digital illustration of a woman meditating between a big lemon tree and a leafless, dying tree
Haylee Bohm/Daily

Content warning: Mentions of disordered eating and dieting.

“Hi Jen, I’m sorry I haven’t responded for a few months, I thought I didn’t need therapy anymore but it turns out I do. I can do Wednesdays if you’re still available. Let me know!”

I hit send, aware of how unstable that message made me seem. But isn’t that how it always goes? You think you’re fine, until you’re not; the “not” comes when you least expect it. Thankfully, Jen was still willing to take me on as a patient despite, or perhaps because of, my blatant instability. But, when Wednesday rolled around, I was “fine” again and wanted to savor my good mood. I considered canceling my appointment, turning on “Modern Family” and dismissing it as an act of self-care. 

But I knew that if I skipped therapy once, I would do it again. I am easily swayed by my past decisions, particularly poor ones that succeed without consequence; this includes my weeks-long indulgence sophomore year of eating whatever I pleased, my month of only attending class asynchronously and the drama-filled week of junior year where I realized I have free will and don’t actually have to do the dishes after I cook. The first indulgence ended in frequent binge eating and unhealthy habits. The second indulgence resulted in the worst grades of my academic career. The final indulgence resulted in a minor bug infestation, a gross smell in the sink and, most predictably, major roommate strife. 

I will admit that I am thoroughly ashamed by all of these spirals. When I left my first dish unwashed and skipped my first in-person class, I never would have imagined things could get that bad. But, with every indulgence, it became easier and easier to neglect my responsibilities. Eventually, it got to a point where I questioned why I wasn’t living this freely all along. It took a considerable milestone to break each one of these habits — for the binge eating, it was my first subsequent doctor’s appointment; for the asynchronous classes, it was looking at my midterm grades and for the dishes, it was the roommate blow-up that finally got me in order. 

It’s too easy to get sucked into extremes, particularly regarding personal wellness habits like self-care. To some, prioritizing oneself may mean instant gratification — doing what you want when you want and letting emotions guide your actions. During my prior indulgence periods, all I cared about was the instant gratification. But, to others (and my new and improved self), self-care is the exact opposite — its nature depends upon making the now worse to make the later better, and it promotes delayed gratification

Both instant and delayed gratification are evil in excess. Exclusive engagement in instant gratification, including eating fast food whenever you please and regularly skipping workouts, can lead to long-term health issues. Bending the rules may feel liberating in the moment, but soon the unwatched lectures and dirty plates pile up, becoming even more unmanageable than before. I know this cycle all too well: every time, I think, “Just this once,” and every time it turns into more. 

In my wellness journey, I have learned that long-term goals require self-discipline — not motivation — in order to be achieved. Motivation may seem like it would push you towards your goals. After all, if you are so motivated to achieve something, wouldn’t you do whatever is necessary, regardless of immediate displeasures, in order to achieve future success? The answer is no, and adapting this “motivation mindset” and waiting until motivation strikes to act is deceivingly limiting. I have tried this approach — only exercising when I feel like it, only doing work when I’m inspired. But I’ll let you in on a secret: More often than not, we don’t want to do hard things. It was only once I turned to discipline that I began to succeed. 

On the other hand, if we never give in to our immediate desires and exclusively practice delayed gratification it can (and will) backfire. Engaging exclusively in habits that promote delayed gratification (strictly restricting sugar, forcing a workout daily) is linked to eating disorders like anorexia nervosa.

A UCLA Health article details the dangers of constant delayed gratification through the example of occasion matching, the phenomenon in which people wait for the “perfect occasion” to indulge. This occurs when a hedonic indulgence is either scarce, particularly expensive or holds a special meaning. According to Barsalou, people often participate in occasion matching in order to cultivate a peak experience, one that holds emotional value and will likely be remembered. But occasion matching, like all other forms of extreme delayed gratification, presents its own set of problems. Constant waiting leads to missed opportunities, failing to accept happiness in the now and expired desserts and gift certificates.

Had I skipped therapy, I suppose I still might have learned something valuable because “Modern Family” season nine, episode 13 (“In Your Head”) displays the struggles of occasion matching perfectly. In this episode, a house guest shamelessly eats Mitch and Cam’s caviar and drinks their expensive bottle of wine. When Mitch and Cam become angry because they were saving those for a special occasion, the guest says, “Don’t defer enjoyment, ’cause you never know when you’re gonna bite it.” Mitch and Cam internalize their friend’s lesson and spend their day indulging, only to realize the importance of saving in moderation.  

Moderation allows us to feel gratitude for things we already have without feeling the constant urge for more. In considering instant versus delayed gratification, it’s exceptionally important to find a balance. A study conducted by Thailand’s National Institute of Development Administration found that moderation in the context of personal finances (i.e. finding a balance between saving and spending) is the key to financial success. 

Not only is moderation beneficial, but the opposite of moderation — the extreme — is dangerous. Everything in excess is bad for you. Even happiness in excess has adverse effects. A Yale University study shows that too much happiness is linked to increased risk-seeking behaviors, including binge eating and alcohol and drug use. The study also concludes that younger people who reported a high life satisfaction had a lower average income years later (so if things aren’t looking up for you right now, it seems you have a wealthy future coming your way). Not only that, but excess happiness causes us to ignore risks of danger and make snap judgements without paying much attention to detail. 

