When I decided to try moderation, a part of my brain wondered if it would carry over to other things. Would learning to consume alcohol moderately help me do other things moderately, like eating only until I am full, or consuming ice cream only in moderate quantities? It was a very small part of my brain, admittedly…99.9% of my brain was busy screaming in terror over the very idea of permanently changing my drinking habits.
It is a great fantasy, isn’t it? And it’s a fantasy a lot of us share, I think. We’ll cut back on drinking (and/or quit entirely), and become healthier people in all kinds of other ways. We’ll reach our ideal weight, get up half an hour earlier every day, and never again discover that we forgot half a bag of spinach at the bottom of the fridge and now it’s just a blackish-green sludge. I fall into that thinking trap as much as anyone else.
But moderation, at least as I practice it, isn’t magical. It isn’t a sudden new character trait that I’ve glued into my brain — oh look, now I’m “a moderate person,” happiest with only occasional, small treats. Just because my behavior is (mostly) moderate when it comes to alcohol doesn’t mean I’ve instantly become moderate when it comes to chocolate, ice cream, french fries, or negative thoughts. Changing our drinking habits, tragically, does not instantly turn us into saints, or even well-balanced people…at least not as far as I can tell. And just like abstaining from alcohol doesn’t magically make us master all the skills involved in moderating, moderating in one area of life doesn’t magically carry over to every other corner.
Moderation does help though, in a couple of ways. Most importantly, I think, is the fact that moderation, as Moderation Management teaches it, is really a dynamic problem-solving process. I identify an existing behavior I want to change (“I drink too much”), identify a goal behavior (“to drink within healthy guidelines”), and use the MM tools to achieve incremental behavior changes to reach that goal. It’s a skill, or perhaps more accurately, a set of skills, which can be adapted to different situations, and it gets stronger with practice.
I don’t drink (mostly) moderately now because I have more willpower, or a new personality. I drink (mostly) moderately because I’ve made some changes to my behavior that produce significant changes in how much I drink. So if I wanted to eat less ice cream, I could use those same tools to effect change in a different area of behavior. Of course, the details and specific strategies would be different, but the overall process would be very similar. Actually, I know this first-hand, because earlier this year, when I decided that I was substituting ice cream for wine at a rate that was starting to bug me, I used the same set of skills to return to moderate ice cream consumption. As it turns out, changing behavior that is only slightly out of control (like my ice cream habit) is a lot easier than changing behavior that is of much more serious duration and intensity (like my alcohol habit). Let’s just say that I’m not going to be starting a blog about ice cream moderation any time soon, because there would basically just be one short post: “yep, I’m back on track.”
Less obviously, but interestingly to me, my personal experience has been that moderating with alcohol has actually carried over to other areas of my life quite a bit. For instance, I’ve worked really hard to learn how to recognize when I’ve had enough to drink. That is, when I’ve had all of the enjoyment from a particular drink, and am not likely to get much more out of it…and then I put the drink aside, even if the glass is still a quarter, a third, or a half full (actually, I usually offer the rest of the drink to my partner, who still treats it as a delightful, and unexpected, present). The more I do that, the more I find myself noticing when I have had enough of a sandwich, salad, basket of fries, or whatever else is in front of me. I’m not depriving myself of anything, I just notice that moment when I’ve honestly had enough, and any more would be too much, and set it down. Or I grab a cookie from a platter, bite into it, realize it’s actually not that good, and toss the rest…again, no feeling of loss or deprivation, just a freedom from the compulsion to always finish what’s in front of me.
It’s suspiciously like the fantasy, enough to make me hesitant to trust it. But, reassuringly, it isn’t perfect. If I’m tired, or sad, or distracted, you may be assured I will eat the entire basket of fries. If I’m in a particularly ornery mood, I may do it just to prove I can. And if dessert is really delicious, I will definitely eat more of it than is good for me. But it’s interesting to see skills carry over like that (the behavioral science term is “generalize,” and as a behaviorism nerd, I love that I am noticing it!).
None of this makes me a magical moderator. If I bring a pint of ice cream into the house, I will probably finish the whole thing later that night. If I bring a bottle of wine into the house, I’ll probably finish the whole thing later too. But the part of me that decides whether to buy ice cream, or wine, is much more empowered than it used to be. That part of me has structure, guidelines, and tools that it can use to decide whether this is really a good idea (or can just distract myself for twenty minutes, which is usually enough for me to move on to other things). It’s enough to make me want to go around recommending Moderation Management to everyone, even though I realize that everyone has to find their own path. But it is pretty nifty stuff, I think.