The Next Round: What happens after you change your drinking?

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How to say no without feeling guilty

How to say no without feeling guilty

Ask Dru Question Q

I’m getting a lot of messages from friends about going out to the pub and sitting in beer gardens. I don’t really want to do it myself but it feels like the only way to celebrate. It’s hard to put my finger on why it is bothering me. I’m eight months into sobriety and I don’t think about it most of the time. Maybe it is anxiety about things going back to normal? I want to be able to say no without feeling guilty. What can I do? Ciaran

Ask Dru Answer A

Pubs reopened for outdoor service this week in Wales and Scotland, following the recent reopening for outdoor service in England. Different restrictions continue in other parts of the world and we’re a long way from the end of the pandemic. So many of us are going to face this dilemma at some point. We haven’t seen people for a long time. They invite us to the pub. And we don’t want to go. But how to say no?

When we think about social drinking, we often focus on where it happens. Social drinking happens in venues in pubs, bars and restaurants. But social drinking is really about who we drink with, not where we drink. Social drinking is about the connections we make with each other and the way in which alcohol becomes entangled in our friendships.

You have a million ways to express your love for other people, aside from getting drunk with them

We all live in a culture that equates drinking and socialising. Many of us don’t just believe that one can’t happen without the other; we think that the two activities are exactly the same thing. So if you are sober, avoiding alcohol for any reason or just don’t fancy a drink right now, it can feel like you are taking on the weight of societal expectations as you deal with this conundrum. But you’re not alone. Never forget that about 20% of people don’t drink at all, so you’re in good company.

But you are a good and kind person. And your feelings of guilt are real. Part of the reason you feel guilty about saying no is that your friends matter to you. And you don’t want to hurt or upset them. But remember that you have a million ways to express your love for other people, aside from getting drunk with them.

You can say no without feeling guilty because you know that “spending time with your friends” and “drinking with your friends” are not the same thing. Your friends may not know this yet, but you do. You can lead the way.

Eight steps to saying no

  1. Be clear about what you want. This is the hardest but most important step. If you are going to say no without feeling guilty, notice that you are really answering two questions. Question one: Do you want to see your friends? Question two: Do you want to drink alcohol? Be clear about your answers to each of these questions. Remember they are not the same; you can see your friends and not drink alcohol.
  2. Decide what you are saying yes to. Remember that hidden inside every “no” is a “yes” to something else. Are you choosing to prioritise conversation over carousing? Are you choosing to take your time reintroducing yourself to the world? Are you sticking with online socialising for now? Focus on the actions that meet your needs, not the needs of others.
  3. Let go of other people’s expectations. Most of your friends won’t know that socialising and drinking aren’t the same thing. Even if they are aware that you haven’t been drinking recently, they might still expect that you are going to want to drink with them. But their expectations aren’t an instruction. This is about what you want, not what they expect.
  4. Take control of the situation. If you want to see your friends, but definitely want to avoid the possibility of drinking, take control. You can suggest meeting somewhere other than a pub if that’s going to be easier for you. If you met for a picnic in a park, say, you could arrange to take your own alcohol-free drinks.
  5. Do the groundwork and be prepared. Most pubs will at least stock some alcohol-free beers, so if you do meet in a pub, choose one that has a good selection. Many pubs are finding that people are drinking more non-alcoholic drinks anyway, to extend the length of time that they can spend together. Before you meet your friends, find out what the pub has got behind the bar so you can order with confidence.
  6. Project confidence in your decision. Now is the moment for single-minded determination. You will feel some inner conflict, but choose to put your reservations to one side. If you’re placing an order in a group, be the first person to speak. Finish this sentence: “I’m having an [insert alcohol-free drink here]”. No explanations. No justifications. No prevarication. If you’re simple and clear, it’s harder to argue with.
  7. Be straightforward when you say no. “No, thank you” is a sufficient response if someone offers you an alcoholic drink that you don’t want. You don’t need to justify yourself, even to a good friend. Of course, if you want to tell them your reasons, you can do that. But don’t feel pressured to fill an awkward silence with a stumbling apology or explanation.
  8. Change the subject and move on. Have you got a friend who gets pushy with drinks as they get drunker? Sorry about that, but it happens. The good news is that if they are drunk, they are easily distracted. So you can just change the subject. Once they’ve had a few drinks, they’ll have no idea what you’re drinking anyway.

More resources

You can say no without feeling guilty. You’ve got this.


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Dru Jaeger leads Club Soda’s courses for people who want to change their drinking. And he’s running an online workshop in May for people who are going back to the pub after lockdown.

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