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Lent. Why do we need to give up chocolate?

A debate; Why do we  give up pleasurable experiences for 40 days?

I noticed something that made me curious today, the day before Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day).

A debate, on social media, about what to give up for Lent. It struck me as interesting the need to give up something. Lent, traditionally is a period of penance. Penance, making an atonement for a sin, or for having done something regretful.

Cutting a delicious iced chocolate cake

Is the motivation behind giving up something for 40 days actually primarily about seeking penance for a misdeed?

The debate I hear is not ‘What is it I am sorry to have done so I can reflect on and learn from it’ but ‘Which will I be most successful in giving up; wine, cigarettes, chocolate, cakes or biscuits?

The difference may seem trivial. I wonder if the difference is actually quite crucial.

  1. Giving up something we enjoy. Why would we do that? Is it because there is some belief that self-denial is good? What does stopping doing something you enjoy mean to you? Why do you want to stop doing pleasant things? Have you ever given yourself space to reflect on why giving up something is an important act? Perhaps you are asking yourself what is my guiltiest pleasure. What do I feel bad about enjoying (a paradox in itself)? There are some things we feel guilty about doing. We give up things we enjoy because enjoying them makes us feel guilt. It is interesting that we do not address the guilt. Guilt can be two sided, guilt because we have let ourselves down, the values by which we would like to live by, our authenticity, or guilt because of falling short of perceived expectations of society. Does stopping having pleasure remove the guilt?

Or

  1. Giving up something we enjoy. Why do we do that? An obvious answer, looking at the things most commonly given up, is that it will do us some good. Help us to lose some weight, give our liver a break, a bit of ‘detox’. We give up things that we believe are causing us harm, but there is also a sense we chose things that we will manage to give up for 40 days, avoiding a risk of failure. This is hardly penance! Find me someone who gives up walking to work? There is someone who is challenging themselves, isn’t that more like a penance? Typical Lenten acts do not appear to reflect on a misdemeanor far from it, we find ourselves becoming virtuous, and self-congratulating. Interesting, is this the intention of Lent?

It appears Lent is a period to treat some aspects of the ‘human condition’ the relief of guilt, or possibly an opportunity, which we do not usually indulge in, to pay attention to our health .

Why do we need to do this?

Would it be more helpful to be penitent?

So many questions, and I am not attempting to answer any. Guilt is a universal, existential emotion that pervades our society and has a very significant impact on mental health. It is as if we have responsibility for the cause and suffering of others. We have responsibility for our own actions, and our own self-care; for being authentic to our own standards for living. Creating cycles of enjoyment and self-deprecation, and abstinence is not helpful. We find ourselves not enjoying that which is there for our enjoyment, and preoccupied with worry. Worrying about whether we have the ‘will power’ to abstain from those things we like, but feel guilty for indulging, and to what end?  Does this diminish others’ suffering? No. It creates anxiety for ourselves.

As a psychotherapist with a passion for the attunement of mind and body, may I encourage you, this Lent, that rather than give up something, you give yourself permission to enjoy the things you love. But significantly and, whilst being kind to yourself, you notice when the enjoyment isn’t complete and then stop, and wonder why. Pay attention to your body, your emotions, and feelings. Are you properly understanding what they tell you? Are you being authentic?

It is then that seeds might be sown to facilitate giving up habits that are truly not even enjoyable, but have become a false relief for an emotional dissatisfaction. It is useful to notice what emotions you have, acknowledge their pain or joy, not deny them or impulsively satisfy them inappropriately.

Lent clearly serves a purpose in our secular world. Maybe a little reflection on the purpose of our sacrifices will help us grow to be more authentic; true to ourself.

Counselling can be for anyone.

It is interesting how counselling is associated with mental ill health. Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrats conference (2014) promised to increase spending on mental health, and there is frequent debate about putting mental health spending on a parity with that of physical health. I however, am not debating whether your mental health is sub-optimal and you ‘need’ treatment, I am proposing that just like we indulge our body, we should perhaps be a little more attentive to our mind/soul/spirituality.

I could google the cost of a spa break, or how much we spend on wasted gym membership. Or I could start on the cost of teeth whitening, facials, liposuction, a touch of Botox, these are accepted behaviours, which incidentally, are not inexpensive, that are used to help us ‘feel good’ about ourselves. Behaviours which we do regularly and then need to do them more frequently for the same benefit and then up-grade, and repeat the cycle.

We attend to the body, the shell, our physical form. This is how we see ourselves in the mirror, and it is important. Our acceptance of this picture in the mirror, is often conditioned by a view that society gives us regarding what is aesthetically pleasing. Some of us our more bound by this view than others, and constantly need to pay attention to how we look in order to feel ‘acceptable’ and ‘accepted’ to others and ourselves.

I recently was introduced a group ‘Health at Every Size’ one article caught my eye, Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift . This article demonstrates how powerful non-health based influencers have been on defining what a ‘healthy weight’ is. This has not been challenged enough by scientists and health professionals.

The general dissatisfaction of our ‘form’ that many of us have is not a ‘mental illness’ and yet it impacts on our relationships, our ability to get satisfaction from social events, our enjoyment of holidays, because it results in us  carrying an anxiety about how we see ourselves and also how others see us.

Then there are those of us who despite having a good quality of life, the family we aspired to, the regular work promotions good physical health who feel guilty that despite this they do not feel satisfied/happy. We wonder ‘what is the point’. This is not ‘mental illness’ yet impacts on our relationships our potential to do well, and our overall enjoyment of what we have.

Another group of us carry a sadness (which may be experienced as anger or frustration), it is associated with an aspect of the world, people, society, animal or human welfare, our environment, things that are ‘not good’, for example war, pollution, famine, global warming. Often we have little control of this as an individual but feel as a race/ species uniting we can have greater influence, so endeavour to put energy into this. This sadness can be overwhelming, it has a moral or ethical feeling and is hard to ignore. This is not a ‘mental illness’ yet impacts on our relationships, and our satisfaction with our own life journey.

These issues can slip from being motivators to de-motivators, we may feel like a failure, or unlovable, or even worthless, or insignificant. Not a mental health problem, but nevertheless leads to low mood.

Many of us with strong social networks, good communication skills, and who trust those that love us and are close to us, can share these doubts well enough to grow through them and understand themselves better.

Those that are not so fortunate may find their support through counselling. Counselling provides an unconditional space to explore what is that makes us who we are, counsellors generally believe that we are all ok, exploring the things we don’t like about ourselves can be done safely and without fear of judgment. Allowing reflection and opportunity to see things from a fresh perspective.

The benefit of doing this is often felt immediately; having the space to be who we truly are and explore our defences and anxieties in a contained consultation with a stranger who has no vested interest is liberating.

You may even want to try counselling just for the experience!