Why 'DO I HAVE A DRINKING PROBLEM' Is The Wrong Question

For nearly all of my drinking life, starting in college, I would occasionally ask myself whether I ‘had a problem’ with my drinking. There is some history of alcoholism in my family, and I was from the beginning pretty enthusiastic about drinking. I never wanted to go over the edge into being an alcoholic, because then – horrors! - I’d have to consider quitting. It seemed like a sensible and safe thing to do this check-in with myself.

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The answer was always ‘No, there’s no problem here’. Among my rationalizations for this conclusion were:

  • Nobody around me – friends or family – minds my drinking. I’m pleasant to be around when I drink.
  • I’m working hard and making progress in my schooling/career, with no fallout from drinking.
  • I’m energetically engaged in hobbies and challenges outside of work.
  • I like my life.
  • My health seems fine.
  • The problem areas in my life – namely my bad temper and the resulting relationship conflict – are completely unrelated to drinking.

I now realize in hindsight that for me, and I suspect for many people, this question ‘do I have a problem’ was the wrong one to be asking.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT QUESTION?

It’s not because I now think that I had a problem back then. Even from today’s perspective, I wouldn’t disagree with those old rationalizations. The issue is that it’s such a loaded and blunt question that it doesn’t create much space for self-discovery and growth.

  • Because there is such stigma around having a drinking problem, most people will be well into problem territory before they would admit it and bear that stigma.
  • Admitting to a problem is likely to create shame and despair that will initially at least add to one’s desire to drink to avoid that negative emotion, thereby creating more of a problem.
  • When you then decide there is NO PROBLEM then there’s no consideration of changing anything. The status quo reigns supreme.
  • The absence of a problem is not the same as health and vibrancy.

WHAT TO ASK INSTEAD

So if ‘do I have a problem’ is the wrong question, what is the right one for someone to ask themselves about their drinking?

Here are some ideas:

  • What is my drinking allowing me to avoid?
  • What positive emotions could I be experiencing if I weren’t drinking?
  • What negative emotions would I be feeling? What are the underlying causes of those emotions? How could I address and resolve those root causes?
  • What could I be doing instead with my time, money, and energy?
  • Is there something I’m doing now that I could do better if I drank less? Work, a hobby, a relationship...
  • What would be hard about drinking less or not at all?
  • What would be easy about drinking less?
  • Would I want to hang out with the same people and do the same things?
  • How will my future self – 10 or 20 years from now – look back on the current me and my drinking? Will he/she wish that I’d done anything differently, maybe taken care of my body better, or managed my relationships differently?

A NEW OPPORTUNITY

Instead of focusing on your drinking, have a look at your whole life. Identify where you would like your life to be different, and then examine how your drinking aligns with – or doesn’t - those new possibilities.

Our human psychology is such that it’s much easier for us to generate excitement and motivation to move towards a new opportunity, than it is to solve an old problem. Especially when we don’t perceive that there is a problem.

It’s more fun – and therefore more effective - to create goals that pull us forward through transformation, than it is to move away from or reject something, especially something as ingrained and pervasive as drinking.

If you’re questioning your drinking in any way, pay attention. It’s almost certainly the case that you should be paying attention to that concern, and that by changing your relationship to alcohol, you could improve your life. Just don’t use that question ‘do I have a problem’ to shut down your internal dialog and keep yourself stuck in the status quo. Dig deeper and find out what’s really going on for you. This work will be the foundation for any effort you choose to make related to cutting back or quitting drinking.

If you'd like some help digging deeper, to move beyond your status quo, hit me up for a free 30 minute consultation.    Click the button below to schedule it.

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