Drinking and socializing have become intimately connected in Western society.
Most people have no idea how to have fun without alcohol.
I’ve written about the benefits of being sober before, and I frequently hear from folks who are interested in trying it out themselves, but are worried about becoming bored or turning into social outcasts. In a lot of people’s minds, socializing sober = boredom and isolation.
Humans are social creatures.
That’s why one of the scariest things about getting sober is the fear of alienating your friends and being relegated to a life of loneliness.
Perhaps you’re already sober and you haven’t figured out how to have a social life as fulfilling as the one from your drinking days.
Or maybe you have no plans to stop drinking, but you feel trapped by your inability to socialize without alcohol.
It doesn’t matter what your situation is. The only thing that matters is your desire to relearn the lost art of socializing without alcohol and having fun sober.
What I won’t do in this article is give you a list of fun activities to do while sober. You and I probably don’t like the same things, so it wouldn’t really make sense.
Instead, I will equip you with the mental tools you need in order to learn how to have fun alcohol-free.
On new habits and old environments
Have you ever tried to not drink when you’re out with a friend (or group of friends)?
The typical interaction goes like this:
Drinking friend: What are you having to drink? The first round’s on me.
You: Nah, I’m good. Thanks though.
Drinking friend: What! Come on, why aren’t you drinking?
At this point you feel like you need to explain why you’re not drinking. And when you can’t come up with an explanation you feel confident enough to stand by, you cave to peer pressure.
Rather than staying committed to your goal, you cave to the pressure and, before you know it, you have wasted away another night—and the morning after—by getting drunk.
I know you really wanted to try to not drink tonight.
I know you’re tired of wasting every weekend hungover.
But neither one of these things matters because, despite your best intentions, you have no idea how to handle the situation.
On the surface of it, you look like a person who’s too weak to stand by your decision not to drink. Another person who gave in to peer pressure.
And yes, to an extent that may be true. But the person who puts the pressure on you to drink is always insecure. I know this because I’ve been on both sides of the table. I’ve been the guy who tries to get all his other friends to drink, and I’ve also been the sober guy getting pressured into drinking.
The person who does the pressuring is really the weak one, and the sober friend who gives in is merely responding to familiar environmental cues and falling back into an old habit.
Old habits die hard, and when you’re in a non-supportive environment it takes a lot of resolve and mental fortitude to withstand the pressure.
The problem is that your environment is full of people who support each other’s decisions to drink.
You’re trying to establish a new habit in an older environment, where the numbers are not on your side and—for the moment—you don’t know any other way to fit in. You’re in a situation where people expect you to drink, and where all your friends are going to drink. That is why you, and most other people who try, fail to socialize sober.
Two ways to deal with a toxic environment
Understanding the relationship between your old drinking environment and your own behavior is essential. You’re a product of your environment, and your actions reinforce the influence that environment has over you.
Whenever you try to change yourself for the better, there is always going to be friction: internal or external. Usually, it’s both. And there are only two ways to win: by changing your environment, or by building yourself up. Doing one of these will make it easier to also do the other.
Changing your environment helps build a new you. The discomfort and anxiety you feel is just the weaknesses of your new habits facing pressure from your old environment. Only once your new habits have solidified, and you have become a stronger, better version of yourself, will you be able to feel comfortable in any environment, including your old one.
That is because so much of the power of your old environment only exists in your own head. Very few people are actually going to get mad that you don’t drink. But in order for you to realize and internalize this truth, you have to create distance between yourself and your old drinking environment.
Finding things to do for fun
The usual advice given for socializing without alcohol is to not spend time in bars.
This is good advice, but it has a glaring flaw: you can obtain alcohol almost anywhere. In fact, alcohol has become such a central part of modern American social life that there are almost no social events where it’s not possible to get a drink.
Sure, it’s a bad idea to get black-out drunk at the opera, but they still allow you to buy alcohol there. Attend a book launch, and there’s almost certainly going to be drinks. The local horse tracks? There’s going to be alcohol.
So leaving the bar scene is not enough. You need to do things that you enjoy even without a drop of alcohol in your blood.
In all likelihood you already know what those things are. Almost everyone can think of something that they have fun doing while they’re sober.
- What is it about these activities that you enjoy?
- How do you feel after you do them?
- You’ve got plenty of other options. Why do this thing in particular?
Once you have the answers to these questions, the next question is this:
- What do you get out of drinking with people that you don’t get from spending time sober with them?
Personally, I drank because I wanted to feel connected and fit in. I didn’t think I was interesting or cool enough for people to desire my company solely on the merits of my personality. Drinking made me feel like I had a valuable place in a group.
Soon, drinking became the only way I knew how to connect with people. It wasn’t just a crutch anymore; it had completely wiped out my ability to socialize and connect with people sober. A handicap built by me and reinforced by my environment.
Nevertheless, it was clear to see that I enjoyed environments where I got mental stimulation or felt connected with other people—and preferably, some combination of the two. I started spending more time with my friends individually over coffee, rather than in group settings at the bar.
Building deeper connections without alcohol
By spending more time socializing and enjoying life on my own terms, I accomplished two different and important things:
I created a habit of being around people without alcohol
I created both an external environment and internal space that supported my choice
The reason why you’re unable to socialize without alcohol is that you forgot how to. You did it all the time when you were a kid. But at some point in your young adult life—perhaps in college—drunk socializing replaced sober socializing as the norm.
If you want to be comfortable at social functions without a drink in your hand, you have to spend actual time being around people without alcohol. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
And the easier it gets, the more comfortable you will be in yourself. Your old drinking environments will lose their power of influence over you, and you will be well equipped to handle that interaction I described earlier.
However, there is one side effect…
When drinking is no longer exciting
The better you get at not taking a drink, the less appealing drinking becomes. The less appealing drinking becomes, the less time you want to spend around drunk people.
You’re now the master of the environment that once enslaved you. With this mastery comes boredom.
Once you no longer feel the pressure to drink, you can’t help but notice something: almost everyone else is trapped by their inability to socialize and have fun without alcohol.
What you do with this information is unique to your purpose and position in life. I occasionally go to a bar, but it’s always to eat food. In my nearly 5 years of sobriety (at the time of writing this, in July 2018), I can’t recall the last time I just hung out with people who were doing nothing but drinking.
Some of you, after succeeding in becoming sober, will still try to socialize with people while they’re drinking, but what you’ll soon learn is that these people—at least while they’re drinking—live in a different, less interesting world.
You now have the ability to come and go as you please. They do not have that luxury.
Ultimately, you learn to cherish what’s important to you. Whether it be the connection to people or the activity, you regain the ability to enjoy life without diluting it with alcohol.
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