Imagine that you are recently sober, and you are hanging out with friends or family. Someone comes up to you and offers you an alcoholic beverage. You look around and see that other people are drinking alcohol. If you have not previously thought about what you might do in this situation, you might find yourself thinking:
What do I do?
Everyone else is drinking. Is it going to be weird if I don’t drink?
Should I tell people that I’m not drinking?
What are they going to think of me if I tell them I’m not drinking?
What am I supposed to say if they ask me why I’m not drinking?
Is everyone going to think I have a problem if I don’t drink?
I’m not going to have fun like everyone else if I don’t drink.
It is going to suck to sit here and watch everyone else have fun drinking when I am not drinking.
What if I just have one?
One probably won’t be a big deal.
What if I just hold the drink, so nobody asks me why I’m not drinking?
When I talk to people about triggers for alcohol use, most people say that social situations are one of their biggest triggers. Why? First, it’s hard not to drink when you see people around you having a good time drinking. Simply seeing alcohol can be a big trigger, being offered alcohol while seeing other people drinking is enough to give most newly sober people intense cravings. Second, it can be hard for a sober person to figure out how to relate to people if they previously used alcohol in social situations to help them relax and have fun. They might find themselves wondering if they will be able to have fun without drinking and whether they will be able to relax enough to engage with other people. Third, a lot of people that used to drink are uncomfortable with the thought of telling others that they are not drinking anymore. Some people have a hard time thinking of what to say, and other people are very focused on what others will think of them if they don’t drink.
Since avoiding all potentially triggering situations is not a reasonable solution for most people, how can sober people navigate social situations that may involve alcohol? A great strategy is to develop a list of refusal phrases that can be used whenever a drink is offered. While this will not do anything to help with the alcohol cravings, it will help with the anxiety around not knowing what to say and how to save face while maintaining sobriety.
Refusal phrases are go-to sentences that people can use as a response if someone offers them alcohol. Some people prefer to be direct and concise, and other people prefer to give a reason why they cannot drink. You can choose whichever route you are most comfortable with saying.
Straight To The Point
The direct approach is my personal favorite* strategy to use when I turn down alcohol in social situations. I have found that people very rarely apply pressure or ask follow-up questions when I am direct.
The key to this strategy, at least for me, is to be confident and firm when I refuse alcohol. When I am confident in my delivery, it communicates that I am sure that I do not want a drink and that it is unlikely that I will be swayed. There are times when my delivery has been less than confident (no eye contact, and my “no thanks” sounded more like a question than a statement). In those instances, I found that people were more likely to push back and apply pressure because my lack of confidence made them feel like there was an opening and that my decision could be swayed.
- “No, thanks.”
- “No, I’m okay.”
- “Naah, I don’t feel like drinking today.”
- “I don’t want any, thank you.”
- “I’m not drinking right now.”
- “I’m in recovery.”
- “I don’t drink.”
*I recognize that this might be easier for me to use because I have not had an issue with substance use, and I don’t drink in social situations at least half of the time so, the people that know me are accustomed to me turning down alcohol.
The direct approach is not for everyone. Some people either feel uncomfortable with a straightforward approach, or they feel like they need to give a reason. If you are not a fan of being direct, here are some alternatives phrases that you can use:
- “No thanks, I need to drive home after this.”- People are unlikely to pressure someone to drink if they know that the person is going to be driving soon.
- “I’m drinking this” (hold up a beverage that does not contain alcohol)- This is a strategy I am borrowing from a former patient. He navigated social situations by either bringing his own non-alcoholic beverage or getting one as soon as he arrived. He would make sure to always have that non-alcoholic beverage in his hand. Anytime someone offered him a drink, he would just hold up his drink and say, “I’m drinking this.”
- “I am on a diet”- Technically speaking, excluding alcohol from your diet is a diet. * With this one, be prepared for questions about your diet. For some reason, people feel like it’s completely normal to ask other people a lot of questions about their diets.
- “I am trying to cut back on sugar”- A lot of alcoholic beverages contain sugar, so it makes senes that someone that is cutting back on sugar would avoid drinking. *If you use this one, you should probably be mindful of the food that you eat. It might arouse some suspicion if you say you don’t want alcohol because you are cutting back on sugar, and then you go to town on dessert.
- “I am trying to lose weight.”- I have lost track of how many people I have known that have lost weight just by giving up alcohol.
- “I am trying to be more healthy.”- People are unlikely to argue that it is more healthy to drink alcohol than it is to abstain.
- “No thanks, I can’t drink with my medication.”- A lot of types of medications (allergy medications, antibiotics, and antidepressants, to name a few) should not be combined with alcohol. Because there are so many types of medications that interact with alcohol, the chances are that the people at the party with you are familiar with this, so you probably do not need to be specific here…Also, it’s not usually socially acceptable to ask people what medications they take.
- “No, thanks, I have acid reflux.”- Most people that consume alcohol are aware that alcohol is acidic, and therefore will contribute to acid reflux. I have used this one before, and nobody has ever pushed back after I said it. I did get a lot of stories about other people’s acid reflux, though.
- “I am having a competition with my friend to see who can give up alcohol for longer.”- Most people respect the friendly competition. Potential issues with this one are that they might ask who you are competing with, and they might say something like, “They won’t find out.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
This might sound silly, but hear me out. Try practicing a few of these lines before you go out. This will help you figure out what you feel comfortable saying, and it will help you with your delivery. You do not need to practice all of them, just pick a few that you can keep in the back of your mind so that you will know exactly what to say if you ever find yourself being offered alcohol.
When I ran substance abuse groups, I used to have my clients pair up and practice saying refusal lines. Almost every time we did this, they would tell me how stupid they thought this was. Inevitably, they would come back with a story about how they were offered a drink, they used one of the lines we practiced, and they couldn’t believe that the lines (that they thought were stupid) actually worked.