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Sometimes, when the pressures of my life reach a fever pitch, bing! -- my get-a-treat button sounds. Usually I make do with a brownie or window-shopping, but whenever I can swing it, my favorite clandestine comfort is to take myself out to dinner. I don't seek out white tablecloths and five-course meals. Instead, I plunk myself down at a place near my home that makes a sensational thin-crust pizza. With mushrooms. Which is great, because the thrill of this guilty little pleasure (I know there is not much nutritional upside here) isn't about a gourmet extravagance, it's about an emotional one. A mushroom pizza, a glass of Coke, and...me. Do I feel remorse later for relishing my pizza dinner for one? Yes, a little, but that doesn't ruin the experience. Instead it makes me savor the treat even more.
And that's the beauty of these secret moments. Your furtive little indulgence might involve food, fantasy, fun, or escape -- or all at once! From shopping to napping, from reading torrid paperbacks you hope the kids don't find to test-driving cars you can't afford, these are the things that lift your spirits, unravel your cares, restore your soul. We all have a different guilt threshold. Some women feel fully entitled to daily indulgences, while others are racked with remorse if they take time away from their family for a monthly manicure.
According to Susan Newman, PhD, author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day (Crown, 1996), women who crave guilty pleasures the most are those with their plates piled highest, particularly working moms (who may also be caring for their aging parents). "We live in such a driven society, yet we don't feel we have the right to pamper ourselves," says Dr. Newman, a psychologist in Metuchen, New Jersey. "If you relax in the bath, you find yourself thinking, 'I should be organizing the vacation photos or taking my daughter to the playground.' There are so many 'shoulds' in our lives."
Jennifer, 38, a real-estate manager in Scottsdale, Arizona, agrees. "I have three kids and I feel like I'm the wife, I'm the mom, I'm the employee, but when do I get to be me?" She has found one way. At night, after everyone is asleep, she sneaks down to the family's pool. "I take off my clothes, dive in, float on my back, and stare at the stars for half an hour," she says. Even her husband hasn't caught on. "If he notices my wet hair, he thinks I've been doing laps for exercise." And that's fine. "I feel like I'm being a little bit bad, but it helps me to get a piece of my time back that I don't have to share. It's my rebellion."
For many women, the solo aspect delivers a kick because they're stealing time, a painfully scarce commodity. But there's another factor: Nothing kills the fun faster than having to share. Guilty pleasures are built for one, and it's that molecule of secrecy that binds the pleasure to the guilt. What makes up our formulas can be mysterious. A happily married friend of mine frequents a certain drugstore because she has an ongoing (and innocent) flirtation with the handsome pharmacist. Another likes to try on boxes of shoes in chic boutiques.
The key element seems to be that nugget of naughtiness. "It's so satisfying when you feel like you're getting away with something," says Beth, 38, a mother of a toddler in Eugene, Oregon, who has never confessed to anyone her fetish for a certain fast-food sausage-cheese-and-egg sandwich, which she indulges in only via drive-through ("for the anonymity").
"The thing that's so goofy is that you're an adult, you don't have to 'get away' with stuff, but it adds a bit of deliciousness to it all when you feel like you're doing something people wouldn't approve of," Beth adds.
Psychotherapist Daphne Stevens, author of Watercolor Bedroom: Creating a Soulful Midlife (Authorhouse, 2004), wishes we could pry the guilt off the treat. "Pleasure is our birthright," she says, "and yet we often act as though we're on a pleasure diet. 'Oh, no, I can't take this hour for myself to read or sit in a cafe and drink a cup of coffee.'"
She believes that guilty pleasures are what clinicians would call a "reaction formation." In other words, what you truly feel when you watch your favorite trashy reality TV show is pretty darn happy. But you can't admit that to yourself. So you throw in guilt, Stevens says, "to prove you're suffering. It's like saying, 'I am having this pleasure, but I also feel guilty, so does that make it okay?'"
The sneaky fun, the secret guilt -- sound familiar? A number of women said their guilty pleasure evoked their childhoods. Anna, 40, a public-interest advocate and new mother in Washington, D.C., says her love of reading for hours (which she rarely gets to do these days) dates back to when she was a kid and would literally climb a tree in order to relish her favorite passion uninterrupted. In fact, as a nod to the need of even the most sophisticated adults to nourish their inner child, the Four Seasons Restaurant, in New York City, offers a $10 serving of cotton candy -- on a china plate, no less. "People really love it, regardless of their age," says reservationist Julius Mariano.
Sadly, guilty pleasures can have a dark side. Overeating, overspending, excessive drinking -- what starts as an occasional kick can eventually become destructive. It's not that most serious vices begin as guilty pleasures (boy, then we'd all be in trouble), but the potential exists. You know you've crossed the line "if you begin to feel that you're not living in accord with your own values," Stevens says. She describes a married woman whose flirtation began as a guilty pleasure -- enjoying the company of a colleague. But she then allowed the situation to develop into an affair. "You need to have your own boundaries and respect them," Stevens says.
Still, Dr. Newman believes that women need to reduce the guilt revolving around their little indulgences. "You want to start thinking, 'Wait a minute, I've earned this!'" That's how Karen, 42, a financial planner in Charlotte, North Carolina, tries to look at her catnaps. Or, since she curls up with her adoring Vizsla, her dognaps. Either way, she knows it's a guilty pleasure to flop down on the living-room sofa on a Saturday afternoon while her husband and two kids are out doing various activities, but she tries not to give in to the guilt.
Like most of us, Karen says, "I was raised with a strong work ethic: to get all your work done before you take your pleasure. But since all the work is never done -- my house is never picked up enough and there's always so much stuff that needs doing -- sometimes I would just rather lie down with the dog."
Perhaps these stolen moments are a public service. "If I didn't have the occasional sausage-cheese-and-egg, I'd move on to larger crime sprees," Beth jokes. Well, here's to law and order. If you can't justify a little hedonism on the grounds that you deserve it, think of the rest of society. I love the notion that when you practice these random acts of private fun, there could be a ripple outward that pushes others to do likewise. Perhaps then guilty pleasures would make the world a little bit more wonderful.