Gretchen Rubin has a theory that we are all either abstainers or moderators. Abstainers find it easier to give something up entirely, and moderators can have a little bit of something and then stop.
When I first heard this theory, it made sense to me and I believed myself to be an abstainer. It’s true that the best way for me to not binge eat is to not have the foods that I tend to binge on in the house. But ultimately, this categorisation of myself wasn’t very helpful because it meant that if I did eat a piece of chocolate, I could justify eating the whole box because “I’m an abstainer so I actually can’t stop.” Then, feeling sick with sugar and shame, I would vow never to touch chocolate ever again. And I wouldn’t. Until the next time I ate far too much in one go.
Eventually, I decided to try just eating one piece of chocolate, or having a few spoonfuls of ice-cream without devouring the whole tub. And while it is difficult, I found that it is perfectly possible to put the food away and not finish it. After a while of doing this, it became easier to enjoy a small amount but know when to stop.
So, I much as I admire other things that Gretchen has to say, I’m calling bullshit on the abstainer-moderator theory because at it’s best it gives us an excuse not to try and change our behaviour, and at worst encourages the cycle of bingeing and purging. It reinforces the message that we are “just like this”, that there is no other way.
For the same reason, I am skeptical about the AA model of addiction. Just because someone has had trouble with alcohol in the past, doesn’t mean they have to cut it out entirely. Implying that somebody cannot control their behaviour takes away their power and makes them a victim.
With the help of CBT, I have been learning to recognise and control my tendency towards “black and white thinking“. To me, believing yourself to be an abstainer is an example of black and white thinking.
Of course it would be much easier to never drink, smoke, shop, or eat again. But the reality is that we have to live.
It is much more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding, to identify why we engage in certain behaviour and to moderate it accordingly.
For example, sometimes, I want to self-medicate with sweet foods because I am feeling low or vulnerable. In this case, it is much better to avoid eating anything because it will only lead me down the shame spiral that comes with eating my feelings. But sometimes, I want to eat sweet foods because they taste good! In this case I should absolutely eat it and enjoy it! If I had a rule that certain food was always banned, I wouldn’t get to enjoy this, and would be living from a place of deprivation. For me, eating pudding when I actually want it (rather than actually wanting company or to feel loved) is an act of self-love.
Often, my anxiety wants me to shop to calm myself down. I used to think the answer to this was a shopping ban. But I love clothes and shopping and want this to be part of my life. So it felt like I was always in a constant battle between my “good” and “bad” self. With the “good” self telling me not to buy anything ever, and the “bad” self asking why I was stopping myself from doing what I enjoy. Ultimately the “bad” side would win but I would feel too guilty to enjoy any of my purchases.
Now I am learning to recognise that there is a time and a place for shopping and new clothes. I should not shop when I feel like I need to, when I get this panicky feeling and adrenaline fueled thoughts like “I look terrrible I need to buy something different to wear NOW” or “I would be happy if I could only find a bag by tomorrow that looks exactly like this.” I should not shop when I am feeling bad about myself. The things that I buy when I am in this mood end up never being worn (however much I thought I needed them at the time), make me feel guilty, and eventually get thrown away.
I should shop when I feel calm yet excited. When my creative energy is thinking about outfits and new clothes, not in an “I need this” way, but in a way that is playful and experimental. Ideally, I should go with a friend rather than on my own. Friends help keep me in a good mood, give me perspective and a purpose to the day that isn’t finding the prefect dress (i.e. no desperate purchases because I have to buy something, because the day was well spent even if I didn’t buy anything.) My favourite and most worn clothes are the ones I bought without meaning too, while in town to meet a friend for coffee or lunch.
I think people look for an easy model like “Am I an abstainer or a moderator?” to make positive changes to their life. But sadly, the only way we truly can is to be constantly mindful of our thoughts, intentions and behaviour.
I like to imagine Mad-Eye Moody in my head shouting “CONSTANT VIGILANCE.” With his help, I can live my best life and stay true to who I am.