good (and even helps support our mental health), especially if it's not hurting us or anyone else?

Ironically, the term "guilty pleasures" (not the actual things themselves) is what's most harmful, because it suggests we don't deserve to experience joy without guilt. And that's just not OK.

We spoke with mental health experts about why you should stop using the phrase "guilty pleasure," plus ways to embrace your enjoyment, which is a natural, healthy part of life.

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1. It Makes You Feel Guilty

The name says it all: You'll likely feel regret, remorse or self-reproach about indulging in something called a guilty pleasure.

"This language perpetuates the idea that there was some mistake or wrongdoing in taking a specific action," says Michelle P. Maidenberg, PhD, MPH, therapist and author of ​Free Your Child From Overeating.

It's no surprise then that this line of reasoning can set you up to feel bad. If you think you've screwed up somehow, you might view yourself as a failure or incompetent and ineffective, Maidenberg says.

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In other words, when you use negative language like "guilty" that induces self-doubt and self-condemnation, you'll find it difficult to fully enjoy your pleasurable experiences, she says.

2. It Limits Your Sense of Identity

The shame we feel about guilty pleasures may also come from expectations of self-consistency.

"We prefer to see ourselves in a unidimensional way," and dismiss or deny the parts that don't align with the rest of our self-image, Maidenberg says.

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And when the things you enjoy seem to be in direct conflict with your identity, the experience can become particularly unpalatable, says Victoria Harris, DPsych, a humanistic and integrative psychotherapist.

For example, if you see yourself as a healthy eater, but you love sweets, or you're a women's studies professor who enjoys fluffy romance novels.

The inconsistency between who you are (or think you should be) and what you like can cause feelings of guilt and distress, Harris says. You might even feel like a fraud.

But this type of black-and-white, either-or perspective just puts you in a box with no room to grow.

"Growing up, we internalize ideas about who we 'should' be and the way we 'should' behave in society, and this can limit us," Harris says. "Societal and personal norms prevent us from embracing our authentic selves because we fear other people's judgments."

But your identity is greater than the sum of your parts — it's complex and constantly in flux, and inconsistency is simply part of being human.

3. It Implies You’re Weak, Lazy or Undisciplined

Built into the idea of a guilty pleasure is the notion that indulgence is something sinful or selfish. And when we take part in it, we're weak-willed or lazy.

Consequently, our inability to embrace pleasure without guilt reflects deeply rooted values and social norms about the importance of productivity and self-control, Harris says.

Maidenberg agrees: We're in a "doing" rather than "being" culture. And because we prize productivity, we tend to scorn any activity that appears purely self-focused. For example, we can't even show pride in an accomplishment without worrying about being boastful, self-centered and arrogant, she says.

"Giving into" your guilty pleasures also implies that you lack discipline, strength and self-control. "We prefer to see ourselves as being in full control and able to resist our strongest temptations," Maidenberg says.

Indeed, social norms exist in society to encourage self-control and compliance. "But if we perceive ourselves behaving in ways that go against societal norms, we may feel guilt or shame about not playing by the rules," Harris says.

And we may even worry that yielding to a guilty pleasure can lead to a domino effect of more undisciplined behaviors, Maidenberg says.

But this problematic point of view just perpetuates perfectionism. And no one can live up to that unrealistic standard. "As humans, we are inherently imperfect — we can't always be in control even if we try, because life ebbs and flows, and uncertainty is part of our existence," Maidenberg says.

What to Do Instead

Give yourself permission to indulge in the things that make you happy.
Image Credit: vikialis/iStock/GettyImages

Nobody should feel ashamed about doing something that brings them unbridled joy, especially if it can help your mental health. Here's how to let go of the guilt and feel good about what makes you happy.

1. Embrace Yourself as a Whole

"Very often, emotional suffering occurs because we reject aspects of ourselves," Harris says. Like when you chastise yourself for liking a bubblegum pop song because you're a serious musician.

Instead of denying the parts of yourself that don't fit the perfect narrative of your self-image, learn to accept them. They make you a fuller, multidimensional human being.

"If we can embrace the complexity of our identity and give ourselves permission to enjoy experiences that may challenge our identity (or who we think we 'should' be), this can move us towards more integration or wholeness," Harris says.

2. See It as Self-Care

View your 'guilty pleasure' as a therapeutic tool to increase your wellbeing. You can use pleasurable experiences to help you manage stress or calm and regulate your system, Harris says.

Sometimes you just need to binge watch ​The Bachelor​ or engage in other mindless activities to decompress after a long day, and that's OK. In fact, watching reality TV can even help you safely externalize emotions that you may be grappling with in your own life, Harris says.

What's more: "When we do things that positively impact our self-love, we release the feel-good neurotransmitters oxytocin and dopamine," Maidenberg says. These chemicals boost our mood and reinforce our desire to pay attention to our needs, she adds.

3. Flip the Script

Words matter. So changing the way we talk about "guilty" pleasures can be a profound way to reframe them from negative to positive. You can start by using new language to describe these experiences.

Maidenberg recommends referring to them as joyful activities, meaningful moments or best-self actions. "This reframes and reconstructs the way we think and feel about these actions so that they are empowering, constructive and personally enhancing," she says.

Harris prefers the term "gifted" pleasures. "Changing the label from 'guilty' to 'gifted' can de-stigmatize using the experience of pleasure as a comfort," she says. It also implies the idea that you're worthy of giving yourself a gift and receiving it.

4. Silence Your Inner Critic

Often, we allow our personal critic to suck the joy out of our experiences.

It is important to notice when your inner judge goes into overdrive and denies you pleasure, Harris says. When this happens, she recommends the following exercise:

Put a hand on your heart or belly, take some deep breaths and say to yourself, "It's OK to find pleasure in something for the sake of enjoyment. Can I gift myself this right now?"

"This may take practice, but it can help foster self-compassion over time" as you learn to embrace your joy, she says.

5. Give Yourself Permission to Indulge

"When we dismiss fundamental ways to gain pleasure, we are just existing and not truly living our best life," Maidenberg says.

But before we can truly adopt joyful experiences, we must unlearn what we've been socialized to believe about enjoyment and embrace the idea that all humans need and deserve pleasure, she says. Feeling happiness and delight isn't a selfish act but a necessity.

"By doing direct actions on behalf of our need to feel fulfilled, it gives us something to look forward to, strive for and feel gratitude about," Maidenberg says.

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