07/02/2011 10:32 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2011

Surviving on Emotional Twinkies (But at What Cost?)

I know a woman struggling with having an affair. Not the actual "having", but the idea of it. She ruminates about the man in question day and night. Should she, shouldn't she. She is married, has a daughter and the man she is fantasizing about is also married, though apparently he has made it clear that he is more than interested in her. The attraction is mutual, and there are all sorts of innuendos and near-misses -- a brush against the hand, a bump in the hallway -- all day at work.

She tells me the only reason she has been struggling with turning the idea into reality is because she has been held back by her ethics. She had been raised to believe that her word was her honor and that commitments were to be held sacred. Her early home life was devout if not technically religious. She was torn between her desire to "let go" and have fun and an innate sense of right and wrong. She was also raised to be a perfectionist -- which ultimately ruins a good sense of duty and honor -- and made to feel that everything was her responsibility, even when it wasn't. As a result, she feels internally twisted, pressured, as if there were knots all along her circulatory system. In truth, she enjoys very little unless her mood is enhanced by drugs and alcohol.

She asked me in near anguish, "Why can't I just be selfish like everyone else? I just wanna have fun for one minute. I know I will feel awful later, but I need something now."

I noticed two things in her question:

One, was that she seemed to be equating enjoyment with selfishness -- that in order to be happy one had to become selfish. It would not be hard to make that assumption in our culture. Additionally, she seemed to have an underlying belief that selfishness -- literally putting the "self" first -- was something to aspire to, or worse, that there would be something worthwhile to gain by being selfish when everything in my personal and professional experience has taught me precisely the opposite. To my understanding, she was confusing self-care with self-centeredness.

The other thing I put in the form of a question:

"Do you know anything about addiction?"

She tilted her head, wondering why I asked something so seemingly irrelevant.

I said what she was saying reminded me so much of what addicts say when they need a fix. There is a moment in every addict's life in which this very profound turmoil becomes a conscious battle: Do I do what I know is right -- it coincides with my values, it reflects long-term gain and health -- or do I do what I feel like doing for short-term gain even though I know it will go against my beliefs, cause me and others pain, and otherwise complicate my life emotionally, mentally and fiscally?

Do I choose a full course meal that requires some forethought and preparation, or do I pop open the emotional Twinkie? It may look like food, it may even taste like food for a moment, but it's little more than an intra-psychic shot of dope that leaves us still hungry, empty and wondering what just happened. It makes me think of the first (and last) time I ate cotton candy. I remember so vividly the anticipation of all that pink sweetness only to find out that once I put it in my mouth it disappeared and made my teeth hurt.

This twinkie phenomenon has occurred more and more often in my office, so much so that I'm noticing a trend. I don't know why, and I have no studies that indicate anything notable. I do know that heroin is making a monstrous comeback, though. Perhaps they are both indications of something more profound and pervasive.

A Fast-Food/Fast-Feel Culture

As usual, when I am presented with a situation like this in people I look to both the internal motivations and the cultural supports for those motivations. Without the supports, many of these fancies would remain nothing but fancies or whims. They would not have the social buttressing to stay in place or to so smoothly and easily perpetuate the imagined behavior, like having an affair as opposed to having a moment of fantasy.

The internal motivation is simple to identify in most cases. A person might need relief, sex, food, support, love or belonging.

What does our culture do with these basic needs?

Still reeling from the "if it feels good, do it" ethos of the '60s, our social milieu says go get what you need -- whatever it is, however you must. Who cares if you destroy your own life so long as you don't really hurt anyone else? One problem here is that more often than not, hurting oneself does actually hurt others in so many ways, both hidden and obvious -- the emotional toll on those who care about us, the societal cost required to pick up hospital bills, the price of divorce and custody battles, insurance, police involvement, etc. This has bred a self-indulgent, self-involved couple of generations that is hard for me to fathom.

I was raised to work and to value not only the result of that work, but also the effort and process itself. I loathed dependency. I liked having my own. So I started working as soon as I could. When I was thirteen I started with filing in an office where my mother worked. Throughout school, I took on what I could find for the summers or after classes: secretarial, camp counselor, cashier, bra salesperson at Macy's 34th Street, waitress or whatever it took to pay my bills, get through school and have some cash to go to a movie. It was expected of me, both by my parents and by myself. And before I went to that movie or spent that cash, my own responsibilities were attended to. Period. Please understand, I was never deprived and had many blessings in my life, for which I'm eternally grateful. But there were no free rides.

A case in counterpoint:

Someone else I know whose judgment is usually fairly good forgot to use birth control, got his girlfriend pregnant, then got married before either of them had a job or career path. After the wedding he decided he needed a new car and a new home. Why not? That's what people do when they start families, right? That's what the people on TV do.

Would he be paying for it? Nope.

Did he want it? You bet. His plan? Get family members to take care of it. If I had gotten pregnant out of wedlock I would have had my head handed to me on a platter, not a spacious condo.

Worse, he is so good at making the situation look dire, it seems like the family is going to do exactly what he wants. So he will have his short-term needs -- more space, sweeter transportation -- met, while his more serious and long-term needs -- individuation, maturity, responsibility and self-respect -- are allowed to atrophy. He has substituted twinkies for food, quick satisfaction for nourishment, entitlement for autonomy.

My thoughts? Only one: Ye gads.