When Facing Temptation, Are You an All-Or-Nothing Person?

Donut on blue and pink background
I work constantly to try to know myself better. Why is it so hard to know myself? I hang out with myself all day long! Yet it’s hard to see myself clearly. Often, my self-understanding is boosted by other people. The better I understand others, the better I understand myself. When I hear others reflect on their own experiences, the more insight I get into myself. For instance, when I was grappling to understand the differences among people that later became my Four Tendencies personality framework, one important clue was my realization that with habit-formation, I was different from most other people. Now I know why: because I’m an Upholder. (Want to know if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel? Take the free, quick quiz here. More than 3.2 million people have taken it.) I got another huge insight into my own nature when I read a passage about my patron saint Samuel Johnson. When a friend asked Dr. Johnson if he would “take a little wine,” he responded, “I can’t drink a little, child, therefore I never touch it. Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” Ah ha! The minute I read that line, I thought, “That’s me, I’m just like Dr. Johnson! I’m an ‘abstainer.’” When I’m facing a strong temptation, moderation is hard but abstinence is easy. Abstainers like me find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately.  Years ago, I quit sugar, and I love not eating sugar. It’s so much easier and more pleasant for me to have none. If I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count’?” “Don’t I deserve this?” etc. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control. By contrast, moderators do better when they indulge in temptations sometimes, or a little bit. For years, I was puzzled by the people who kept a bar of fine chocolate in their desk drawer for weeks, and could be satisfied by just one square every once in a while—now I understand that that approach works for a moderator. (If you want to read a hilarious account from a moderator, the writer Delia Ephron describes her “Discardia.”) In practice, most of us are a mix. For one thing, the abstainer/moderator distinction applies only to strong temptation. It’s not hard to resist a weak temptation. I’m a moderator when it comes to wine; I don’t care much for wine, and I can drink just half a glass. But a friend told me, “I can have no wine, or four glasses of wine. I can’t have just half a glass.” For me, sweets are my kryptonite. For others, it might be salty snacks, chocolate, peanut butter—for my sister Elizabeth, it’s French fries. After she realized she’d find it easier to abstain about French fries, I asked her, “How do you say ‘no’ to yourself about fries?” She said, “Now I tell myself, ‘Now I’m free from French fries.‘” That’s exactly how I feel. And while some things require an all-or-nothing approach from abstainers, some don’t. I really love roasted cauliflower, but I can eat roasted cauliflower in moderation. There’s no right way or wrong way—it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend precious energy trying not to over-indulge. In my experience, both moderators and abstainers try hard to convert the other team. A nutritionist once told me, “You should follow the 80/20 rule. Be healthy 80% of the time, indulge within reason 20% of the time. Listen to your body, don’t be rigid.” I absolutely acknowledge that this advice was right–for her. But she didn’t understand my point of view—that a 100% rule might be easier for someone like me to follow. Moderators do better when they avoid absolutes and strict rules, but I do much better when I follow absolutes and strict rules. It’s natural that when a particular approach works well for us, we try to convince other people to give it a shot. We’re eager to share, we want to help! I constantly (and I must confess, sometimes unsuccessfully) resist the urge to explain to people why I eat low-carb. And it’s true that we can learn from each other. But it’s also true that just because something works for me, doesn’t mean it works for you. And something can work extraordinarily well for you but not work for me. People can be surprisingly judgmental about which approach you take. As an abstainer, I often get disapproving comments like, “It’s not healthy to take such a severe approach” or “It would be better to learn how to manage yourself” or “You should be able to have a brownie.” On the other hand, I want to tell moderators, “You can’t keep cheating and expect to make progress” or “Why don’t you just go cold turkey?” But different approaches work for different people. (Exception: with some temptations, like alcohol or cigarettes, people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.)

You’re a moderator if you… – find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve

— can feel satisfied by having a little 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

Sometimes people tell me, “I’m an abstainer, but I don’t want to abstain for the rest of my life. Is there a way for an all-or-nothing abstainer to enjoy the occasional treat?” Absolutely! We abstainers can use a planned exception, when we can mindfully choose to make an exception to a usual habit by planning a limited exception in advance. When we plan an exception we feel in control of ourselves—we’re not breaking a habit willy-nilly, or invoking one of the 10 categories of loopholes at the last minute, to give ourselves excuses. And we feel happier when we feel in control of ourselves and our actions. For abstainers, planned exceptions should be limited, and they should be exceptions. “A slice of cake for Thanksgiving dessert,” not “the holiday season”; “When we go to dinner to celebrate our anniversary,” not “when we spend a week in San Francisco.” This is the test for a successful planned exception:
  • you anticipate the exception in advance (which means it must be clearly defined)
  • you relish it in the moment
  • you look back on it with pleasure
My father has the “grandchild exception”—when he’s around his grandchildren, he eats whatever treats they’re eating. A friend went on vacation and had a “pie policy.” So…do you identify as an abstainer or a moderator? Do these categories ring true for you? If you want to read more about this distinction, read about the Strategy of Abstaining and the Strategy of Distinctions in Better Than Before, my book about how to make and break habits.



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