- When a choice is forced upon someone, such as “you should drink less,” many feel an instinct to rebel.
- Potential punishment can motivate someone in the short term, but the key to long-lasting change often lies in one's internal drives.
- Being "sober curious" redefines one's relationship with alcohol and helps uncover one's deepest longings.
Do you remember the first time you were forced to set a limit on something you enjoyed? It probably was not a fun experience. I vividly recall the disappointment I felt when my grandma told me I could not have ice cream all day. If you are trying to cut down on alcohol, you may relate.
I have worked with many people who try to reduce their alcohol consumption. Rarely did I, if ever, meet anyone thrilled when they felt that they had to give up or set a limit on alcohol. But cutting down on alcohol does not have to be so miserable. In fact, it can even be rewarding when it's done right.
Reactance: When You Hear the Phrase "You Have To"
Let's not talk about alcohol for a minute. Let's talk about the idea of "having to do something." The words "have to" are almost a sure way to take the joy out of anything. Whether we are 5 or 55 years old, when someone tells us, "You have to do this," we often automatically want to say "No." On the contrary, the words "you shouldn't" or "you can't" often suddenly make even the dullest things seem attractive.
With cutting down on alcohol, so many people, in one form or another, are either told, "You have to stop drinking," or "If you don't stop, you will..." The ultimatums could come from a loved one, a doctor, an employee, a judge, or ourselves. It really does not matter whose voice it is; part of us often feels that our freedom is under attack, which leads to an instinct to restore that lost sense of freedom.
In psychology, this instinct is called reactance, which is "an unpleasant motivational arousal that emerges when people experience a threat to or loss of their free behaviors." In other words, when a person feels that their freedom is at risk—such as when they are told that they have to or they can't do something—they are motivated to rebel to restore their free will.
Fear: When You Were Told, "If You Don't…"
When a well-intended person tells us, "if you don't…, you will..." they are essentially trying to motivate us with our fear of losing something of value to us. Of course, the fear of losing someone or something we treasure could be a powerful motivation for a person to change their behavior. However, there are some downsides to fear-based motivations. First, fear-based motivations induce stress and sometimes shame, which often lead to a person wanting to drink even more. The key to a long-lasting new relationship with alcohol is to be driven by reward rather than potential punishment. Once you are able to uncover your own internal motivation to change your relationship with alcohol, cutting down becomes your choice, and even the hard work can feel rewarding.
The reality is you don't have to cut down or stop drinking. You can drink as much as you want—some consequences may come with drinking too much—but no one can tell you or make you stop. The real question is what you really want.
Your True Purpose: When You Get in Touch With Your "Whys"
I invite you to a mini-writing exercise to help you get back in touch with your purpose. In this exercise, you will focus on your dreams, goals, and aspirations and become curious about how sobriety can bring you closer to your deepest longings.
Imagine a year has passed, and you have been able to drink in moderation in the past year, no longer feeling compelled to drink excessively or as frequently. How do you imagine you would feel and look differently? How would your life change? Here are some areas to explore:
- Physical wealth and physical appearance
- Emotional well-being and self-esteem
- Financial well-being and career
- Relationships with family, friends, and loved ones
- Personal development
Sober Curiosity: Rediscover Yourself
Whether you have realized it or not, we all come to this world to fulfill a purpose, including you. We are all born with dreams, aspirations, and potential. Years of heavy drinking tend to give a person tunnel vision and make them lose sight of their true self. If you find it hard to get back in touch with your dreams and goals right away, it's okay. Be curious, be patient, and remember you don't have to do it alone. If you are curious about changing your relationship with alcohol, I created this free 30-Day toolkit to help you cut down on drinking.
Being sober-curious is not just about redefining your relationship with alcohol but also about re-discovering yourself and your true purpose. Fear can only take you so far, but your true purpose will take you as far as you want. Saying "yes" to sober curiosity is about saying "yes" to becoming curious again about who you are, who you want to become, and who you were born to be.
Steindl C, Jonas E, Sittenthaler S, Traut-Mattausch E, Greenberg J. Understanding Psychological Reactance: New Developments and Findings. Z Psychol. 2015;223(4):205-214. doi: 10.1027/2151-2604/a000222. PMID: 27453805; PMCID: PMC4675534.