Trying To Resist Holiday Temptations? 7 Tips for Abstainers and Moderators.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday:  7 tips for using the abstainer/moderator split to fight holiday temptations.

Ah, the holidays. Everywhere you go, you face cookies, candy, booze, and snacks and treats of every kind. While this creates a festive atmosphere, it can also lead to a lot of anxiety and/or guilt in those of us trying to resist temptation.

As you think about how to handle holiday temptations, your strategy may depend on whether you’re a moderator or an abstainer when trying to resist temptation.

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
(Of course, in the case of things like nicotine and alcohol, abstention is necessary.)

I’m an abstainer, without a doubt. Like Samuel Johnson, who declined an offer of wine by saying,“Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult,” I find it much easier to give things up altogether than to indulge in moderation.

For me, no gingerbread cookies, no problem; one cookie, I spend the rest of the day thinking about when and why I should get more cookies. It’s so, so, so much easier for me to abstain than to try to be moderate. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days! A lot.

If you’re a moderator, however, that strategy wouldn’t work for you. You’d probably be better off thinking, “I can have two cookies,” and focusing on enjoying them. You can really revel in whatever it is that you’re permitting yourself, and by putting a limit on your consumption, you may find yourself enjoying it more.

So, to apply the moderator/abstainer model to yourself when facing holiday temptations, try this:

1. Decide if you’re a moderator or an abstainer.

2. Decide what temptation you’d like to resist, and to what degree.

3. Don’t indulge on the fly. If you want to indulge, plan ahead. This helps you feel in control and also to decide where you’ll get the most bang for your temptation buck.

4. As you approach your tempting situation, imagine yourself living up to your rule. Imagine yourself skipping the cookies; or imagine yourself taking just two cookies. Think about how pleased you’ll be that you stuck to your guidelines for yourself.

5. Anticipate situations that might make it hard to stick to your rule, and have a plan to deal with it. “If X happens, then I will do Y.”

6. For moderators: it’s one thing to indulge on the day of a holiday or at a single meal. It’s another thing to indulge during the holiday season. It’s a holiDAY.

7. Remember the argument of the growing heap, or as I like to call it, the “does one coin make a person rich?” question. Of course, one cookie is no big deal.  That’s absolutely true. But be very wary of that argument.

Either strategy can help us resist temptation; as with so many aspects of the pursuit of happiness, the secret is to know yourself.

Also: it can seem friendly to urge people to break their diets, to indulge in an extra glass of wine, or to treat themselves in some way. “I can’t believe you’re not going to try this dessert, I made it myself!” “Just one won’t hurt!” “This is a party,  live a little!” But the kind thing to do, in almost every situation, is to try to help people stick to their resolutions. Of course, bullying them if you think they’re over-indulging isn’t kind, either.

How about you? Do you recognize yourself as an abstainer or a moderator? Have you found any good strategies for coping with holiday temptation?

  • cruella

    I’m definitely a moderator and more over, I don’t even think about holiday temptations with a purpose to fight them:-) I normally eat healthy and lead a fairly healthy life style, therefore I indulge when given the chance. I really enjoy eating and drinking so not much of moderation for me. Happy Holidays!

  • Grant Parish

    I am an abstainer and I have had no problem with totally dropping several behaviors that I know are bad for me but food is really hard. Once I have one serving of the garlic mashed potatoes, I am ready for the second. I don’t have luck abstaining from one type of food as it just pushes me to over indulge in another type. To my abstainer mindset, it is all food.

  • Rachel Ruhlen

    Good suggestions! Except maybe #4.
    I recently read “The Antidote” and my understanding of the research is that envisioning our success (such as eating only 2 cookies) makes us MORE likely to fail, while envisioning our failure (eating many cookies) creates an illusory but effective feeling of satiety without reducing our desire for success. For example in this study people who imagined eating more M&M’s ate fewer afterwards:

    So maybe #4 should actually be, “envision indulgence”!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve seen arguments both ways. Again, good to know what works for you. For me, I’m very attracted by the thought of feeling good about sticking to my rules, but that might not be true for everyone.

  • Valley Girl

    I’m a moderator with most things. Except potato chips. I love them and have tried everything to abstain – including not buying them. But my husband buys them and when they are in the house it’s as if they call my name from the cabinet!

  • Lisa

    My secret is that I never eat things because other people are pressuring me, only if I really want it. I am naturally thin and don’t have a huge appetite. People comment all the time that “You didn’t eat anything!” in restaurants when I’ve eaten 1/3-1/2 of a huge portion of food. That’s plenty to fill me up, and I usually just say, “Oh, I’ve had enough” or “I had a late lunch.” If they continue to go on about it, I just change the subject again. They’ll soon realize they’re being rude.

