Is being self indulgent a kind of self-medication?

It’s something like making a pact with the Devil. When we are self indulgent, we obtain the object of our desire up front—whether it’s some glorious “high” (think cocaine, really good New York cheesecake, Ecstasy, or a reckless splurge at Tiffany’s); or we get a roller-coaster type thrill that enables us to experience an excitement not available to us otherwise (think X-sports); or an almost rapturous sense of tranquility that before then may have been painfully elusive (think heroine). But the “bill” for such self-indulgence— i.e., the associated “costs” of our intemperance—invariably arrives later.

These longer-term costs exist on a continuum from mild to severe, but only rarely can they be escaped. We may find out, for instance, that what we’ve chosen to help make us feel better has damaged our lungs (e.g., nicotine), or our liver (e.g., alcohol). Or that our self-indulgent (or addictive) habit has—directly or indirectly—injured our most important relationship. Or that what we’ve done to get an adrenaline rush has left us in a body cast. Or we may learn that, as a result of poor food choices or binge eating, we’ve developed diabetes or heart disease. Or that the debts we’ve incurred from gambling, drugs or shopping are now overdue . . . and unpayable.

The above examples illustrate the eventual “costs” of being self indulgent: the price of our desperate attempt to make ourselves happy (or at least happier than we are) because our lives don’t really fulfill us. If our daily pursuits don’t allow us to express something deep within our personality, we end up feeling empty, depressed or deprived. And these abiding feelings of discontent are typically what drive us toward unhealthy substances, activities and relationships.

Having taught so many workshops on compulsive/addictive behaviors, it’s easy enough for me to grasp where the powerful motive to be self indulgent (and the addictive personality generally) comes from. Contrary to what some people might assume, self indulgent people are not particularly happy—even though they may strive for happiness (or better, the immediate “highs” of happiness) a good deal more than the rest of us. There’s a wonderful expression: “You never get enough of what you don’t really want,” and these words help explain why the keynote of almost all self indulgent practices is more.

But what all of us most want—and need—is to be able to comfortably love and nurture ourselves, to care for ourselves the way we naturally desire others to care for us. . . . And lovingly caring for ourselves isn’t really about being self indulgent at all.


In my addiction workshops, I’ve sought to demonstrate to participants the sharp difference between self nurturing and self indulgent. Writing on the chalkboard these two contrasting terms, I put directly below the first designation, “dessert after dinner,” and then, just below the second, I add, “dessert for dinner.” As tempting as the second option might seem (especially to the child within all of us), class participants have little difficulty perceiving it as the wrong choice.

As opposed to self indulgent, self nurturing fosters both the physical and psychological health requisite to our happiness. Here we’re not “treating” ourselves to something that in the moment makes us feel better but ultimately is bad for us. We’re not looking for a quick fix to alter our mood or consciousness so as to escape the boredom, drudgery or pain of our existence, or to drown out nagging doubts we have about ourselves. Rather, we’re addressing our inborn needs for self-succor—but in an adult, responsible fashion.

When we’re self nurturing, the way we take care of ourselves is loving, respectful and prudent. We certainly don’t permit ourselves to substitute dessert for dinner, but we do allow ourselves (in moderation) to have dessert after dinner. And rather than an oversized slice of chocolate cake with whipped cream, the dessert might well consist of a bowl of fresh cherries topped with creamy low-fat yogurt—the dinner itself lovingly prepared and healthy. In fact, when we can focus on taking the best possible care of ourselves, we’re in just the right mindset to artfully combine the delicious with the nutritious.

Moving from Self Indulgent to Self Nurturing

What is so unfortunate about self indulgent (vs. self nurturing) behavior is that at bottom it represents a misguided effort to bolster positive feelings about the self. So how is it that so many of us can’t seem to distinguish between these two modes of dealing with our deepest wants and needs?

What I’d like to suggest as one possible explanation is that a great many of us in growing up simply didn’t get from our parents the nurturing we craved. Because of the deficits in our caretakers’ ability to parent us, we could never feel adequately empathized with, respected, or understood. Additionally, our parents may not have encouraged us enough, or provided us with the guidance and direction we needed. Or we may not have gotten enough time and attention (which is frequently the case in large families). Or we may never have received sufficient validation, or praise and acknowledgment. Or freedom, or trust . . . or even enough touching and holding.

