Why Some People Can’t Do Anything in Moderation
‘Everything in moderation’ is a phrase most of us have heard at some point in our lives, probably advised as caution against going overboard with an activity, such as eating, shopping, drinking, working out, or spending time watching TV. But some people can’t do anything in moderation, no matter how emphatic the advice. Working out once a week feels useless, drinking just one drink on a night out seems pointless, going shopping to buy one article of clothing seems like too much effort. For some people, moderation takes on the negative connotation associated with restraint and low output. They’re more the all-or-nothing kind.
An all-or-nothing mindset is one of the most common forms of cognitive distortions in the brain. It promotes an absolutist worldview that involves thinking in extremes, in shades of black and white, that leaves no room for mistakes, misses, or nuance. Such thinking is more common in people who suffer from anxiety, depression, or suicidal ideation, or those who have been diagnosed with eating disorders, according to a 2018 paper published in Clinical Psychological Science. An all-or-nothing mindset, research has found, is associated with vulnerability and negative emotions in people, both when they choose to not do something because it can’t be perfect, and when they go all in and indulge in binge behaviors.
The ‘nothing’ part of this mindset is seen in how perfectionists, in their drive to be perfect, often can’t see anything to the finish line because their anxiety over not being perfect proves to be an insurmountable obstacle that keeps them from trying at all. Take the example of a person who is on a diet or someone who is on deadline to finish a project at work — if they have an all-or-nothing mindset, then even a slight kink in the process of dieting or finishing the project would lead them to halt all processes as if the small kink polluted the entire activity and it can’t be salvaged. As in, if something can’t be 100%, then it has to be 0%, and there’s no in-between. This approach worsens mental health issues, lowering self-esteem and satisfaction, and keeps people from trying, reducing overall wellbeing.
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Take the other end of the spectrum: binging, which is a common way in which people choose to deal with negative emotions. Chronic binge behaviors, such as a binge-eating disorder, signals feelings of “powerlessness, secrecy, shame, and isolation,” clinical psychologist Michael Mantell tells Greatist. These feelings can stem from a person’s psychology, brain chemistry, or social and cultural history. Binging may be a way a person chooses to numb feelings of sadness (as so often embodied in characters who are alcoholics or stress eaters in pop culture), or an activity that feeds a physical addiction to the feel-good hormone, dopamine, that is secreted in huge amounts when eating, drinking or indulging in any pleasurable activity. Binging can both occur as a result of mental health issues, and in turn, contribute to mental health issues.
We know both the ‘all’ and ‘nothing’ mindsets are harmful to people, but moderation doesn’t come easy either. Research shows human bodies are built on habit, no matter how healthy or unhealthy they are. In order to break them, empty words that advise moderation — even if it’s the right to change to make — doesn’t work, as long as people are still operating from their psychological need to go all or nothing. As with any behaviors that have a basis in mental health, tackling root causes go a long way in fixing superficial behaviors in a more sustainable, healthy manner.