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Four Tips for Using the Abstainer/Moderator Split in the Face of Holiday Temptations.

Posted Dec 09 2009 11:26am
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Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 4 tips for using the abstainer/moderator split to fight holiday temptations.

Ah, the holidays. If you’re a person who is trying to withstand temptations, it can be very tough. Everywhere you go, you face cookies, candy, booze, and snacks and treats of every kind. While some people can whole-heartedly can enjoy all this, many of us waver between wanting to try everything and wanting to resist everything.

A successful strategy to facing this temptation 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 wrote, “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. And that’s a very useful thing to know about myself.

Take Halloween candy, for example. I love candy, especially bite-sized candy. I knew that Halloween would be a huge temptation for me, and that I’d likely end up eating a lot of candy and feeling very guilty about it – and that wasn’t going to make me happy.

So I decided, “No Halloween candy! Not one piece!” And that was far easier for me to do than to eat just four or five pieces. And I was much happier having no candy than I would have been if I’d been stealing candy from my children’s stashes every time they were out of the kitchen – which is absolutely what I would otherwise have done. I’m doing the same thing with holiday candy.

If you’re a moderator, however, that strategy wouldn’t work for you. You’d probably be better off thinking, “I can have a few pieces of my favorite kind of candy,” and focusing on enjoying those pieces. 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.
3. Set a time period. “I will not eat a single cookie until January 4” or “I will eat one or two cookies at every holiday event I attend, and I’ll enjoy them, but I’ll stop at two.” “I won’t have any eggnog” or “I'll have one glass of eggnog, on Christmas Eve, when we visit my parents.”
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.

In my experience, moderators and abstainers are hard on each other. Moderators always say things to me like, “You should have a little fun!” “It’s not reasonable to be so hard on yourself!” “You’re too rigid about what you eat, you worry too much about your weight, it’s not healthy.”

And I have the urge to say to moderators: “You’re not sticking to your resolutions!” “Why don’t you just give up that [whatever it is] altogether?”

Either strategy can help us resist temptation; as with so many aspects of the pursuit of happiness, the secret is to know yourself, and to act according with your own nature. For me, although some people might think it seems cramped and joyless not to eat any Halloween candy, I know I'm happier if I skip it.

On a related note: it can seem festive and 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!” “You deserve it!” “This is a party, relax, 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?

* I met Karl Staib at a conference last year, and I really love checking out his site, Work Happy Now.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
-- Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
-- Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
-- Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 30,000 people get it)
-- Pre-order the book for your friends (or yourself) -- here's an e-card to let them know it's coming
-- Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
-- Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

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