Full Life Reflections

Striving for happiness, peace, and fulfillment in a chaotic world

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.

moderation vs. abstinence

Do you agree with this sentiment or do you think it’s best to avoid certain things? 

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.

Your Thoughts?

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?

12 thoughts on “Are You a Moderator or an Abstainer?

  1. jenn says:

    I eat one dark Dove chocolate every day after lunch and another after dinner. But, I too tend to over-shop. So abstaining is the way I need to go with that. No looking at catalogs or going into the stores… Also, I love Gretchen Rubin’s insights. I’ve read most of her books and have listened to all of her podcasts that she does with her sister. “Happier” is my absolute favorite podcast. She’s been into color lately, something near and dear to my heart.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I should have mentioned Gretchen Rubin’s podcast, too, Jenn! I haven’t listened to ALL of the episodes, but I do enjoy it. I will have to catch up on some of the recent ones so I can hear her thoughts on color, a topic I also find interesting. I love Dove chocolate, too 🙂 Regarding shopping, it helps me to stay away from stores, catalogs, and websites, too, as even when I feel I don’t need anything, I can pretty much always find something I WANT!

  2. Tara C says:

    I’ve always been a natural moderator with food and thought that I could do it with shopping as well, but I’ve discovered I can’t. So I am currently on a six month shopping ban. I am tempted to cheat every day, but so far I have resisted (it’s been 2 months). When I get to the point where I feel like I’m no longer obsessing over it and feel like I can try moderation again, I may attempt it. I have actually managed to moderate my shopping in shoes, clothes, purses, books and jewelry, but am still having trouble with perfume. The perfume ban may need to be a full year to really stick.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Good for you for sticking with your shopping ban, Tara! I think we have to do those types of things one day at a time, as six months seems like a very long time. It’s interesting how both of us have been able to moderate shopping with some types of items but not others. It may be like peeling an onion and we’ll eventually get to the center. Best wishes to you with your perfume ban. I hope you can learn to be moderate with your buying in that area.

  3. Kim says:

    I’m an abstainer and generally do well with that approach. But, I struggle with shopping because it’s impossible to abstain from buying clothing, cold turkey, forever. Sooner or later a legitimate need comes up, and then it leads to a binge.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      I agree, Kim. Shopping is something everyone eventually needs to do and it’s hard for many of us to be moderate with it! I don’t want to have to abstain from it, but I haven’t been able to be as moderate as I’d like, at least not on a consistent and lasting basis. I definitely buy and spend a lot less than I used to, but it’s still more than I’d ultimately like.

  4. Terry says:

    Coincidentally, I have Rubin’s Happier at Home in my to-read pile as we speak, and I very much enjoy her podcast. Whether I’m an abstainer or a moderator totally depends on the issue. I used to have a friend who was a social smoker. I would not be able to do that – smoking is the perfect self-medication, as it can be both a stimulant and a sedative. If I smoked at all, I would want it all the time, so I must abstain completely. Alcohol, on the other hand, I can take or leave, so I have no problem being moderate. For 15 years I was a semi-vegetarian, as in I didn’t eat mammals. I had no trouble abstaining. However, I have no desire to completely surrender sugar, so I moderate its intake. Right now, I’m on a restricted diet for health reasons and I sometimes cheat with gluten but never with the foods that cause severe pain, for obvious reasons. My clothing purchases are controlled by the budget I have set. Is that moderation, or abstaining? I wonder if the European style of seasonal shopping works better for abstainers, while year-round shopping with limits might work better for moderators.

    1. Terra says:

      Good question. I’ve thought about this a lot after reading Gretchen’s articles.

      In my teen years and as a young adult I was neither. I didn’t moderate and I didn’t abstain. I was a rebel. I did whatever I wanted, without guilt and I never questioned it. I didn’t have any problems with over doing things that I can remember. I was an under-doer. I had an eating disorder as a teenager, but it was because I under ate. Then in my 40s I caught sight of myself and realized by being a rebel I was wrecking my own life and I gave up my rebellious ways. I became a moderator. But for many years there wasn’t much to moderate. I drink one cup of coffee each morning because that’s all I want. I drink wine on weekends but I only want one or two glasses. Never wanted the whole bottle so there isn’t much to think about. I eat chips and other junk food in normal amounts, one or two servings, and was proud of myself for overcoming my under eating disorder and thought I was doing rather well. But then in my mid to late 40s I began this terrible habit of over shopping! At first I had no idea I was over shopping. But then after about ten years of fairly consistent weekly shopping my average sized closet was bustlingly full. It was clear I’d gone too far and once again it was time to change my evil ways. Clearly I needed to moderate shopping. I did a Google search for “how many clothes does the average woman wear?” and found Project 333. My learning curve began. Then a couple of years later I found your blog, Recovering Shopaholic. And now for the past five to seven years I’ve been shopping moderately. At first I had a tendency to still buy too much because I was so out of touch with how much I really needed. But these days I’ve found my balance. So now I guess I’m both a “moderator and an abstainer” because I’m very much the same as your friend who takes a shopping pause a couple of times each year. It feels good to take a break and not buy or acquire anything. It’s a peaceful feeling and leaves me feeling relaxed and with more money in my bank account.

