All or Nothing Pleasure

With me it's all er nuthin'. Is it all er nuthin' with you?

It cain't be "in between"

It cain't be "now and then"...


When it comes to all or nothing, pleasure serves as the perfect (and perfectly sad) example. Maybe some of this sounds familiar:

You want it, seek it, do anything and everything you can to catch it. And when you catch it, you cling to it, because letting go and facing the “real world”--those discomforts that you try so hard to avoid--terrifies us. You also fear it, avoid it, do anything and everything you can to look past it. You see it as powerful, a temptress of sorts. So you stifle it, and you shut it down.

With pleasure, do you ever go for all or nothing?  


On a very basic level, pleasure is happiness, enjoyment, satisfaction, or something that brings happiness, enjoyment, or satisfaction. Pleasure feels good. And, on a very basic level, this requires some degree of mindfulness: You are aware that something feels good.

However, you might have a complicated relationship with pleasure, sometimes to the point where you lose the mindfulness piece. You no longer enjoy pleasure for its own sake, but either move toward it until it loses its good-ness, or avoid it altogether.

Let’s start with chocolate cake.

Ten years ago, I read an article written by Michael Pollan in the NY Times Magazine called Our National Eating Disorder. Here is the bottom line:

Asked what comes to mind upon hearing the phrase ‘chocolate cake,’ Americans were more apt to say ‘guilt,’ while the French said ‘celebration’…Compared with the French, we’re much more likely to choose foods for reasons of health, and yet the French, more apt to choose on the basis of pleasure, are the healthier (and thinner) people. How can this possibly be?...

I will never forget the two-page color spread:

  • On one side, the American approach: An empty plate with the remnants of a giant, decadent slice of chocolate cake.
  • On the other side, the French approach: A giant, decadent slice of chocolate cake, about 1/3 eaten.

All or nothing.

Why is “some” so difficult? Why does it have to be one way or the other?

Why can’t you just say “yes” to a few bites of chocolate cake and enjoy the cake for what it is—a delicious dessert—rather than:

  1. Stuffing yourself because you lose control--thereby losing the sense of pleasure
  2. Denying yourself any at all because you fear losing control--thereby shutting down the possibility of pleasure

Hopefully, you sometimes simply enjoy the cake for what it is. And, yes, sometimes you do eat the entire giant slice, because the spirit moves you. But do you ever sway too far in either direction at the expense of pleasure?

Though books like Skinny Bitch aim to provide helpful information in an entertaining way, they often use “don’ts” and other shame tactics to get their point across: Eat “clean and pure”--to be skinny. Eat for “energy”—and to be skinny. They eschew “diets” in favor of more flexible, healthfully-rebellious eating (“YOU CAN EAT BREAD AND FRUIT!”), yet forget the most important piece of the equation: A positive, body-is-wise relationship with food. And, yes, countless fitness books follow the same basic formula.

They essentially hang mindfulness and pleasure out to dry.

When researching “French diet books”, I found myself pleasantly surprised by French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure. As the author writes, French women “eat with their heads”—mindfully, slowly, choosing variety along with moderation, and focusing on things like ritual when preparing food. In short, they have a relationship with food that centers on pleasure (and, yes, they don’t eat as much processed crap).

(* For the purposes of avoiding a novel-length post here, I will not delve into the whole French versus American culture. But suffice it to say that it warrants discussion!)

That’s all well and good, but, too often, the picture looks more like this:

The “All” Approach: Stuff It In

Whether numbing the pain, trying to escape what you don’t want to face, or struggling with things like low self-confidence and impulse control, you reach for instant gratification, binge, and go all in. The “hunger” consumes you: You want the entire bottle of wine and the entire piece of chocolate cake because some is never enough, and you can’t stop yourself. This bingeing includes “healthy habits”, as you take wellness to the extreme. You love--or convince yourself that you love--exercise, so you grow “addicted” (Barry’s Bootcamp, anyone?). Somehow, you move from “want more” to “need more”, to the point where you lose our enjoyment of a good glass of wine, delicious chocolate cake, or even beneficial physical movement, along the way.

The “Nothing” Approach: Keep It Out

Whether to rectify indulgences, or abstain altogether, you stifle pleasure and shut it down.

You “get back on the bandwagon” by restricting calories, “detoxing”, or following “fixes” for a certain number of days. You go to spin class every single day for an entire month as a way of proving our healthy discipline. You hold strong, and you refuse to give in to temptation. Maybe you feel like you might lose control without self-imposed limits. Maybe the idea of “letting go” terrifies, or shames, you. Maybe enjoying pleasure feels like a sign of weakness, or sloth, and you should be able to keep those carnal desires at bay. Maybe you’re better than pleasure.

* Automating

Sometimes, to keep pleasure out, you treat it like a science. You label things as good or bad, demonize, grab onto the latest trends (any class junkies out there?), and follow prescriptions to a T. It’s more than “shoulding” yourself, because even that requires brain power. And you don’t want to think: You just want to get the job done.

…[We]’ve learned to choose our foods by the numbers (calories, carbs, fats, R.D.A.’s, price, whatever), relying more heavily on our reading and computational skills than upon our senses.

--Michael Pollan

You automate to avoid a free for all, to keep from falling off the deep end, to control yourself. And you automate so that you don’t have to think about the fact that you don’t enjoy what you do: You just do.  

But, somehow, “X” never equals the right number. And, somehow, keeping pleasure out often leads to stuffing it in, in some way, shape, or form. And so you swing, from branch to branch: Stuff, stifle, equate, repeat.


A new friend of mine just started a 40-day “detox”. In and of itself, it sounds like a great idea: Sugar, caffeine...good to enjoy these in moderation. But the “detox” idea? So much for moderation. She said, “Is it a problem for me to want it to be challenging?”

Is it a problem?

Maybe this sounds familiar:

  1. Restrict, restrict, restrict.
  2. Breaking point! Rebel! Binge and fill!
  3. Restrict, restrict, restrict.
  4. Breaking point! Rebel! Binge and fill!

Stuff, stifle, automate, repeat.

What is your relationship with pleasure? Does it sometimes feel like “all or nothing”? Does it sometimes serve a purpose? Rather than enjoying pleasure for its own sake, do you use it to fill a void, to please someone else, to do what you think you “should” do, or for some other reason? Do you ever abstain from it?

Well, guess what: You are (sadly) not abnormal. Pleasure is a mixed bag, and the pursuit of “health” can leave us trapped in extremes, in robot-mode, and disconnected from our physiological needs and wants, our own genuine sense of pleasure, and our core values.

I vote for enjoying a few bites of that decadent chocolate cake, for no reason other than the fact that it brings you pleasure, and then moving on to whatever life brings next. Who’s willing to give that road a try?