I believe that everything I’ve referred to above constitutes the essence, the very foundation, of adequate childhood nurturing. And finally, what is most problematic about all of this is that our parents couldn’t help but be the most powerful models in our life. If they weren’t able to sufficiently nurture us, we really weren’t able to learn how to properly nurture ourselves. It’s as though such nurturance was never able to establish itself as part of our own behavioral repertoire. And it’s exceedingly difficult to address solely from within needs and desires that weren’t first fulfilled from without.

Rather, if our parents (because of their own unfulfilled needs and unresolved issues) were critical or withholding to us, what they inadvertently taught us was to be critical and withholding to ourselves. Our self indulgent behavior, then, can be seen as representing the universal need to find some way of compensating for what we were earlier deprived of. And not really knowing how to nurture ourselves, we inevitably search for some way to fill this “hole in our soul”—one reason I’ve long come to see compulsive behaviors (and I mean all compulsive behaviors) as fundamentally compensations.

So how do we make the transition from indulging ourselves to nurturing ourselves? Let me say, first of all, that such an evolution of being is far easier to describe than actually implement. But the transformation mostly involves learning how to see ourselves as worthy of all the things denied to us by our parents. As children, if we didn’t get what we wanted, we were likely to conclude that we must not have deserved it. After all, our parents had infinitely more authority than we did, so in the end we had to accept as fair or right whatever they seemed to decide about us. And not only did we finally feel compelled to accept their negative verdict, we internalized it as well. Now, as adults, we must find a way of coming into our own authority and assert to ourselves—again and again until it begins to feel true to the hurt child deep within us—that we’re worth taking more loving care of than our parents seemed to think we were.

We must enter into a continuing dialogue with the self-devaluing child inside us, reminding him or her repeatedly that we did in fact deserve what our parents were unable to give us. We need to re-write deeply entrenched programming, if we’re to (re)parent ourselves in the way we wish our parents had originally And to be effective, such supportive self-talk necessitates a lot of repetition. As is said in 12-Step Programs: “Fake it until you make it.” To convince ourselves that our needs are just as valid, and just as worth attending to, as anyone else’s promises to be a most challenging task, so we need to be patient and forbearing with ourselves. It may matter little how much we’ve accomplished in life, or how positively others may view us. Negative, internalized patterns and programs from the past can be quite difficult to extinguish.

We also must begin to treat ourselves with more respect, love and compassion. At first we’re likely to feel anxious or guilty about dealing with ourselves in a manner that frankly invalidates many of the negative messages we got from our parents. And so we must tell ourselves over and over that we’re ready to commit to our own growth and happiness—and that we certainly don’t want to validate our parents’ limitations by continuing to treat ourselves the way our parents did.

Again, none of this is simple. And the change—actually, transformation—will likely take a considerable period of time to occur. But if we think about achieving a lasting state of well-being and peace of mind, what could possibly be more fruitful than to engage in such a vital, creative process? It is a process that can get us beyond self-indulgent practices (in the futile effort to make up for what was earlier denied us) into a state of self-nurturance. This is the state our hearts have so long yearned for: the healthy (i.e., not narcissistic) unconditional love and appreciation of self.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., holds doctorates in both English and Psychology. Formerly an English professor at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University, he now lives in Del Mar, California, where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. With clinical specialties in anger, trauma resolution (EMDR), couples conflict, compulsive/addictive behaviors, and depression, he has also taught some 200 adult education workshops on these subjects. In addition, he has served as consultant to both corporations and publishers. The author of The Vision of Melville and Conrad, he has also written numerous articles in the fields of literature and psychology. He is probably best known for his professional guide book Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy, which describes a wide array of seemingly illogical therapeutic interventions. These powerful techniques can help therapists effectively resolve difficult individual and marital/family problems when more straightforward methods have proved unsuccessful. An active blogger for Psychology Today, as of 1/1/15 his more than 250 posts--on a broad variety of psychological topics--have received over 8 million views.