I used to believe that “everything in moderation” was the key to success in health and happiness. Now, however, I actually believe that while the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, it is also full of people hogging the middle, as they take ten steps forward, only to fall twelve steps backward.
As I ran my favorite local route this morning, I passed this road sign that over the last few months has triggered my thought process that I’m going to try to lay out coherently in this blog post.
My first reaction to seeing the sign is to think of all the animals I run by, who are smushed into roadkill because they stayed in or near the middle too long. My next thought immediately goes to our current political environment. If you want to be a successful presidential candidate, hogging the middle makes you likeable and boring, therefore a loser.
My maternal grandfather used to say, in Swedish, “everything in moderation” and he led a long, healthy life. My mom echoed his wisdom, as I remember her preaching the same motto. And yet, ever since I started to really examine my own behaviors, attitudes, and habits, I have questioned this recommendation, which I still hear people uttering pretty much daily. When I really think about it, my grandfather wasn’t exactly your Moderation King. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, until he quit cold turkey at age 50 (he lived till age 90). He was also a gifted painter, a published author, a decorated member of the Swedish military, he exercised daily - truly a Renaissance man. Same with my mom. She exercised every day, I never saw her eat any junk food, she kept house meticulously, had her own business, moved house at least 17 times with my dad across several countries. Not exactly moderation role models.
May is Brain Health Month, and as we see PSA’s and links on Facebook and items in the media about related topics, I want to ask you to consider a few things in terms of moderation. When I first decided to abstain from alcohol five months ago, my “everything in moderation!” side was scared and rebellious, so I appeased her by saying, “just take a break for now – take a few weeks off and we’ll go from there.” After the weeks were up, I extended the carrot with, “You’re doing so well, feeling great, but I understand that you’re intimidated by absolutes, so for now, let’s just keep going until someone opens a $1,000 bottle of wine and then if you really want to you can have a glass.” (NOTE: I don’t think anyone has ever offered me a glass of $1,000/bottle wine).
Knowing that I wasn’t “condemned” to being a freak who has to follow boring rules for the rest of my life made abstention much less depressing. But then I heard this awesome podcast yesterday and I completely saw things differently. It turns out that when we take a break, in this case from alcohol, and our brain is healed from the damage and all is great, there’s a part of our brain that will always remember. So, when you hear of people who are sober for years and years, and then they for whatever reason pick up a drink, this part of the brain (hippocampus and amygdala) suddenly takes you back to that time of your life before you got sober, and it takes over. We all hear of the people who went to rehab, detoxed from drugs etc, and then a few months later picked up the substance and went on a bender. This is why you will hear an alcoholic say, “I am one drink away from a bender.” It’s not because they are weak or lack willpower, it truly is because of their brain’s wiring.
As I ran and thought about the Middle Ground, about moderation, I thought about all of this and how surely it must apply to other aspects of our lives. When was the last time you had just one Girl Scout cookie? Or you just skipped one workout? Or you had just one date with the loser guy you kicked out? Perhaps you may consider, that the fact you become powerless and wishy-washy and go back on all of those promises you made to yourself, and you restart the old vicious cycle of self-destruction and abuse – that this is all because your brain is not designed to understand moderation (aside from your rational pre-frontal cortex).
This is not to give you full license to indulge in binge self-destructiveness while singing “Blame it on a-a-a-a-a-amydala.” Rather, I’m hoping that seeing things this way spurs you on to 1) practice self-awareness by asking youself, “am I really being moderate?” and 2) set yourself up for success by creating guidelines for yourself so you don’t trigger the brain memory. Yes, this may mean that certain behaviors may need to become off-limits. But hopefully your inner petulant child that hates rules, authority, extremes, etc, will calm down now you know it’s a brain thing, not a poor reflection on your character. Don’t be that squashed squirrel I ran by yesterday a few feet from the safety of the side of the road.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.