How to Understand and Embrace Your Guilty Pleasures

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Existential Kink" by Carolyn Elliott. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have any guilty pleasures you’re ashamed of? Why is embracing your guilty pleasures with existential kink the best way to combat them?

The premise of existential kink is that the negative patterns—of feelings, behaviors, and so on—we see recurring in our lives are the manifestations of our unconscious desires. The only way to eliminate our negative patterns is to acknowledge, embrace, and take conscious pleasure in our guilty pleasures.

Below, we’ll dive into the principles of existential kink to better understand how to embrace your guilty pleasures.

The Seven Principles of Existential Kink

To understand existential kink as an attitude, let’s look at the beliefs that underpin it, according to Existential Kink by Carolyn Elliott. Existential kink is founded on seven principles—incorporating them into your worldview will help you understand your guilty pleasures better.

Principle #1: What You Have Is a Manifestation of What You Desire

Adopting existential kink requires becoming aware of your unconscious desires. If you’re struggling to identify what you unconsciously desire, all you need to do is look at what you currently have, explains Elliott. The things your unconscious secretly craves will come to be in your life, seemingly from some force outside your control. 

(Shortform note: Others have different theories on how the unconscious impacts what we have in life. In You Are a Badass, Jen Sincero suggests that it’s not your desires, but rather your subconscious beliefs that control your life and interfere with your ability to get what you consciously want. Because of this, Sincero’s advice for overcoming the things that are holding you back is to change the way you think to focus on positive outcomes.)

Principle #2: Sensation Is Neutral

We repress desires that arise from what we think are “bad” feelings, but there are no inherently “good” or “bad” feelings. When you have a sensation, feeling, or emotion, it’s up to you whether you interpret it as pain or pleasure (hence the “kink” in “existential kink”). 

As proof that this is possible, Elliott notes that many people enjoy BDSM, which involves deriving sexual pleasure from physical pain. The fact that humans are able to do this, argues Elliott, suggests that pain itself is a neutral sensation and that it’s only our interpretation of it that’s negative. You can experiment with this concept by momentarily choosing to believe that, deep down, your unconscious wants the negative things in your life to happen (essentially, consenting to the pain as people do during BDSM), and this will give you a greater sense of control over what happens to you.

Principle #3: Everything That Happens to You Can Be a Source of Pleasure

According to Elliott, it’s possible to enjoy every event and circumstance that occurs in your life. We generally only take pleasure in certain types of things, such as compliments, moments of good fortune, and other things our conscious mind and society deem “good.” The purpose of existential kink is to allow yourself to take joy and excitement in both the good and the bad.

(Shortform note: Sometimes people struggle to take pleasure even in the “good” things in life. They may feel that allowing themselves to feel pleasure will evoke negative feelings as well, or they may have been taught by an authority figure that feeling pleasure is wrong. These people often focus on achieving goals without enjoying the process of that achievement. On the other hand, neuroscientific research suggests that people who focus on experiencing pleasure without the pursuit of other goals are less likely to be happy and flourish. This indicates that, while we shouldn’t deny ourselves pleasure, we shouldn’t seek pleasure for pleasure’s sake.)

Principle #4: Joy Depends on Acceptance

As we’ve discussed, existential kink isn’t about changing your life but about taking pleasure in every part of your life. Therefore, how much pleasure you can take in anything depends on how accepting you are of your life as it is. According to Elliott, taking joy in the bad things requires you to get rid of your moral judgments about yourself and your life and take everything—negative feelings, difficult circumstances, unpleasant events, and so on—less seriously. We often take a moral approach to our lives, so when we feel bad, we feel as though we are bad. 

Instead of taking a moral approach, Elliott recommends looking at your life from an aesthetic perspective, the way you would a great story or work of art. We don’t repress or avoid stories about suffering and hardship. In fact, we seek them out and delight in them. Try doing the same with your life: Don’t see “bad” events or emotions as reflections on you, but instead feel those bad emotions deeply, understand them inside and out, and appreciate them like you would a work of art. 

