I work a lot with addictions in my therapy practise- mostly to food but also other substances like alcohol and other drugs. With all of these addictions, my clients almost always tell me that they want to learn to ‘use’ (fill in your particular substance-of-choice here) “in moderation someday”. Some are successful and some are not. This is when I bring up the concept of ‘moderator’ versus ‘abstainer’, terms coined by Gretchen Rubin– a popular writer on the topic of happiness.
Here’s her take on these two approaches to what she calls ‘temptation’ as opposed to ‘addiction’ in her article entitled, Are You an Abstainer or a Moderator?
You’re a moderator if you…
– find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve
– get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something
You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits
When I discuss these two approaches to dealing with addictive substances with clients, I ask them if they have a sense of whether they are a moderator or an abstainer and we work from there.
I’ll give you a couple of examples from my work to illustrate:
Mary came to me because she tended to drink more alcohol than she knew was reasonable. She would drink an entire bottle of wine a few nights a week, when she wanted to be able to just have 1-2 glasses instead. She had no prior history of addiction and it didn’t run in her family.
She said that the heavier drinking had been going on for a few months since COVID restrictions forced her to work from home and this added a lot of extra stress to her already busy and demanding life.
For her, having a bottle of wine in the evening was a way to unwind and relax from all the stressors in her life. Her goal was to be able to drink moderately and find healthier ways of managing stress.
I taught her some simple mindfulness-based breathing and meditation exercises to reduce her stress and she practised them twice a day on a regular basis. She found that this ‘slowing down’, connecting with her body and breath and just doing nothing gave her great relief and a sense of calm. The drinking decreased substantially and she was able to have a glass of wine with dinner or with friends once in a while after that. She found that she could be a ‘moderator’ with alcohol.
Sue came to me because she was 100 pounds overweight and had a habit of overeating carbohydrates when she got stressed (which was often). Her go-to foods were: cookies, bread and pasta. The minute she got home from a stressful day at work, she dove into the carbs until she was so full she felt physically ill. Once she started eating those foods, she found she had a very hard time stopping.
At first, she wanted to try eating them in moderation so she tried and couldn’t do it. She discovered she was addicted to refined, highly processed carbs and the only solution was to completely cut them out of her diet. To learn more about food addiction, read this article.
Within a week of cutting these foods out, she felt free of the compulsion to eat them. Her stress eating pattern became much easier to tackle. She had one slip however when she tried eating a piece of bread at a restaurant which was served before the meal, and found herself head-first in a bag of cookies a couple of hours later. She realized once again that she had to make the choice to be an ‘abstainer’ and that for her, there was no way to ‘moderate’ herself when it came to refined carbs.
If you are struggling with indulging in too much of a substance and are having negative consequences as a result, explore the idea of moderation versus abstinence. If you simply cannot get it under control, I suggest you reach out for professional help or join a peer-led support group for your particular addiction.