Episode 4: Is Moderation a Possibility for All?
In today’s episode I want to talk about whether or not moderation is a possibility for everyone. I’ll tie this into three broad stages of the overdrinking negative spiral that can occur because these stages often lead to the belief that moderation is not possible. I will also talk about three reasons why going straight from overdrinking to moderation is a very difficult path to take. And finally, I’ll share how to create a moderate drinking lifestyle that I believe can be successful.
So, almost every single person struggling with overdrinking wants moderation to be possible because for most people they don’t start out wanting to quit drinking. When drinking is part of your life, imagining life abstaining completely with sobriety is overwhelming. It’s really unimaginable. Your mind goes down all the roads in your life where alcohol is built in to the fabric of your evenings or the fabric of your social circle and you see a void. You see yourself sitting amongst your friends, sober, and everyone else is laughing and boozing it up, and you’re there with a frowny face.
I know this personally and through my students as a sober coach. I know all the thoughts that go through your head when you think I just need to learn to drink less because dining out without wine is unimaginable. And never going to a winery again is something that seems impossible. And then you think how they hell do I vacation without alcohol? You’re thinking you would really feel left out of life. So when you think about saying no to alcohol, it feels like you’re saying no to life. And for reasons like this, moderation is the first stop on the stop overdrinking train.
So, let’s backup a bit to the beginning, when you first decide you’re drinking too much. What is it that made you decide this? It’s unwanted results, right? There’s something occurring with the overdrinking that you want to change, whether it’s horrible hangovers, liver enzymes or other health-related matters, brown-outs and black-outs, arguments, getting in trouble with the law, or just realizing that you’re pretty dependent on the stuff. There is an outcome in your life that you don’t like. You want to change.
So, the change you make is trying to drink less. Maybe you build in a break between drinking days, maybe you try to limit yourself to a couple glasses but whatever it is, you try to do less of it. Now, how’d that go for you, assuming you’ve already tried this? For me, in hindsight, this was the start of a perpetual loop of trying and failing and then making that mean something negative about me. So, not knowing where you’re at in your journey, I know it starts somewhere and it’s always just cutting back.
But cutting back becomes surprisingly hard once you’ve done three pretty common things:
One, you build a social life around alcohol so it’s deeply ingrained in your personal culture, hobbies, and interests.
Two, you rely on it to unwind or wash away your crappy day. It’s your go-to coping tool.
And three, you create a routine or habit surrounding drinking, whether it’s every night when you finish work or when you put the kids to bed or whether it’s tied to another routine, like cleaning or watching your favorite shows or when you make dinner.
Cutting back on drinking is difficult. And even more so now with it in your face all the time. Drinking is everywhere and has been incorporated into everything. Beyond just your routines or social engagements, it’s advertised ALL THE TIME. There’s wine quips and drinking tchotchkes everywhere. I just Googled wine quips and I’m going to read some because it’s enlightening, “Bitches be sippin’,” “Dinner is poured,” “I don’t give a sip,” “Let’s get ready to stumble,” “Shut up liver, you’re fine,” “P.M.S. pour me s’more.” I mean, drinking has literally become an in-your-face sport. It’s like I know I can’t live without alcohol so let’s embrace the dependence and make it part of my identity. It’s who I am, I’m a drinker…I’m an overdrinker.
Even outings, tours, and excursions all include drinking now. Did you notice that? There’s drinking and painting, drinking and cycling, drinking and yoga, wine walks, drink tours, booze cruises, which is one of my favorite The Office episodes…love that show. Anyway, it’s pervasive. So when you decide to drink less, you’re really set up to fail. It’s like working in a pastry shop and saying you’re not going to eat sugar or bread anymore.
So that’s the first stage of the overdrinking negative spiral, you try to cut back and it’s not going so well. And this is usually the first inkling in your mind that something’s up here. Why are you struggling with something that, on the surface, seems like it should be easy? Maybe you cut back before and it wasn’t as difficult. Maybe you had a baby and had no issues quitting when you were pregnant. But something feels different this time. It’s more difficult.