    Similarly, with holiday items and birthday cake, I simply don’t take it if I don’t want it. If the person having the birthday insists on me having a piece of cake and won’t back off, I just take a piece, carry it around for a minute, and discreetly throw it away.

    It’s my body and no one has the right to try to force or bully me into eating something I don’t want.

  • Nancy

    How about those of us who panic at the thought of never getting something again, AND when we have one we can’t stop? 8-(

    • Jen in MN

      Sad to say, I can relate to this Nancy! I think I must be a moderator in certain areas, and need to be an abstainer in others. And it changes depending on how I’m doing overall, too. Complicated business for me.

      • gretchenrubin

        Yes, I think some people are a combination of both.

        I can be moderate with some things, but just because I don’t really care much.

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  • Abstainer!

    I have found this abstainer vs. moderator dichotomy extremely useful in understanding myself, or at least accepting myself as the abstainer that I am. It frustrates me that, with respect to eating, “everything in moderation” is so often held up as the ideal, because that consigns those abstainers among us to a life of failure. I have tried everything in moderation; it does not work for me. Because I can’t abstain from food entirely, I have found it most useful to abstain from certain foods that most often trigger uncontrolled binges (or at least imposing strict rules about when I can eat such foods). Other people often roll their eyes when I explain this, or self-righteously explain why their approach of moderate indulgence is better. I hope that your view, which encourages people to understand and accept their own natures and act accordingly, becomes more commonly held.

  • Michele

    In general I am a moderator, but there are some things and situations in which I am abstainer. For instance, I enjoy an alcoholic beverage on occasion, but never drink at a work function. If, during the holidays, I’m offered some delicious and rare treat, I enjoy it in moderation. To know oneself well enough to know when to abstain and when to moderate and then to go one better than Tip 4: live up to your own rule! (I love Tip 4 the most!) Gretchen, thanks for this post.

  • Paula

    Hi Gretchen
    Great post. Just wanted to let you know that I have nominated you for the Blog of the Year Award 2012. If you want to pass it on, great. If not, no worries. Just wanted to express my respect.
    Kind Regards

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much! I’m thrilled.

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  • Brigitte

    At a weight watchers meeting our leader made us all practice saying to food pressure, “not now, maybe later” as a foil for persistent food or drink pushers. That way they can’t argue and then you just don’t have a “later”. Sounds like a good ploy.

    • gretchenrubin

      Good suggestion.

  • I’m a TOTAL moderator. I have to stick to an extremely strict diet due to severe intolerance to many foods, but I find that if I have to do this all the time, I start feeling extremely deprived. So I have a Planned Day of Indulgence (PID) once per week, and I can have whatever I want for one meal.

    I find this does me no particular harm (or a manageable amount, at least), and makes it much easier to get through the rest of the week on my restricted diet. I allow a bit more indulgence during the holidays or on vacation, because they happen so rarely. It works for me! 🙂

  • Acappellalady

    I am an abstainer… It is the only way I have found to be successful in finally losing weight! I have cut just about all of the carbs out of my diet for the past nine months and have lost nearly 35 pounds… there is no way I want to sabotage all of that hard work and eat junk just because it is the “Holidays”. My mantra is “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!”… and if someone tries to push something on me I don’t want I just tell them I am allergic and cannot eat it. That usually puts an end to that! 🙂

  • honeybee

    What if being an abstainer appeals to you (ME) but because of disordered thinking about food brings about binging and uncontrollable thoughts of the forbidden food. Does that then make you a moderator by default?

  • this is very helpful! I need to be an abstainer because obviously it’s not working to try moderation lately…

  • Susie

    Gretchen I wholeheartedly agree with “Abstainer” below. When I read your article about abstainers and moderators a while back I felt hugely relieved. I am an abstainer and always gave myself a very hard time for not being able to be a moderator. I thought there must be something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I just have one of something and not be scheming how to have more? I felt like a failure for not being able to moderate. Understanding that I am an abstainer and not a moderator has really helped me accept myself and made a lot of decisions in my life (not just about food) so much easier. This festive season I am planning to be wary of the moderators out there who may unknowingly try to sabotage my goals. I wish more people would accept that both traits are equally valid and dependent on the individual. Thank you so much for putting these ideas out there.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that this distinction strikes a chord.

      I agree, as an abstainer I feel a lot of pressure to be a moderator. Moderators, do you feel as though there’s a lot of pressure to abstain?

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