5 challenges in changing your relationship with alcohol (and how to overcome them)

Alyssa, one of our health coaches at Hello Sunday Morning, looks at some of the challenges that might occur when we want to change our relationship with alcohol. 

“To simultaneously want and not want something is perfectly normal.” Dr Bill Miller

Making a change is hard. Changing our relationship with alcohol is a big step and it comes with its share of challenges. We want to unpack a few of these challenges and share some possible ways to overcome them.

Challenge #1: Facing our discomfort

One of the reasons that people drink is to avoid something in their life that is causing discomfort. Alcohol provides a numbing effect, so when we choose not to drink we have to turn around and face what we have been avoiding. This might include dealing with difficult life events, grieving a loss, feeling emotions that we may have pushed down, and/or feeling a lack of purpose. These are all things that alcohol (for a short time) can help us deal with. The problem with emotions and difficult experiences is that they refuse to be ignored.

What we can do:

The challenge is that when we make a change or reduce a behaviour in our life, we have to face what we have been avoiding and this can be scary. We may be facing the unknown or we may know what we need to deal with. Either way, this step requires us to feel our fear and step into it anyway. For some of us, that may mean:

  • Sitting with the discomfort of our emotions.
  • Processing a grief or a trauma we thought we had resolved.
  • Identifying the things that we aren’t ok with in our lives and finding new ways of feeling safe in an unsafe world.

Challenge #2: It takes time

Change takes time. Doing something different is challenging. Making a change isn’t straight forward. We can have all the tools and motivation in the world but learning to be patient with ourselves is a skill. It takes time to realise that this journey isn’t going to be simple. The fact that it takes time is a good thing. If we could change our habits or our actions with a flick of a switch, there would be no consistency in the world. Going after what you want for your life takes time and it’s ok if this is frustrating for a while – that’s all part of the process.

What we can do:

We have to come to terms with the fact that change takes time. We have to acknowledge, and learn to be ok with, the idea that ‘slow and steady wins the race’. When we make a change, changes are occurring in our brain. This process is called neuroplasticity and it refers to the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. It allows the neurons in our brain to adjust and learn new responses to a situation/change or environment. So give yourself the permission to take the time that you need. You and your brain are working hard when you attempt change.

Challenge #3: Managing our high expectations

When we have to deal with the reality that change takes time, it can lead us to create high expectations for ourselves. These expectations come from society, family, friends, health professionals, how we see ourselves and from the myth that perfection is attainable. Human beings are imperfect. That’s just how we are. If you happen to meet a ‘perfect human’, you may want to check if they are a robot! Aiming for something that is never going to be possible ends up using a lot of energy and time that could be better channelled elsewhere.

What we can do:

Take some time to figure out what your expectations are. Ask yourself:

  • Are you ok with those expectations?
  • Would you have the same expectation for someone you care about?
  • Is this expectation helping you move forward?
  • How might you change or alter your expectations for yourself?

Keep an eye out for where the expectation is coming from as well. How you feel about yourself and your progress is much more important than how others feel about it. To be able to manage being imperfect, we have to allow grace and forgiveness for ourselves when we get it wrong.

Challenge #4: Shame gets in the way

Shame is an interesting emotion. Brene Brown says, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame is a common experience for anyone contemplating change. Sometimes shame might be the driver to considering change. However, shame only gets us so far. If shame is an experience that teaches us we are flawed and unworthy, then change is always going to be out of reach. It’s like building a house. If the foundations aren’t there (belonging, believing in yourself, seeing yourself as worthy of a better life) then whatever we try to build is going to fall down. Shame is also the main barrier that gets in the way of us connecting with support.

What we can do:

Shame isolates us and gives us a shaky foundation on which to build a different life for ourselves. To overcome this we have to go and find the evidence that we are worthy and that we are deserving of belonging, support and love. We have to look for evidence that we are worthy and valued and hold on to that. Take a moment to reflect on:

  • Who are the people in your life who accept you, not in spite of your imperfections, but because of them?
  • Who are the health professionals that are supportive?
  • Who are the friends/family members that remind you of your worth/value?
  • Who are the additional people you need to add to your team?

Gather those people that you need and don’t be afraid to move away from the people that aren’t helpful.

Challenge #5: Relapses are seen as failures

Falling off the wagon can be a part of the journey. It’s expected that you won’t get this right 100% of the time. Society tells us that we have to be perfect. It can therefore make it difficult to admit when a relapse has occurred and get the support you need. There is often a belief that when someone experiences a relapse they are back to square one and all their hard work has been for nothing. This belief can be crippling and result in hopelessness. It makes sense that we would want to stay away from this experience and sometimes not trying seems like a safer option.

What we can do:

Relapses/lapses are an opportunity for learning and growth. It can therefore help to think about how much you might be learning in the process. What you learn is important knowledge and you can use this to try again, as well as communicating this to the supporting people around you. It takes a strong and brave person to admit their mistakes and failures. So recognise what you’ve learned so far, talk it through with someone from your support team and together figure out your next steps forward.


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  • Very helpful particularly for me the bit about shame.

    By Geoff Purser
    April 8, 2021
    • I agree. Having received various treatments / interventions over several years I look at a lapse / relapse is a case of taking two steps forward but only one back. Develop good supports that you are safe and comfortable with and just keep trying. This way I can see myself as always moving forward despite the shame involved.

      By Shane Walter
      April 8, 2021
  • Thank you for this. I feel like this speaks to me on so many other levels and not just cutting back on alcohol. We have so much emphasis on being perfect in all aspects of our lives that we loose focus on what’s really important. The older I get the more I relish in my uniqueness and faults. They are a part of me and my journey.

    By Zoe
    April 8, 2021
    • Such a help to know we are all alike in a way. Fall off, get up again is the way to go – no point in beating oneself up!

      By George Hamilton
      April 8, 2021
  • “Change takes time”
    I have just realised that is was more than 2 years ago that I started thinking that alcohol has a grip on me. It is only this week that I have decided to do something about it!

    By Mary
    April 8, 2021
  • It took a few decades to face the fact of my addiction, so i see it’s going to take a little extra time, patience, self compassion and self love to work my way out !! 143 days In 😅 Gratitude journaling is critical, for me, as it’s really helping me accept myself and face shame, guilt and dissolve emotions that I am not worthy of love.

    By Alison Barley
    April 8, 2021
  • I drink because of dependency.
    Love sailing and can adapt to a long journey on a “dry” boat.
    Can flick the switch when visiting Grandchildren interstate.
    Don’t know why I can’t do it in other situations.
    Not quite within the scope of your model.

    By M&M
    April 9, 2021
  • I would love to be able to spend a good few weeks away from temptation.

    By Jenny
    April 9, 2021
  • Thank you for sharing challenges and ways to overcome. Thank you for the comments. I can relate to so much that is being said. I know there is hope for me.

    By Diane
    April 13, 2021
  • Very good advice.

    By Chris
    April 13, 2021
  • I drank for 2 years. Was sober for one year. Drank for a year. Sober for 3 months and now I am struggling again. I will have to print this out and really think about all that was written.
    Thank you. I must practice, practice, practice to sit in discomfort. It will take time.

    By Elza
    April 19, 2021
    • My story is similar to yours Eliza, I get exhausted and disheartened trying to find the reasons why..??
      Sometimes I think it’s just an addition ..and there isn’t always an answer to why..?

      By Donna
      December 4, 2021
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