I’m a big fan of happiness and human nature writer and researcher Gretchen Rubin and I have read several of her books and many of her blog posts. The first book of hers that I read was called Better than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits. There are many interesting and helpful philosophies outlined in this book and I highly recommend reading it, but today I’m going to explore just one of these ideas: the concept of abstinence versus moderation.
I’m glad that I re-read the chapter about this concept in Gretchen Rubin’s book, as I had some misconceptions about it, including my thinking that the way it manifests is more absolute and constant than it actually is. In today’s post, I will summarize the chapter and share how the issue of abstinence versus moderation has played out in my life, as well as the ways in which I continue to be challenged by it.
Abstainers vs. Moderators
Moderation is based on the idea that if we deny ourselves something altogether, it will result in binging or falling farther “off the wagon” in the future. However, in many instances, it can be easier to resist certain temptations by never giving in to them in the first place. Sometimes when we deprive ourselves completely of something such that it’s not even an option for us to entertain, we end up feeling less deprived. Another potential benefit of this type of self-denial is that mental energy is conserved because there are no decisions to make regarding whether or not to indulge. Therefore, self-control doesn’t need to be mustered on a regular and ongoing basis.
What Gretchen Rubin discovered in her research is that some people are Abstainers and others are Moderators. Abstainers fare better when they implement all-or-nothing habits in their lives and Moderators do better when they indulge themselves moderately. For Abstainers, having something makes them want it more. Conversely, for Moderators, having something makes them want it less.
When Abstainers attempt to be moderate, they can become exhausted by debating how much they can have, what “counts” as a transgression, and how often to indulge. For the people who fit into this category, it’s easier to say “no” to something once and be done with it than to have to continually go back and forth with themselves about what to do. This type of definitive resolve requires little or no mental effort. An Abstainer decides one time that something is off limits and that’s it; the temptation is gone.
Moderators, on the contrary, find that occasional indulgences can increase their pleasure and strengthen their resolve to avoid the temptation the rest of the time. These individuals tend to panic or rebel at the thought of never doing something at all. They do better with their habits when they avoid strict rules and regulations. They often find that keeping “treats” on hand decreases their impulse to indulge because they realize they can have these things whenever they want and it’s really no big deal. When Moderators are told no, even by themselves, they end up wanting the taboo item or behavior more.
I have a friend who is a Moderator who always eats ten M&Ms after her lunch each day. She enjoys chocolate and wants to be able to have it on a regular basis, so she came up with an amount that felt reasonable to her. She never exceeds the amount she has designated and isn’t even tempted to do so. She knows that she will be able to eat more M&Ms the following day, so that quells any desire to binge on sweets. Abstainers would find this type of strategy impossible, as having that small taste of chocolate and knowing there is more of it lingering around would lead them to think of chocolate all day long. They find it much more peaceful and empowering to say, “I don’t eat chocolate,” which frees them from the temptation to eat it and the obsession of thinking about it.
Are We Always One or the Other?
Moderators and Abstainers are often very judgmental toward each other, as they both believe that their way of approaching temptation is the right way. While it’s true that some people are always Moderators or always Abstainers, many of us can fit into either category depending upon what is involved – and the way we approach a particular temptation can shift over time. So people can be both Abstainers and Moderators, depending on the context. This has definitely been the case for me, as the following examples will demonstrate.
Although I feel that I’m generally a Moderator, I used to have to abstain from many different types of foods, as I had a strong tendency to overeat them. So I would either never indulge in those items or I would only eat them when I was at a restaurant, as I would then be given a contained portion size. Over time as I worked on my eating issues, the number of foods that I struggled to be moderate with decreased. For a while, the only two foods that I would overeat were popcorn and chips with guacamole. At this point, I no longer eat popcorn because it no longer sits well with me, and although I rarely eat chips with guacamole (and when I do, the chips are a grain-free version), I’m now able to moderate how much I consume.
There are a number of foods that I abstain from now for health reasons. For example, I haven’t eaten gluten-containing foods for around four years. At first, I felt deprived by avoiding gluten, but I wasn’t really tempted to eat it because I didn’t want to suffer adverse effects. Fortunately, there are now many tasty substitutions for some of my favorite baked goods that I can either buy or make, so I no longer feel all that deprived. Plus, I’ve gone so long without eating gluten that I don’t think much about it anymore.
