Dear Dr. Rachel,
I’m a nervous drinker. Not because I’m nervous to drink, but because I’m nervous not to. I’m a socially awkward, yet fairly successful 30-year-old male. I’m not sure if I’ve always been this way, or just got used to associating drinking with fun social occasions when I was in college. My concern is health. I want to continue to be able to have interesting and fun social experiences, but really don’t want to depend on alcohol to facilitate those anymore. Any advice, or am I destined to be a social alcoholic?
You sound like a typical millennial male. No matter what your demographic, you are not alone in your reliance on a substance to let go of inhibitions. Just look at how integral drinking is to the social fabric of our culture! Most events are centered around both eating and drinking. This is because they are mood altering substances that can soothe us. Sure, drinking can be fun, it tastes good and we deserve an escape, but we also need to have balance and partake in drinking intentionally.
Regarding your concern about your health, are you referring to mental health, physical health or both? The extent to which your health is jeopardized depends on whether you are addicted versus dependent. I don’t have enough information to know which category you fall into. For example, are you blacking out after drinking? Getting DUI’s? Offending people? Being coercive? Spending egregious amounts of money you don’t have? If the answer to these is yes and alcohol interferes with relationships and essential activities in your daily life, I would classify you as addicted. My hunch is you’ve become mentally and emotionally dependent on it, rather than physically addicted.
Whether addicted, dependent or both, what matters to me is that you slow down and start to shift how you see yourself. If you try to quit something cold turkey without understanding the underlying hook that this external substance provides, it won’t last. This is why I recommend you meet with a licensed therapist and have them help you process your self worth. By this I mean dig in to your thinking patterns: What are the barriers that prevent you from being authentic with others? What kinds of expectations do you have for yourself with others and are they realistic? Do you allow yourself to be human or expect to be perfect? Are you always comparing yourself to others? Do you have wounds that prevent you from trusting others?
What seems clear to me is that you are afraid of being judged. But I bet the biggest judge of yourself is you. If you’re being invited to social activities, this indicates people are interested in you. Yet for some reason you don’t see it. Your insecurities are cast aside when you are imbibing and you feel more relaxed. But keep in mind that this version of you already exists within your core, whether you are drinking or not.
You have the ability to stop giving booze so much power. It is not some magical potion that ignites you. However you believe this and so it has become your truth. You state that you’re “fairly successful,” which indicates there is a part of you who sees your worth, which is essential to breaking this cycle.
You want to remove this crutch from your life. Trying to quit something can give it more power — we crave what we cannot have. So here are some concrete tips for dealing with your behaviors in the meantime:
— Expect that without alcohol at social situations, you will initially feel more exposed. This is temporary.
— Expect that this process could be two steps forward, one step back. This is typical anytime we embark on a sizable change in our lives.
— If you try to scale back or quit and you’re constantly impatient and critical towards yourself while going through the process, you will not be supported and thereby not change.
— Observe how much less groggy you feel the next morning if you didn’t drink the night before. This can provide intrinsic motivation.
— Also observe if there are benefits to being the sober one. I recently had the experience of losing my phone to death-by-hot-tub, and then spent the next couple days free from it. Sure I felt some restlessness, but it gave me the opportunity to observe how everyone else was constantly on their phone and how I felt more present and connected to my surroundings.
Who you are without alcohol — in the flesh, exposed — may be quiet, loud, shy, boisterous, funny, boring or all of the above. But guess what? This is called being human. Don’t bother being something you’re not. It will never work. And the world doesn’t need more fake, drunk people. It needs more people being real.
Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.