For You, Does Abstaining Give Mastery Over a Pleasure–Or Not?

“It is not abstinence from pleasures that is best, but mastery over them without even being worsted. ”

— Aristippus, quoted in A History of Ancient Philosophy

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Samuel Johnson: “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.”

This issue comes up a lot with the Strategy of Abstaining, when Abstainers and Moderators debate their approach to resisting a strong temptation.

Moderators argue, “Why abstain, why be so absolute, why give up a pleasure altogether?” But for Abstainers — and I say this as an Abstainer myself — abstaining is the way to gain mastery over pleasures. It’s easier to abstain, and it’s a relief.  “Abstinence from a pleasure” not for the sake of abstaining, but because it’s easier.

Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator? Take this Quiz.

In Better Than Before, I have a whole chapter dedicated to the Strategy of Abstaining — but as always, I must emphasize, this is not a strategy that works for everyone! It doesn’t work for Moderators!

And most of us are a mix of both.

How about you? How do you best master your pleasures?

  • Mimi Gregor

    I do both, abstaining and moderating, depending on the substance. It is easier for me to abstain from alcohol than to moderate, as once inhibition is gone, it’s game over. I do keep alcohol around for cooking purposes and my husband partakes, and it doesn’t seem to bother me, because I’ve made up my mind that I’m abstaining from alcohol. Chocolate, on the other hand, I moderate. I keep it on a high shelf that is a pain to get to, and I only break off a small portion at a time. That has to be it for the day. I buy the better brands of chocolate because I find that a little bit of something that tastes wonderful feels like a treat, and I am able to moderate it better because I consider it a treat. Because it is kept out of sight, most days I forget i even have it available.

  • Gillian

    Ah, the old Abstainer/Moderator debate. I am a bit of both – it depends on the pleasure and on my state of mind at the time.

    I think we can claim true mastery over a pleasure when we can practice moderation. Abstinence isn’t mastery of the pleasure; it is mastery over our will but it completely deprives us of the pleasure. With moderation, we are mastering both our will and the pleasure while being able to indulge occasionally in the pleasure.

    Abstaining is definitely simpler but robs us of a certain amount of pleasure. I also find that if I abstain for too long, when I finally do indulge, I am more inclined to binge so abstention would really work for me only as a life-time commitment and I’m not prepared to make such a commitment for things that bring me pleasure.

    • Gillian

      P.S. I love both of those quotations.

    • penelope schmitt

      I agree that it is good to be able to practice moderation . . . but we have to KNOW ourselves. You wouldn’t keep trying to pole vault if some disability made it impossible for you, so why would you keep putting yourself to a test that some factor within you — physiological or not — guarantees that you will fail?
      Many people who have life-threatening substance abuse issues have learned that it is better not to play with fire, because sooner or later they will be burned.
      Cigarettes were such an issue for me. I could not ‘occasionally’ smoke one. So glad I quit altogether in 1990. Food is a much harder issue, since it is necessary for life, and being overweight or obese, while a serious health consequence can come, it just isn’t as ‘socially dire’ or likely to result in immediate death or imprisonment.
      Abstaining can be a lifesaver. So I don’t think it is a good idea to suggest that people should ‘be stronger’ or ‘better’ if they can moderate.

      • gretchenrubin

        I so agree.

        People think they “should” be able to be moderate – certainly as an Abstainer, I find that people tell me all the time, “Don’t be so rigid” “It’s not healthy to have such strict rules” “You should live a little.”
        But this is what WORKS FOR ME. This is EASIER for me. I LIKE this way better! I enjoy not eating sugar so, so, so much more than I ever enjoyed sugar. That’s what’s true for ME.

      • Gillian

        I completely agree. Smoking and alcohol and other such substances are special cases where abstinence is the only workable approach. If you know that one small indulgence in something will completely derail you then, of course, you must abstain entirely.

        In all aspects of life, self-knowledge is critical. I never urge someone to break their own rules. Everyone has to know what works best for them. I want to be a moderator and with effort I am usually able to be relatively successful. I have never smoked (I frequently thank myself for never starting because I can well imagine how difficult it would be to stop) and, although I enjoy a glass of wine or Scotch, alcohol is not a problem for me other than the calories involved. My issue is weight control. It seems that I only have to look at something and I gain 3 pounds. I need to have brief periods of abstinence (avoiding any deviation from the food & drink rules I set myself) once in a while to get back on track. This gets the weight back down and provides better control over moderation for quite a while. Getting started on such a period of abstinence, though, is soooooo difficult. Constant self-deprivation is so tiring! I set myself many standards of behaviour and live up to them. I live a simple and modest life so part of me thinks that I deserve a few simple pleasures and, sadly, the most appealing treats involve food & drink. Sitting on the deck watching a beautiful sunset is a wonderful treat in itself but it is so much more complete with a nice glass of wine!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I find it easier to abstain than to moderate. If I buy a package of chips or cookies, I finish it in two or three days. But I am not hungry for things not at hand.

