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Why using alcohol to fend off the fear of socialising does not make you confident (and what it does instead)

What Dry January has taught me about drinking for confidence.

I’ve always loved booze. Drinking has been a way of calming my feelings of social anxiety, giving me the confidence to speak to strangers and get up on the dancefloor at parties.

But recently, I’ve been rethinking my relationship with my much loved social lubricant. I’ve had periods of not drinking in the past but have always gone back to the wine with the same gusto. Since tackling ‘dry January’ last month, things have seemed different.

So what’s changed? I’ve been thinking about the subject of drinking for confidence, or to ‘fend off the fear’. I had a shocking realisation that I have been using alcohol to dampen my feelings of shyness for almost twenty years. (This makes me feel old. I’m 35 and yes, underage drinking is not cool!)

Sober Curious by Ruby Warrington and Mindful drinking by Rosamund Dean were fascinating reads, and helpful in reframing my thoughts. As well as addressing social attitudes to alcohol and the health problems of drinking too much (which we all know about – no lectures on that here) both books delve into the psychology behind boozing, and the big question for me…

Does alcohol give you confidence?

Rosamund Dean writes that ‘using alcohol to numb your inhibitions does not make you more confident. All it does is prevent you learning real confidence, which comes with getting through stressful situations while sober.’

In the same vein, Ruby Warrington states, ‘alcohol doesn’t give us confidence in situations… all it does is suppress or numb our fear. The confidence we crave is a feeling state that can be cultivated only within ourselves.’

But how can we cultivate this within ourselves? And how can we reroute deeply ingrained neural pathways that tell us that alcohol = confidence?

Being present.

In his TED talk, Johann Hari states that ‘A core part of addiction… is about not being able to bear being present in your life.’ Alcohol does indeed stop us from sitting in the present, if that present is an anxiety inducing conversation with a stranger or walking into a party full of people. It takes the edge off, numbs those feelings of ‘not being good enough.’

Although feelings, inconvenient things they are, don’t like to be suppressed for too long. Push them down and they’ve got to go somewhere, often rearing their ugly head in the form of an anxious hangover, or an ‘oh god what was I doing /saying?’ episode of self-loathing. There’s also the feeling I’ve always had of duplicity, of coming across as an extrovert when I’ve had a few, but if someone was to meet me the next day it would be a very different story. I felt inauthentic, a fake. In the long run, definitely not so good for the old self esteem.

So what does having periods off drinking do? It makes you sit in the present with uncomfortable feelings, in situations that would have usually seemed a lot more comfortable with alcohol.

Comfortable with being uncomfortable?

Ruby Warrington talks of ‘Sober Firsts’ – the first time you face a social occasion in which you would normally be drinking. With this comes discomfort, or as she calls it, ‘a ‘WTF’ moment.’ She states that ‘Sitting in the WTF, watching it pass, and then choosing to focus on the positive parts of the experience is the physical part (and the mental workout) of your beginning to create new neural pathways.’

So giving your sober socialising muscle the chance to flex is the best chance you have of strengthening that muscle. This can be applied to all forms of socialising for someone that feels socially anxious, not just for those of us that drink alcohol. Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you like.

Rosamund Dean writes that ‘confidence is something that comes from experience, and if you rarely experience social situations while sober your confidence doesn’t get the chance to grow. Sober socialising will bring you the real authentic confidence that only comes from having the courage to break through the fear of entering social situations without that crutch.’

Tools and Techniques

Mindful Drinking suggests some techniques that I have used, with varied success, for sober socialising, or indeed, socialising in general.  An interesting one for anxiety is reframing the situation. Studies have shown that if feelings of anxiety before an event are reframed as ‘excitement’ it can positively affect levels of discomfort. This ‘anxious reappraisal’ works because it is less of a leap from anxious to excited as it is from anxious to calm, as anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions.

A technique I have always used, whether consciously or not, is asking people questions to transfer the attention away from myself. Subsequently, this has seemed easier when I’m not drinking as I’ve felt more ‘present’ so have been able to process the information they’ve given me with a clearer head, leading me to ask another question or reflect on what they’ve just said with more clarity. For me, having a genuine curiosity for other people’s thoughts and ideas has been one of the most helpful things in overcoming my feelings of social anxiety.

Visualisation is something I’ve always found trickier. Visualising myself as a confident, ‘best’ version of myself doesn’t always come very naturally, especially in periods of low self-esteem. Sometimes the ‘imagine you’re someone you admire who is confident’ trick works. This could be a really useful tool for others. We’re all different…

In terms of staying present, in the moment with my thoughts and feelings, replacing that ‘reward’ glass of wine when my daughter is in bed with meditating for 10 minutes has helped immeasurably. As a chronic overthinker, I have always known that meditation would be a good for me, but tried many times to meditate and ‘failed’ in the past, convincing myself it was just another thing I couldn’t do. And why bother sticking at it when there’s wine as a quick and easy way to relax?

Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Eleanor Morgan, author of Anxiety for Beginners, states ‘It is very easy to say that someone should do x, y and z to address their patterns of over drinking, but the mind of a person who feels anxious is a tangle of should and associated coping mechanisms. Patterns can be tricky to break. The key is acceptance and self-compassion… It is no-one’s fault for wanting to numb distressing feelings. There is no shame in wanting not to feel terrible but we owe it to ourselves to try to manage our feelings in a way that doesn’t make us feel worse in the long run.’

Reading around the subject has highlighted how everyone’s relationship with alcohol and anxiety is so different. We might all need different levels of help in addressing our issues, some of us, professional. And various tricks and tools might help some, but not others. It’s all about finding what works for you.

I think it’s also helpful to assess what you what to get out of not drinking for a period. For me, it was to be more mindful with my drinking, to become aware of the triggers that lead me to wanting a drink and wondering if there were any other things I could do to relax. What was it that I was escaping from when I automatically reached for a drink? Sitting with my feelings at social occasions rather than instantly heading to the bar has been scary, but I’ve got through it, and been proud of myself afterwards.

Some might decide after a period off the booze that they feel so great there’s no going back. But total abstinence isn’t for me. I enjoyed a guilt free glass of wine or two over the weekend. And, as always – kindness. I’m not going to denigrate myself for occasionally using alcohol as a social crutch, I just want to bring my awareness to when I am doing so and strengthen the self-confidence that will hopefully grow with each ‘scary’ situation faced.

It’s still a work in progress, and it’s taken me a long time to get here. That inner self-acceptance often feels so far out of reach. But when there are glimpses of it, it is liberating. If you’d like to walk the path to quiet confidence alongside others, join the Quiet Community today.

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