(Shortform note: In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains that we’re neurologically programmed to seek out stories that depict suffering and hardship because they help us understand and prepare for such hardships in our own lives. If you struggle with taking aesthetic pleasure in the difficult things in your life, consider viewing them not only as art but also as helpful preparation for more difficult things you may face in the future.)

Principle #5: Denying Your Unconscious Desires Only Makes Them Stronger

People often think that if they ignore the bad things in their lives, they’ll go away, but the principles of existential kink show us that the opposite is true. Pretending we don’t have unconscious desires won’t get rid of them, explains Elliott. The only way to keep them from manifesting as negative patterns is to satisfy them. For example, if you consciously want to succeed in your job, but you’re constantly making avoidable mistakes because you subconsciously enjoy the lack of responsibility, you won’t be able to fulfill your conscious desire to succeed until you acknowledge and enjoy the feeling you get from being irresponsible.

(Shortform note: The phenomenon of thoughts growing stronger when we try to suppress them is known as thought rebound. Research confirms that the harder we try to avoid thinking about something, the more difficult it becomes to not think about it, and often these suppressed thoughts show up in our dreams. But suppression doesn’t just make the thoughts and desires stronger: It also increases the likelihood that you’ll act on those thoughts and desires. Because some of these thoughts are about harmful behaviors like substance abuse or violence, “satisfying” them by engaging in those actions isn’t advisable. Instead, you should reflect on and embrace the feelings underlying these thoughts, as we’ll explain later in this guide.)

Principle #6: Shame Is the Number One Enemy of Existential Kink

Existential kink requires you to unite your conscious and unconscious desires and thereby take control of your life, and according to Elliott, the primary hindrance to this is shame. Shame is a sign that you’re suppressing something, so letting yourself be shameless opens the door to embracing your true self.

(Shortform note: Elliott’s advice on combating shame is limited to the recommendation that you allow yourself to be shameless, but other experts have more concrete recommendations for dissolving shame. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown suggests that you put distance between your failures and your self-worth so that messing up doesn’t make you feel worthless and ashamed. She argues that guilt can actually be a healthier alternative to shame because it doesn’t create the same association between your behavior and your worth. She also recommends building resilience to shame by practicing mindfulness and seeking help from others when you’re dealing with shame.)

Principle #7: You Experience Physiological Reactions to Personal Truths

As you’re practicing existential kink, when you come upon a true new insight into yourself, you’ll feel something, like a jolt that goes through your body, a feeling of weightlessness, or even sexual pleasure. Elliott explains that these sensations can help you distinguish true from false beliefs about yourself or life, so you should pay close attention to them and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them. 

For example, as you’re meditating on a negative pattern in your life, like being unable to hold down a solid job, you may have many ideas about why this is happening: Maybe you secretly want to avoid the accountability that comes with a career, or you enjoy feeling dependent on your friends and family, or deep down you believe that only boring people have real jobs. You’ll have many ideas, but you’ll know you’ve hit upon your true insight into why you can’t stick with a job when you feel some kind of sensation like those listed above in response to one of these thoughts. 

(Shortform note: It can be particularly difficult for trauma survivors to be sufficiently in touch with their bodies to notice the sensations that accompany certain thoughts. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk explains that people who’ve experienced trauma often feel disconnected from their bodily sensations, making it difficult for them to identify physical feelings. Additionally, people who have poor interoception (the ability to sense internal physical sensations) or alexithymia (difficulty in feeling, identifying, or expressing emotions) may struggle to identify connections between their thoughts and bodily sensations. Such individuals may benefit from mindfulness practices designed to help with bodily awareness.)

How to Understand and Embrace Your Guilty Pleasures

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Here's what you'll find in our full Existential Kink summary:

  • That the negative patterns in our lives are manifestations of what we desire
  • How to dissolve your negative desires so they lose hold over your life
  • How to practice existential kink meditation

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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