    Right now I am abstaining from goodies, coffee, and wine after an attack of intestinal flu. I don’t ‘miss them’ a bit. . . but history says I will coax the coffee habit back, and welcome the evening glass of cabernet again. The snacks have no current appeal, but they will regain it.

    This is a ‘clean slate’ moment.. I’ll be testing my Moderator ability going forward. I’d like to keep to one cup of coffee in the morning followed by caffeine free tea. I’d like to enjoy a glass of wine with friends, but not routinely keep it at home. It lowers my inhibitions about eating and interferes with weight control.

    Just writing this points out to me that the GROCERY STORE (wine is sold in grocery stores here) is where I really need to become an abstainer. If I don’t bring it home, I don’t mind or miss it–if I do, I will finish it ALL up.

    I completely agree that doing something EVERY day is better than three days a week. I miss my daily walk, and today will be reestablishing that routine.

    • Mimi Gregor

      For the longest time, I had a morning cup of coffee. I also was very impatient in traffic, and always rushing about. As an experiment, I switched to tea in the morning. (Good tea — not supermarket stuff.) It has caffeine, but not nearly as much as coffee. Sure enough, it woke me up… but gradually and more gently, rather than the sudden jolt of “I’M UP!!!” I also am calmer in traffic and don’t feel as rushed. If you have noticed that pattern in the morning, you might want to try tea as well, now that you are a “clean slate”. It really made a difference in how I start my day!

    • Holly

      As I’ve been working on abstaining from my addictive substance, sugar, I realized that going to grocery wasn’t going to work for me. Whole Foods has too many beautiful confections! So, I started having my groceries delivered through Instacart and I’ve now gone 22/22 days without the white stuff!

      • Penelope Schmitt

        Wow that is a factor in having delivery or shopping service that I had not considered. Of course I use walking around the grocery store to increase my steps, but I guess another trip around the block would do a fine job of that. Interesting idea.

  • Jen Johnson

    I have aspects of both. I think of moderation as the “master class” of abstaining. Abstaining is definitely easier. Moderation is the test of true control. The trouble with moderation is that you are subject to the temptation of loopholes – with abstinence it’s a brighter line.
    I like to practice abstaining now and then in an effort to realign my actions with my values. For example, I give up tv for Lent (one of my bad “habits”). It’s helpful to have a concrete timeline for abstaining, then I’m better at moderation once Lent is over. Interestingly enough I am far more successful with abstinence during Lent than I am in keeping my New Year’s resolutions.

    • Gillian

      I agree that concrete timelines or parameters can be very effective. I allow myself a Scotch on Saturday or Sunday afternoon but not during the week. I do a brief exercise routine every weekday then take the weekend off. I can have dessert when I’m out but not at home (this works only if you don’t have a very active social life). These types of rules allow for moderation but help prevent “once in a while” gradually becoming every day.

    • Gillian

      Could your success during Lent rather than with NY resolutions be because you are an Obliger? NY Resolutions are internal expectations; Lent is an external expectation.

      • Jen Johnson

        Perhaps! I do consider myself an obliger, although my quiz came up differently. But I think I still consider Lent an internal expectation, since I don’t generally announce what I’m doing to anyone (except here, I suppose). The question of whether God is internal or external might be too big for this site . . .

  • Sarah

    As a lifelong catholic, with a rebel tendency, I believe that the practice of Lenten abstinence is the perfect example of using Abstinence in moderation…

  • Holly

    Is it possible to master a pleasure when you’re in an addictive relationship with it?

  • Diane

    I have desperately tried to be a moderator and would love it if I could master the art of moderation (specifically when it comes to certain foods), but through years and years of struggling with my weight, I know that for the most part, moderation with food just doesn’t work for me. For example, I tell myself “oh, I can make those cookies, I’ll just put them in the freezer and I’ll ration myself.” Sure. That may work for one or two days — maybe even a week. But at some point, there will be a trigger and the next thing you know, I am eating frozen cookies by the handful! However, abstaining, for me, doesn’t necessarily mean FOREVER. It just means, for the most part.

    • sewyuleknead

      I can’t have yummy treats in my pantry or freezer; they CALL to me and I ultimately answer. Not worth it!

  • VR29111947ASRANI

    Undoubtedly very interesting. depends on what is the “Pleasure”,

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