So the second stage is kind of accepting that you’re drinking this much because just cutting back isn’t going so well and giving in to the booze and hoping it doesn’t get out of hand again. You create some rules. You’re not going to drink during the week. You’re not going to drink before 8pm. You’re only going to have two drinks, no more. You’re going to make sure you eat when you drink. You’re going to drink a full glass of water in between drinks…I mean I tried them all. I can go on and on with the rules.
But, here’s the problem with the rules. They feel constricting and humans don’t like to feel constricted. We covet free will and freedom and rules feel like the opposite of that. It feels like a boundary and you want to break through it. It feels like a cage and deprivation. And in our hierarchy of needs we’re always trying to NOT feel deprived.
As humans, we a want to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. And deprivation feels like pain. Having unanswered desires and urges feels intolerable. And those feelings, desires, and urges are coming from the primitive brain or lizard brain as some people call it. I like to call it my cave woman brain. The primitive brain likes dopamine, it likes the routine, and the primitive brain does NOT like change. It’s this primal brain or cave woman brain, running the show and it has a goal. To keep you alive with minimum spent energy. It seeks food, warmth, procreation, and shelter…once those needs are covered, it’s all about pleasure. Rules don’t fit into the primitive brain’s agenda. Delayed gratification is torture to the cave woman.
And here’s wherein lies the problem. Rules are where moderation exists. Drinking in moderation is defined as moderate consumption, a max of two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women. That’s not much, especially if you’re used to overdrinking. And often times, through testing moderation, you realize why drink one drink? What’s the point? What’s that going to do for you? Again, not much if you’re tolerance is up and you’re used to overdrinking.
And this is where I realized, for me, I was drinking to get drunk. Now that might seem obvious but that’s why moderation was hard. My goal was to be drunk and you’re not going to get drunk with one glass of wine, at least not if you’re used to drinking a bottle or two. If you’re drinking to alter your mind, to alter your experience, to escape, try and become aware of it. And if that’s you, moderation is going to be a big disappointment…every time.
So there’s other issues with going from overdrinking to moderation: the first as I just stated is why you’re drinking. If it’s to get drunk, that’s where your work lies. Why are you drinking to get drunk? Why do you want to alter your reality, awareness, and presence? What’s so bad about being present, as YOU, that you can’t tolerate?
The second issue I see is that rules and moderation come with a whole bag of psychological tricks. I wrote a blog about this you can read at thisbrainofmine.com/blog and it’s titled Why Your “No Drinking” Rule Leads You to Drink. But in it I talk about a little of what I’ve already mentioned but I’ll recap quickly.
Rules create a scarcity mentality. And scarcity creates that deprivation and tricks the cave woman brain into believing this “thing” is now important for survival.
Rules also create the “forbidden fruit” effect. You’ve forbidden yourself to exceed one drink or whatever your chosen number is and now you want what you “can’t” have.
And to add insult to injury here, if you try and suppress your thoughts about drinking, another psychological process kicks in called “The Ironic Process Model.” When you suppress a thought, your brain then monitors for evidence of the presence of the thought and in doing so, you’re actually thinking about the thing you don’t want to think about through this monitoring process.
There’s also the “What the Hell” effect from rules. This essentially leads to really breaking the rule. So, you set a rule to allow one drink and you have two. In reality, so what? But, you’re primitive brain says, well you already broke the rule, it’s thinking very binary here, so why not have a third, a fourth, or a fifth. This is so common in dieting, too, if you’ve ever been so fortunate to diet. Joking here. You want to stick to a certain number of calories or carbs and you have a piece of bread and then next thing you know, you’re having dessert, too. What the hell, right? You already screwed up your diet for the day so why not go all out…
And finally, psychologically speaking, humans like to cheat rules. There’s a cheater’s high and a sense of relief once you break that boundary and remove the limitation. There’s also a feeling of power with cheating. Even when cheating yourself. So being aware of when your brain is playing a psychological game is a skill you can learn with mindfulness.