Am I Really a Moderator?
While I don’t struggle to moderate my eating much these days (although I do need to cut back more now due to menopausal metabolism changes – UGH), I definitely have other areas in which I’m not able to moderate so easily. Those of you who have been reading my writing for a while won’t be surprised to learn that one of these areas is shopping. I have tried “shopping bans” several times in the past, but I never thought this was the right solution for me because I would generally “binge” both before the ban and after it was over. Therefore, I have been working to moderate my shopping for years now, to varying levels of success.
I used to experience overshopping with pretty much any type of item I could buy: clothes, shoes, accessories, cosmetics, books, gifts, home items, etc. Over time, however, I have been able to successfully moderate my purchasing in most of these areas, much like I’ve been able to moderate my intake of various types of food. I no longer buy too many shoes and accessories, but I still struggle with buying too many clothes. So is it just a matter of time before I will be able to moderate there, too? There have definitely been times when it was easier for me to buy fewer clothes, but then I always seemed to fall back into having to “white-knuckle” it so as not to purchase too many items (and I often do still buy too many clothes).
Gretchen Rubin wrote that many people think they’re Moderators but they’re really Abstainers, at least in regards to particular types of behaviors. Is that the case for me with shopping or will shopping evolve like food has for me in terms of moderation? After all, it did take me a long time to get to the point at which I can eat pretty much all foods in moderation. But as I worked to overcome my eating issues, I did benefit from abstaining from certain types of foods, which is in line with Rubin’s recommendations. She wrote that even Moderators can benefit from short periods of abstinence, such as when Catholics give up certain temptations for Lent or when people take “digital sabbaticals” during which they abstain from using technology.
A friend who has struggled with overshopping told me that she takes a month off from shopping several times per year. That short break helps her to refocus on what she already has rather than continuing to look outside at what she could potentially buy. It also helps her to turn her attention more to other priorities because she has taken shopping off the table for a while. This practice aligns with what Rubin had to say, that giving up something for a short period of time can re-awaken our pleasure in it and make us appreciate it more. Alternatively, taking such a break may also help us to realize that we’re happier without a certain habit or behavior, such as when some people take time away from a particular app or program and never end up going back to it.
Some Tips on Abstaining and Moderating
This revisiting of the Moderator vs. Abstainer concept has given me a lot of food for thought and I hope it has made you think, too. My hope is that we can engage in some thought-provoking discussion that can potentially help all of us to better manage our habits. Before I turn this over to you, though, I want to give you a few more tips on abstaining and moderating from Gretchen Rubin, in case you want to try limiting your consumption or letting go of something for a time or altogether.
- When abstaining is tied to a strongly held value, it can be easier to do. This is often the case with faith-related behaviors such as observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, or the aforementioned giving something up for Lent. When it comes to shopping, those who care deeply about the ethical and environmental implications of how clothes are made are often better able to buy less and/or only buy secondhand items or from certain manufacturers.
- If you don’t like giving yourself restrictions or telling yourself no, it can help to reframe the situation as being related to freedom. For example, you can tell yourself you’re free from French fries, candy, bread, or whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. This creates a totally different perspective than saying you can’t have those things.
- “Consumption snobbery” can also help with avoiding a sense of deprivation while being more moderate. If you decide to only purchase the very best of a particular type of item (e.g. wine, food, clothing, accessories, home items), you’ll be better able to buy smaller quantities. This strategy was often recommended to me on my former blog and I have definitely used it with some types of items (purses, shoes, jewelry), but I don’t trust myself enough yet to make the right decisions with clothes when it comes to buying more expensive items. Maybe that is just a matter of time and I will come around there as well.
Now I’d love to hear from you! Here are some questions to help guide your feedback, but feel free to share your input on anything I wrote about in this post.
- What are your thoughts on the concept of abstinence vs. moderation?
- Do you consider yourself to be more of an Abstainer or more of a Moderator, or does it depend on the habit or behavior in question?
- Have you ever shifted from being an Abstainer to being a Moderator or vice versa? What led to this type of shift?
- Have you benefited from short periods of abstinence and in what way?
- What tips do you have for those of us who either want to cut down on a particular behavior or eliminate it altogether?