Seeking Emotional Intelligence

Lots of people quit drinking. Some do it alone and others need help. Some do an immediate about-face — they wake up one day and decide they’re done. Other people cycle between periods of abstinence and attempts at moderation — searching for the sweet spot between restraint and indulgence. Sometimes flashing lights or an intervention force people into sobriety; others quit because they are plagued with shame. Lately, a new group of people are choosing to abstain because of an old-fashioned virtue: common sense.

Regardless of how and why you quit drinking, sobriety can leave you in a void — at least initially. Alcohol is a mind-altering substance and serves as an emotional bypass. My favorite saying was, “I’m just gonna drink through it.” And I did! Alcohol brought me up and down. I drank through good times and bad. What I didn’t realize was how this limited my emotional intelligence. I perceived my feelings as forces that needed to be managed — with mostly external substances and behaviors. I was clueless to the fact that emotions are information. Feelings need to be respected — not denied, ignored or manipulated to our advantage.

Emotions reflect subconscious thought. They expose inconsistent beliefs and reveal unmet needs. Sometimes we need to adjust our attitude — take a different perspective; sometimes we need to alter our circumstances — right a wrong or change direction. Neglecting our feelings in favor of quick relief paints us into a corner. The longer I drank, the less capable I was of assessing and reducing my own stress — self-induced or otherwise. The more I relied on external coping mechanisms to improve the way I felt (alcohol and coffee and exercise and busyness and perfectionism), the less I was able to love and care for myself — to know myself.

The Search for Identity

I quit drinking on my own accord. Call it common sense or survival instinct or the desire for something better. I have one of those “all-in” personalities; maybe and kind-of are not in my comfort zone. The decision to quit felt permanent. So I was highly motivated to cultivate a new identity. At first, the only option appeared to be joining the ranks of “recovering alcoholics” and reciting a liturgy of conventional beliefs about addiction. I practiced saying, “My name is Colleen and I’m an alcoholic,” in the mirror. It felt foreign. Because common sense begs the questions, “why would I refer to myself as an alcoholic after I quit drinking? And how am I powerless if I had the strength to kick booze to the curb?” Not yet able to trust my feelings, I attended recovery meetings anyway and slurred my way through opening introductions.

Being the good student that I am, I read Alcoholics Anonymous’ The Big Book and attempted to complete the 12-steps in one day. (I’m not joking, but you can laugh anyway.) I quickly moved onto quit-lit. Holly Whitaker’s Quit Like a Woman, Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind and William Porter’s Alcohol Explained expanded my perspective of alcohol use disorder. I realized that I had options; the standard-issue “recovering alcoholic” identity is dated. The same culture that considers pronouns to be fluid is reinventing sobriety. Perfect. “My name is Colleen, she/her and I’m a non-drinker.”

Stuck in Crazy Town

Comfortable with this distinction, I shifted focus to mindset work. At first, I was annoyed by mentors who advised, “alcoholism wasn’t the problem, it was a symptom of the problem — an inability to manage your emotions.” Sorry, not applicable. Sober or drunk, I was quite proficient at controlling my emotions (aside from the occasional bullshit-induced meltdown).

I didn’t yet know the difference between controlling my behavior and managing my emotions. I tried my best to follow advice and to practice self-care. I got extra sleep, wrote in my journal and accepted that depression is typical with post-acute withdrawal syndrome. But the easy-button did not appear. I had stopped using alcohol to escape (yay for me) — but I still didn’t know what to do with my feelings. I’d learned to accept them. I could name my nuanced emotions and describe their sensations like a pro. But I still wanted to escape — just not using alcohol anymore.

It felt like purgatory. I even worked with a therapist to look for unprocessed trauma or an undiagnosed mental health issue. It was actually disappointing to hear a qualified professional tell me that I was perfectly sane. I felt pathetic.

I didn’t want to believe my lackluster experience with early sobriety was as good as it gets. So I hired a recovery coach. What’s the difference between a therapist and a coach? Therapy is appropriate when you need to make peace with where you are. Coaching is useful when you’re ready to move forward.

I was sick of naval gazing and talking about my feelings. Challenge accepted.

Imagine my surprise when my coach wanted to focus on my feelings. WTF?

The Anatomy of Emotion

The reason I felt stuck was because I was trying to resolve my feelings by making sense of my thoughts. The error with this approach is that feelings don’t generate thoughts. It’s the other way around. We’re feeling because we’re thinking. Focusing on the story creates a thought-loop. Our feelings seem to prove our thoughts true. The more we think about a perceived problem, the more emotion we feel. The more emotion we feel, the bigger the problem appears. We’re right. The world is wrong.

Where does it end? How do you make it stop?

First, consider that emotions are not triggered by events or circumstances. Our thoughts about the situation give rise to negative feelings. It’s not until we decide something is wrong, bad, unfair, difficult or hurtful that it becomes that way. There is no meaning in anything until we create it in our mind with words.

Words are the software in our emotional operating system. The same words that create ideas in our mind create emotions in our body. Emotions are the physical manifestation of mental ideas and beliefs. Culture, morality, group and personal identities are intellectual constructs. We must agree on the terms — literally and conceptually — to give them validity — to connect with them emotionally. The conclusions that cause us grief are actually just words — they have no power in the physical world.

If someone insults you in another language, you don’t feel anything. The sounds you hear have no meaning. If someone translates, then you can take offense. Now you think they are wrong. Rude. Stupid. Do you see the difference? You’re not upset because of what they said. You’re upset because of what you think — someone else may have a completely different reaction, or no reaction at all. Emotional responses are triggered by your thoughts — not other people’s behavior, intention or the goings-on in the world.

