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Abstaining May Be Easier Than You Think

Abstaining May Be Easier Than You ThinkI’ve written a lot about abstainers vs. moderators. In a nutshell, the difference is: abstainers find it easier to resist temptation by giving up something altogether, while moderators find it easier to indulge in moderation.

I’m an abstainer. I find it very easy to give something up, but I drive myself crazy when I try to indulge in a limited way. I wear myself out with “Does this count?” “Today, tomorrow?” “Just one more.”

Every time I write about the subject, I hear from abstainers and moderators alike, and I talk to my friends about this issue all the time (I’m a bit of a happiness bore, I confess). I do believe that both camps exist, and many people are a mix of both.

But here’s my latest conclusion:  More people would benefit from abstaining.

Abstaining sounds demanding and rigid; people assume that it’s easier to be moderate. But in fact, abstaining is easier. At least, for lots of people. From what I’ve seen, many people who try abstaining are surprised to find out that it’s easier than being moderate.

Exhibit A is my sister. When I was identifying the concepts of “abstainers” and “moderators,” my sister was my model moderator. For instance, her weakness is French fries, and she told me that she couldn’t give up French fries, but she would eat only half an order, share an order with her husband, not order fries every time she went out to dinner, etc. Those are moderator strategies.

But to my astonishment, a few months ago, she told me, “You know what? I’m actually an abstainer. It turns out that it’s just easier to give something up altogether. “

I was flabbergasted because truly, she was my model moderator. And since then, I’ve talked (bullied?) many people into trying abstaining, and almost all of them have found abstaining easier than they expected (because again, abstaining sounds so hard), and many have stuck to abstaining in various ways.

But I know something else about my sister. While I find it easy to say “No,” “Stop,” or “Never” to myself, my sister is a person–and many people are like this–who does much better with positive resolutions. (I posted about this difference in Are you a “yes” resolver or a “no” resolver?) So I asked her how she was handling that issue. Because, after all, abstaining means saying “no.”

My sister is so brilliant with words.

She said to me, “I can’t tell myself a negative. I have to make this a positive thing. So I tell myself, “Now I’m free from French fries.

Free from French fries!

That’s exactly how abstaining feels to me. I’m free from decision-making, free from internal debate, free from guilt or anxiety.  That Halloween candy, that bread basket, that cookie plate at the meeting…they don’t tempt or distract me. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: I give myself limits to give myself freedom.

In my experience, most people assume they’re moderators. If you consider yourself a moderator, I’d gently suggest giving abstaining a try–especially if you’ve unsuccessfully tried moderation in the past. It might be easier than you think.  A while back, someone posted a comment that said something like, “I always thought of myself as a moderator, but after reading your post, I tried abstaining from flour and sugar. I’ve lost 30 pounds, and it wasn’t even very hard for me.”

Again: I’m not saying it’s true for everyone. But I think it’s more true than people think.

I’d love to hear people’s reactions. Would you give abstaining a try? I admit that I’m a 100% abstainer type, and that could be clouding my judgment. You wouldn’t believe what I’m abstaining from these days! That’s a discussion for another day, but here’s a hint: read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.


Speaking of my sister the sage — thrilling news! Congratulations, @elizabethcraft and @sarahmfain! The CW network just ordered a pilot of their project, “The Selection.”

Abstaining May Be Easier Than You Think

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Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the award-winning author of The Happiness Project, a #1 New York Times bestseller. You can also watch the one-minute book video. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central.

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APA Reference
Rubin, G. (2018). Abstaining May Be Easier Than You Think. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 Feb 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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