      1. Debbie Roes says:

        Thanks for sharing about your rebel past, Terra. I think a lot of teens and young adults lean that way and later come to reform their ways like you did. I was an under-eater for years, too, but I also had issues with bulimia, so I wasn’t able to completely abstain all the time. It took me many years to overcome my eating issues and they have cropped up again to some degree with menopause and unwanted weight gain and body changes. I still consider myself to be a moderator with food, but my definition of moderation has had to change.

        You seem to be mostly a moderator with pretty much all things. I think even your periodic times of abstaining from shopping are part of your moderating shopping. It’s like what Gretchen Rubin wrote about… that it can be helpful for moderators to abstain from something periodically to get back to a place of pleasure around it, to “recalibrate,” or to decide if one still wants to engage in a certain habit or behavior. Your approach toward shopping seems to be very healthy and I hope to get to that place myself. My lifestyle is very much like yours, as is my climate, so I think a smaller wardrobe like yours and less frequent shopping would be ideal. I usually have some periods of abstinence from shopping each years, but it’s often at the END of the year because I have already spent my yearly budget. I would like to have it be more deliberate and spaced out throughout the year. I think the next month or so would be a good time for this, actually, as I’m focusing more on other things and it would be great for shopping to totally take a back seat for a while.

    2. Debbie Roes says:

      I hear you about smoking, Terry. I’m glad I never took up that habit, as I know it’s very difficult to either moderate or quit. I have known social smokers, too, but I don’t think they are all that common. I agree with you that a person can be BOTH an abstainer and a moderator, depending on the issue. And as I wrote about, this can shift over time with a given substance or habit.

      Interesting point about the European style of shopping perhaps working better for abstainers. I used to always think it would be cool to shop that way, but I’ve never actually put it into practice. I know some bloggers do that with “capsule wardrobes,” but it has seemed to me that some of them (certainly not all) used that way of dressing as an excuse to basically buy a whole new wardrobe two or four times per year (depending upon how they designated their capsules). I think that if one basically has a well-rounded wardrobe, a stable size, and a strong sense of style, doing seasonal shopping can be a great way to go. I haven’t really gotten there yet, plus I do still strive to be a moderator with shopping, even though I only succeed at that part of the time!

  5. Deb says:

    Great article….this really made me think. I tend to gravitate more towards being an abstainer. I watched The True Cost in the fall of 2016 and haven’t bought anything fast fashion since. All of my purchases have been through ethical/sustainable companies or second-hand. I have really taken a hard look at what I buy and the necessity of the purchase for 2018. I have more than enough and can play around with my clothes with the help of Pinterest. I think I have only bought 4-5 items total this year. I am also doing Weight Watchers right now to lose some stubborn pre-menopausal weight and I find that I have to abstain from certain foods because they just don’t fit in my allotted daily points. I don’t want to give up a large portion of points for chips or a piece of cake so I don’t go near them at all. I haven’t felt like I am missing anything but know that if I tried to eat those things in moderation I would over-indulge and sabotage the losses I have worked hard for.

    1. Debbie Roes says:

      Thanks for sharing, Deb. It sounds like you’re doing very well as an abstainer. Good for you for no longer buying fast fashion and reducing your number of purchases. How great that you have only purchased 4 or 5 items this year and are working on better using and combining what you have. I hear you on the menopausal weight gain (mine happened after menopause two years ago and it’s harder to lose it than it used to be!). I can imagine that some items have very high point values and wouldn’t be worth it. It’s great that you aren’t missing those types of foods and are doing well with your weight loss. I’m still a moderator with food, but I’ve found that I have to be even MORE moderate with what I eat than I used to be. Now that I realize that, I’m finally seeing results. Best wishes for your continued success!

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