Feeling our feelings does not mean obsessing over the stories about what other people said and did and how it made you feel. Just the opposite. When we are hurting emotionally, we need to explore and challenge what we think we know — about ourselves. Awareness is the ability to differentiate between what is happening in the world and what is happening in the mind. Beliefs are just thoughts that we think over and over. They guide our behavior and become self-fulfilling prophecies. They feel really true, but they aren’t.

Emotions are Tools for Transformation

Negative emotions can be more than endured, managed and controlled. Emotions are tools for transformation. My resilience grew as I gained a new respect for this process. I started questioning my perceptions — learning to separate facts from opinions. What beliefs are creating my pain? How do I want to feel? What do I need to think or do differently to improve my experience?

The ability to manage your mind is what’s known as emotional sobriety. It’s the ultimate in ninja coping skills. The alternative is to be stuck in thought loops — a bad episode of Groundhog Day. Ruminating thoughts perpetuate emotional suffering.

Alcohol use disorder is a thought loop. You’re trapped in a chain reaction of repeating thoughts, behaviors and emotions. I’ll paint this with broad strokes: we drink to relieve stress; alcohol causes stress; we drink to relieve stress; repeat.

Alcohol use disorder is a mental health condition that causes a person to drink more than they want — that’s the technical definition — it’s pure and simple. Over time, alcohol decreases executive function and inhibits the dopamine response for non-alcohol related activities. We lose our ability to see cause and effect, and with it, the desire to do something different.

Do Something Different

How do you escape the cycle and become a non-drinker? Action — any activity that helps you think differently about your relationship with alcohol. I listened to podcasts and books written by people in recovery. This gave my brain a vision to imagine an alternate universe in which I no longer drank. When I finally made the decision to give sobriety a try, I experienced immediate relief from the incessant philosophical debate– “to drink or not to drink.” My brain felt peaceful — for awhile.

The primary problem with alcohol use disorder is not drinking — it’s thinking about drinking. It’s the insanity of trying to bypass your integrity with shoddy mental math. You’re insulting your own intelligence. It’s called gaslighting. It’s not how much or how often you drink — it’s that you’re consuming more alcohol than you know is good for you. For many high functioning drinkers, alcohol isn’t (much of) a problem until we start thinking it’s a problem.

Some of you reading this may think, “Perfect, I’ll just stop thinking that I drink too much.” Good luck. I did that for a long time. It worked until it didn’t. Alcohol is an addictive substance — the more you drink, the more you need to drink. Psychological wizardry can’t alter the truth. Consuming large amounts of alcohol is harmful. Your brain is wired to fight for survival — it’s going to have an opinion.

Quitting makes you feel better physically. But it doesn’t transform you into a care-free non-drinker. Therecovering alcoholics” strategy for not drinking is to focus on . . . not drinking. The Alcoholics Anonymous doctrine warns that if you’re not actively working on sobriety, you’re working on a relapse. I’ve met people in the rooms who’ve attended meetings for decades because they think their sobriety depends on it. And so it does. But as welcoming and supportive as the recovery community can be, I was no longer interested in the “to drink or not to drink” conundrum.

Newly sober people are advised to avoid situations that might trigger the urge to drink. That’s helpful — at first. But the long-term strategy for dealing with cravings is to change the way you think — and therefore feel — about alcohol.Recovering alcoholics who think they are powerless against alcohol feelpowerless. That’s a thought loop that leads to relapse.

No Willpower Required

I haven’t found sobriety to be a struggle. Sober life is much better than circling the sucking drain that is alcohol use disorder. Life is still life — it’s not all rainbows and butterflies. But as a non-drinker, I am no more tempted to drink alcohol than to eat dog shit. Willpower isn’t necessary in the absence of desire. Alcohol was moved to the list of things I don’t consume — along with pond water, cow’s milk and anything that contains HFCS. I’m educated — when you know better, you do better.

When you quit drinking, you get to decide what that means — about you, about alcohol, about social events, etc. If you want to enjoy being a non-drinker, you must decide to stop thinking that alcohol is fun. If you keep thinking that alcohol is desirable, you’ll keep feeling like you’re missing out. Sobriety will feel like a sacrifice. Boo.

Once you make the decision to change your mind, the hard work begins. It’s not one-and-done — old thought patterns are hard to break. But make no mistake — they are breakable. Whenever you notice that you feel like you’re missing out, lean in. Welcome that feeling! It’s not the truth — it’s an opportunity to weed the bullshit from your subconscious. Follow the feeling to it’s root. Pull out the problem thought. Replace it with one that will (eventually) feel better. You’re trading temporary discomfort for long-term sanity. Rinse and repeat until your thoughts feel fresh and clean.

To become a happy non-drinker, you have to un-brainwash your mind. Stay with yourself in moments of mental relapse; have compassion. Practice self-care.Managing your mind is a skill. In the beginning it feels awkward — even frustrating — like eating with your other hand. It gets easier with practice. Use basic common sense.

You got this.

How to Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder

To overcome alcohol use disorder you must admit that alcohol is causing more stress than it's worth. It's not fun anymore. Drinking too much is a form of self-neglect, not self-care.

group think sobriety

Don't surrender your autonomy to group-think sobriety. Exchanging one set of limiting beliefs for another won't set you free.

Internalized oppression

Is your inside voice a bully? Internalized oppression from patriarchal, elitist and racially-biased "standards" causes fear and shame.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Do you wish you drank less but find it difficult to stop once you start? Are the legal experts in your head constantly debating the problem—and what you should do? That’s alcohol use disorder.
You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs–and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. Win/win for the patriarchy! I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help professional women see that sobriety is a superpower, not a disease. 

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