As a therapist specializing in substance use, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, can I moderate my drinking, or should I quit altogether and be sober? In short, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. The path to changing your relationship with alcohol is deeply personal. What I’ve come to find is that no matter which route you take, it’s important to look at the heart of your question: what are you hoping to get out of this journey?
Below, I’ll lay out five questions that I’d like you to reflect upon. And after reflecting, I’m confident you’ll feel closer to understanding which approach to changing your drinking best aligns with your hopes, needs, goals, and intentions.
First, how does alcohol impact my wellness?
Usually, when we’re in an unhealthy relationship, we lose sight of its impact. We develop a blind spot of sorts. A tool I often share with my patients to access that blind spot is the eight dimensions of wellness chart. Each dimension represents an aspect of wellness that alcohol use can affect: emotional, social, spiritual, occupational, intellectual, physical, financial, and environmental. My general rule of thumb is that if it has affected four or more areas, you’ll need to put a significant pause on drinking, and strongly consider goals for sobriety. The greater the impact drinking has on your life, the harder it will be to moderate it. Whether you decide to stop drinking entirely or not, I encourage you to check back in with your chart regularly. Ask yourself: Do these dimensions look any different?
And if not, how can you course correct?
This chart can also serve as a way to visualize goals and guide you in taking action. For example, perhaps you’d like to improve your social sphere. That might mean having socially distanced coffee with a friend once a week or giving yourself permission to share openly with your community about your drinking. This wellness chart can be a vision board: what would you like to improve in order to live a healthier and happier life?
When it comes to deciding to moderate or stop drinking, think about how those choices will affect your chart. Can you achieve those goals with alcohol in your life?
How do I go for a swim?
Stay with me.
Are you someone who prefers to dip their toe in the pool or do you cannonball right in? Do you dive or do you sink in, one step at a time, to keep your head above water?
There is no right or wrong answer. Whatever your answer may be, getting a solid sense of our patterns can help us make a sustainable change. When our approach to change matches with our inherent patterns and tendencies, we are more likely to achieve our goals. Deciding whether to dip your toe in the water (moderation) or to dive right in (quitting alcohol cold turkey) takes recognition of our nature. It’s also important to note that your approach doesn’t necessarily equal your endpoint. You might want to start moderating to reach an ultimate goal for sobriety because easing into things works best for you. You might stop drinking entirely because you take comfort in yes-or-no decision-making but find down the road that you can successfully moderate.
You are not locked into any given path.
What do I feel attached to?
As you examine your relationship with alcohol, take note of your attachment to it. Ask yourself this: What space does alcohol occupy in my life? What has it given me? What has it taken? What do I want from alcohol? What do I believe I need from alcohol? If it were a person, who would it be? A friend? A partner? How would I define this relationship: safe or dangerous? Kind or unkind?
The benefit of personifying alcohol is that it can bring greater clarity to its function in our lives. The bigger the role alcohol plays, the more challenging it will be to control it. If alcohol plays a leading role in your life, that might mean sobriety is a more attainable goal. If it’s more of a supporting character, perhaps moderation can work for you both.
Taking a look at that attachment and asking ‘is this relationship net-positive or net-negative,’ is a useful tool for assessing if this is a relationship worth sustaining, and to what degree.
What do I value?
With my patients, I frequently suggest writing out a ‘values inventory.’ Exploring our fundamental values system is a great way to get to know ourselves even better. Let’s start by dividing a paper into three columns.
- In the first column, list some concrete values you hold. For example, I value compassion.
- In the second column, next to each value, write out how it shows up in your day-to-day routine. For example, because I value compassion, I strive to give each patient my undivided attention during session.
- Now, in the third column, write out the why. Why does this value matter to you? For me, compassion matters because I want others to feel safe and heard.
As it concerns alcohol, inquire about whether your values are being met. Living through your values is an excellent indicator of how you can best honor yourself in your journey to change your drinking — whether that’s by way of balanced alcohol intake or none at all.
And last but not least: Do I believe in myself?
Believing in yourself is the most important part of continuing your growth in any stage of this journey. Whether you set goals for sobriety or moderation, you have to believe that you can achieve them.
Changing your drinking requires honest self-reflection and self-compassion. Think back on these questions, and evaluate if the sobriety or moderation path is best you right now. And also remember that paths intertwine, loop, and cross. This journey is not always linear, but it is worth it. Believing in yourself is setting yourself up to succeed. I know you can do this, and I believe in you.
If you want to stay in touch, join us in the Monument Community, where you can connect in the anonymous forum, and attend therapist-moderated online alcohol support groups where we tackle challenges related to changing your drinking. I hope to see you there!
Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.