Moving on to the third issue with going from overdrinking to moderation. There’s an innate problem with this process. As I stated, in order to moderate, you have to let your cognitive brain be in charge. It has to make the decision and dismiss your primitive brain. It’s building the skill of telling your primitive brain to shut up and letting your cognitive brain make the decisions. And if the cognitive brain doesn’t succeed then desire and urge set in. And then you’re back to feeling discomfort when not answering the desire and urge or ignoring it so you give in and drink to feel better. Avoid pain and seek pleasure. So, here’s the problem…your cognitive brain loses its power with each sip of alcohol.
Drinking alcohol censors and dulls your cognition even with that first sip. It suppresses your ability to moderate by taking your cognitive power away. Now, you already know how difficult it can be to quiet your primitive brain WITH all your cognitive faculties. So when you have the one drink you’ve decided to moderate with…you’re down a soldier. Your moderation toolkit becomes compromised. It’s been given a mild sedative and the cave woman brain has been given a steroid, figuratively speaking.
So if you think of the scales of justice here… you know where the scales are supposed to balance each other out on each side… let’s imagine the power of your cognitive brain on the left and the power of the primitive brain on the right. Prior to drinking, you’re not really at 50/50 when you are first unlearning a habit. You don’t start off with an equal balance of power. The primitive brain starts with more power when it comes to drinking. So before you take a drink, let’s say it’s 40/60 with the left, your cognitive side at 40 and the right your primitive side at 60. After your first drink, the balance of power can move to let’s say 30/70. Those aren’t good odds. And then a second drink might take you to 20/80 and so on. So you can see the innate problem here. You need your cognitive brain to change a habit but you’re compromising it with alcohol.
Now these three issues I’ve discussed (drinking to get drunk, following moderation drinking rules, and the fact that you lose cognition with each drink) are the issues I see over and over for those trying to go from overdrinking straight into moderation. So here’s the news…whether it’s good or bad. You CAN learn moderation. You CAN build your skillset. Which would include uncovering why drink to get drunk and breaking down this process, being aware of all the psychological games associated with rules (being on to your brain), and building discipline to moderate. And very likely more than one or all three of these skills are in need of development to successfully moderate.
But the question is, do you want to? Is it worth it? Is alcohol that important to be IN YOUR LIFE, that you’re willing to put the work in to moderate? I have drunk alcohol since deciding to live sober. I have a few sips periodically; I did a tequila tasting in Mexico and will very rarely choose to taste of wine or whiskey. But for me, I don’t want to drink. I don’t feel like the odd woman out when not partaking at social events or dinner engagements. I don’t succumb to social pressure and I don’t believe I am less than in some way because I don’t want to drink.
I choose not to drink moderately because I know it takes work and I know alcohol is a toxin. I know how I’ll feel the next day, I know how my body will be in recovery. I know I won’t sleep well, if at all with alcohol in my system. I know it destroys my gut microbiome. I know it cognitively impairs my thinking, my decision-making, and my behavior. I know the truth about alcohol and its cancer-causing properties so I’m genuinely disinterested in it now. I want to be fully present and fully aware. At one point in my life, I obviously preferred not to but through finding my own coach and doing the self-introspection work taught by thought leaders like Eckart Tolle, Michael Singer, and Byron Katie, I’ve worked through all that junk. I mean I’m still a work in progress and will always be…but I’m beyond those old inhibitions and limiting beliefs about myself.
So many people choose not to moderate because it’s just not worth the work to them. It’s not worth the effort. They quit drinking and have found less mental anguish by just walking away from booze altogether rather than constantly re-introducing it and abstaining and re-introducing and abstaining. This does not mean they CANNOT learn moderation; it means they CHOOSE not to learn moderation.
So I choose to moderate chocolate and ice cream. I personally don’t want to live in a world without chocolate, so I work on moderating how much and when I eat it. Because I WANT it in my life. And in all fairness, chocolate and ice cream don’t alter your cognition…there’s no psychoactive properties here. But they do crate a dopamine rush and they do trigger that primitive brain which is why it takes work to moderate and have discipline…but it’s learned. It’s a skill that can be learned. You have to deal with the discomfort though. The discomfort of desire and urge from the cave woman wanting more than just one piece or whatever the limit is.