Unfortunately, avoiding the extremes and achieving your goals purely through moderation is incredibly difficult. In “Year of No Sugar: A Memoir,” Eve O. Schaub narrates how her year of going sugar-free helped her curb sugar cravings. Countless others share similar stories about how entirely eliminating sugar from their diet helped to reset their palate and end their sugar addiction. In all of these “success” stories, ending the habit required a full lifestyle reset.

The unattainability of moderation is something that I regularly battle. My brain is constantly being shoved from one extreme to the next — overindulgence to underindulgence, extravagance to restriction. I try to remain steady in the middle, but the seesaw always tends to tip. 

Two years ago, my quest for health backfired. In an unusually motivated summer mindset, I began training upwards of five times a week. I watched what I ate, restricted things I enjoyed and became obsessed with calorie counting. I downloaded the dreaded MyFitnessPal app, which so many of us know and hate, to track my workouts daily. Once school started, these detailed habits were no longer attainable. My sole focus was no longer going to the beach and staying healthy — it was finding my way in a new school and doing everything else that comes with being a transfer student. In an attempt to manage everything, I let my wellness habits slip. And after I messed up once, my health began to spiral.

I’m not alone in this struggle for moderation. According to Michigan Medicine, about 90% of people who lose weight end up gaining back everything they lost. This is likely due to the rebound effect. When we restrict calories, our body goes into starvation mode and slows metabolism, making it increasingly difficult to continue weight loss. When more calories are added in the future, the slower metabolism causes even faster weight gain than before. Diets used for rapid weight loss, commonly called crash diets, are a direct product of extremes. A similar phenomenon is often seen in athletes that train daily; overexercising prevents muscle growth because muscles need recovery periods. 

Recently, there has been a spike in extreme wellness fads. With diets like keto and veganism rising in popularity, about 45 million Americans engage in some kind of restrictive eating every year. There are constantly new viral fitness challenges being promoted and new superfoods that we supposedly “cannot live without.” In a previous Statement column entitled “The existential dread of self-improvement,” Darrin Zhou details how his experience in trying the 75 Hard challenge caused him to be increasingly dissatisfied with his current state. In an effort to create more time for self-improvement, he took shortcuts, reading 15-minute book summaries instead of actual novels and began to lose the meaning behind his actions. Zhou’s experience goes to show how quickly these extreme lifestyles, promoted by new diets and challenges, can compromise the meaning of our lives and eliminate moderation entirely.

There are few conclusive answers as to why moderation is so difficult, but my hypothesis is three-fold. First off, humans are habit-forming creatures, meaning that our bodies and minds easily adjust to our way of living. Our biology allows us to adapt to new environments, including high altitudes, high temperatures and disease. 

Second, our culture promotes extremity. In a previous Statement column, “Overconsumption is coming for real life, too,” Haley Johnson discusses the very real pressure of doing things just to say you did them. One example she references is “read counts,” a phenomenon in which people speed through audio books and skim hardcovers just to boast an extensive reading list rather than to enjoy the story. We no longer do things for self-fulfillment, but rather for the end result and proof that they were done. We have evolved a more-is-better mindset, always aiming to be the richest, most successful, most idealized version of ourselves. This is through no fault of the individual; rather the fault lies in this country’s encouragement of toxic productivity.

Third, whether we realize it or not, we are constantly branding ourselves. By making absolute statements like “I’m a napper. I’m a reader. I play guitar,” we don’t allow ourselves to dabble in hobbies. We adopt the mindset “what’s the point of playing guitar once a month if I’m not advancing enough to make a label out of it?” There’s a classic joke that vegans always need to announce their veganism to everyone in the room. I’ve heard plenty of people label themselves as vegetarian and preface the statement with an admission of occasional meat indulgence. I’ve done the same thing — I still tell people I’m kosher even though I haven’t been on that diet since I came to college. But there’s something about having definitive facets of my identity like kashrut that makes me feel more valid.

In my freshman year of college, I struggled immensely with finding an identity. I would read once in a while, but I wasn’t a reader. I’d draw before bed, but I wasn’t an artist. I’d exercise, but I wasn’t a body builder. This desperation for a title, an identity that could make me valid and recognizable, drove me to extremes. Last summer, I binge read 50 books. Two summers ago, I worked out every day. Neither of these indulgences gave me anything more than temporary fulfillment. Don’t get me wrong, it felt great to say “I’m a reader,” but would that have been any less true had I read three books instead of 50? 

While working out excessively and binge reading was my conscious choice, oftentimes, people don’t choose to venture into extremes. Sometimes the aim is moderation, but when habits form, we begin to verge into the deep end. A quintessential example of this is substance use. As of 2020, 44% of college students reported using marijuana within the past year and 8.3% use daily. Many indulge in these vices as an act of self-care, something to alleviate stress; people rarely start smoking with the intention or hope of becoming a daily user. It’s just something that happens. And marijuana is a prime example because it’s not especially addictive, putting it on the same playing field as food and exercise, which are also subject to low rates of addiction. 

Bending the rules once makes it increasingly easy to do again, but engaging exclusively in rigorous behaviors can lead to fear of indulgence and quickly backfire. Because of this unfortunate contradiction, I don’t have any advice, other than beware — beware of how influential your behaviors are to your future self; beware of how easily extreme behaviors spiral out of control; beware of how engaging in a seemingly harmless action can lead to a life-threatening habit.  

Therapy has helped me in my quest for moderation. Not purely by attending, but based on the discussion of how easily I get sucked into extremes. I no longer allow myself to rely on motivation; instead, I make discipline my priority and do my best to live in the unattainable land of moderation.

Statement Correspondent Talia Belowich can be reached at