(NOTE: Based on today’s The Daily Post writing prompt)

Denial has played a strong and constant role in my life. I was pretty much raised on the idea that anything enjoyable must be, if not “bad” for me than certainly less ideal than whatever hard work there was that needed to be done.

That’s not anyone’s fault, it’s simply the reality of the period in which I came of age, with grandparents who had all lived through the Great Depression, endured food and other rationing during world wars and still retained elements of the mythical Protestant Work Ethic. If you weren’t working, you were probably doing something wrong. If you took the last donut from the box, you were being selfish because someone else might want it.

What I find odd is that this upbringing didn’t result in an adult who was money-conscious and frugal to a fault, hoarding money like a miser in case of later calamity and indulging in absolutely zero extravagances, lest that accidentally results in joy or entertainment.

Instead when I was on my own I felt I had to spend, spend, spend like the adult I was pretending to be. Want to do this? Sure, why not. Want to buy that? Not a problem. Oddly, I still have qualms about taking the last donut or another treat without explicit permission to do so and not before I’ve asked “Are you sure?” 17 times.

With the benefit of hindsight I can see now that’s likely because lessons in character-building are not the same as lessons in building values.

The latter is simply trying to hammer some point home. “You have a job to do, so best make peace with it.” “Life isn’t all fun and games, so let’s go.” “You can go out with your friends after the moisture vaporators on the south ridge have been repaired.” That kind of thing.

The former attempts to instill a moral reason for self-denial. This can be because doing so would be disrespectful to others (going to see a movie your brother really wanted to see while he’s sick), bad for the environment (any sort of consumption, really) or because it doesn’t line up with your values (buying from a company whose business practices you have issues with).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with self-denial. It *can* be a valuable character building practice, but only when it’s coming from a place of instilling values that can be utilized in other facets of life. That’s how you set someone up for success.

Now, of course, denial is less a choice than a reality of the current fiscal reality. Still, the hope is that we’re building habits and making decisions based not simply on the fact that we can’t afford something but also on whether or not doing so is in line with what’s important to us.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.