Lebron James, I’m a Clevelander so love Lebron, oh, for those of you who may not know, he’s an NBA player here in the US from Akron, OH a city within the Cleveland area. He does amazing things for the Akron community and children. But anyway, he’s known for saying, “you gotta be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” That’s where greatness resides. That’s where the growth is. That IS the feeling of change and growth…discomfort because your primitive brain doesn’t want to change. It doesn’t want to grow. It doesn’t want to be exposed to new things and a new way of doing things. Which is exactly why you don’t want it running the show.
The ironic thing is here that if the primitive brain ran the show all the time, our lives would actually be shorter. We’d be obesely overweight, shut-in, overdrinking, and very sedentary. So building the skills of discipline, cognition, and delayed gratification will really propel your life into new territory of unexpected pleasure and success. But it takes work.
And it’s this work and discomfort and the belief that going straight from overdrinking to moderation is easy that causes the repeat failure to moderate. It’s not because it’s not possible, it’s because you’re not adequately prepared and you don’t have a complete understanding of what you’re doing. Which leads to the third stage of the overdrinking negative spiral. As a reminder, stage one was trying to cut back on drinking with little success and a lot of mental anguish and stage two was creating rules (creating the moderation rules).
Now what happens overtime with failing to moderate is two things: you lose trust in yourself and then you start to label yourself. And this is the third stage, labeling yourself an alcoholic or addict or wondering, “what is wrong with me?” “Why can’t I drink like a normal person?” You start to think you’re the problem. And this starts to damage your self-worth, self-confidence, and self-love and I don’t know about you, but I don’t succeed much without those three things. Self-criticism does not motivate change. And by now, you’re feeling pretty anxious and low so of course, you want your coping tool, alcohol, which perpetuates your belief that there’s something wrong with you and further proof that you’ll never be able to drink moderately. It’s a total mind game.
These stages of the overdrinking negative spiral I discussed are a process of your thinking and the proof you see when you struggle to change. So to answer the question I posed here, “Is moderation a possibility for all,” I would say yes it is. But you have to be willing to put the work in to get there and many people just end up preferring a life without alcohol. The work to get to moderation just isn’t worth it for so many former drinkers. I get it because I’m at a point in life where I don’t see alcohol as enticing. I no longer see a single benefit or reward in it.
If you want to start the process of moderation, I suggest starting with a long dry period and when you no longer care about alcohol, when you no longer care to drink, that’s when you’re neutralized enough to give it a try. But not before you work through the three issues I talked through…figuring out why you’re drinking, is it to get drunk; learning the mind tricks that happen when you create rules and building discipline. The mental chatter that goes along with moderation is a lot. If you overdrink when you planned to moderate, it’s going to affirm your old thoughts that there’s something wrong with you. You have to be prepared to watch your thoughts and not put a lot of weight into them.
Someone once asked me, “If I don’t care about alcohol anymore, why would I drink?” And that’s the point. That’s when you know you’re neutralized enough to alcohol that you can put a rule or limit in place, like one drink, and you’ll stick to it because you don’t care about having more. When you feel the dopamine, you recognize it and don’t fall prey to the cave woman brain that might reappear coercing you for more. Your rule of one drink becomes less of a “rule” and more of a preference because you know the side effects of alcohol and the hungover feeling, and the kill it has on the rest of your evening and the next day. Your choice of one drink is because you’d really prefer none but you’re imbibing to partake and fit in socially. This is how you build moderation into your life.
The last thing I want to touch on is AA. Founders of AA suggest moderation is the litmus test for alcoholism. Meaning if you try to moderate and can’t, you’re an alcoholic. So, let me just say this is such bullshit for all the reasons I’ve discussed today. And statements like this are what propel people right into that third stage of labeling and declining self-worth. Statements like this from a source like AA, create the problem, not a solution. Overdrinking to moderation is difficult without the right tools and without awareness and education which is why I teach the tools, awareness, and education.
I know so many people who have learned moderation who once could not moderate. And you know how I feel about labeling…if not, check out my first podcast episode. So, the bottom line here is keep seeking for the resource that is right for you. If something doesn’t make you feel empowered, move on to the next resource. Moderation is a possibility but you may just find that you prefer a life without alcohol.